While India and Pakistan seem to have stopped bombing one another, the causes behind the cross-border tensions aren’t going away any time soon. The two nations are nuclear-armed; have large conventional armed forces; have had four serious wars since they became independent in 1947; and have enormous cultural and religious antipathy. This is a prescription for a disaster, and yet the confrontation is flying below the international radar — well below North Korea, Brexit, China-U.S. trade confrontations, Iran and even the “yellow vests” of France. A full-blown war in the valleys and mountains of Kashmir is a very real possibility.
When I was the supreme allied commander of NATO, the most important mission of the alliance was dealing with terrorism in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our Pakistani partners continued to support many of the radical elements of the Taliban. They were afraid of creeping Indian influence, and much preferred a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan to a more Western-leaning and independent Afghan government. I dealt often with General Ashfaq Kayani, the lean, chain-smoking chief of staff of the Pakistani army (arguably a more powerful position than the prime minister). He frequently came to NATO’s political headquarters in Brussels to brief the combined military leadership of the alliance on the key threat Pakistan faced several years ago — internal terrorism. Yet always hovering over our conversations was the Pakistani military’s deepest concern: India.
The extremely fragile cease-fire in place for two decades is fraying. Partly this is the result of domestic politics in India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected on a Hindu nationalist agenda, is up for re-election in April and May.
Most worrisome, of course, are the significant nuclear arsenals of the combatants. Each has roughly 150 missiles, although only India has a submarine-based ballistic missile capability and thus a true nuclear triad (land, air and sea). Pakistan is developing sea-launched cruise missiles to counter that Indian threat.
In past conflicts, the U.S. has played a mediating role. But today Pakistan is more inclined to work with China. India has strong relations with both the U.S. and Russia, but is unlikely to turn to either, so as not to appear beholden to any peer “great state.”
With Pakistan’s economic plight and the upcoming elections in India, South Asia is in a situation in which a military miscalculation, perhaps even a nuclear one, is real possibility.