As Prime Minister Imran Khan prepares for his first address to the UN General Assembly next Friday, he does so against the backdrop of heightened geo-political tensions between both India and Pakistan. These include an unprecedented mix of issues comprising the recent upheaval in Indian administered Kashmir, the recent aerial engagement following the Balakot incident, as well as increasing poverty across the region that is already being exacerbated by climate change. As is, Mr. Khan most definitely has his work cut out for him when garnering international support and interest for such a broad range of issues. However, while all the above represent long entrenched matters that have already been highlighted in some form or another, there also lies the often underrated, yet looming potential of nuclear conflict between both India and Pakistan.
Rooted in the age-old politics of the Kashmir dispute and its all-pervading potential as a nuclear flashpoint, the threat of nuclear war presents a very cogent and ominous reality that has often been taken for granted by outside observers, especially over the last few years. As a result, this threat has often been conveniently brushed aside as mere politicking or saber rattling as part of the many absurdities that characterize international politics in this day and age. Its as if the very sanctity and destructive power of nuclear weapons have all but lost their relevance in times where quick limited wars under the ‘hybrid’ or ‘5th Generation’ mantras have given way to the more conventional campaigns of the past. Gone are the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which lost with the the memories of a past generation, remain as historical stubs. Encapsulated in a few grainy black and white images from a bygone era.
Yet, even though the prevailing nuclear deterrence framework following the end of the Cold War may have ruled out the possibility of a globally devastating nuclear conflict between the world’s major powers, the case of South Asia has remained wholly different for several reasons. Pakistan and India, as two de-facto and declared Nuclear Weapons’ States have for the last two decades come perilously close to the brink of all out nuclear war at least 3-4 times. The 1999 Kargil Conflict, the military standoff following the 2001 Indian Parliament attacks, the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2016 Uri attacks all involved the potential of irrevocably altering life on earth, as a direct result of both countries’ nuclear weapons capabilities.
The attack on an Indian convoy in Pulwama earlier this year represented the latest iteration of this threat when both countries engaged in an unprecedented aerial engagement. This led to a dramatic escalation in tensions as evident in the large-scale deployment of forces to border areas, as well as consistent nuclear signaling and posturing in the form of carefully targeted statements as well as several ballistic missile tests, aimed at communicating the nuclear threat. Even though third-party mediators have since brought about a considerable de-escalation in tensions (as they have done in all the above-mentioned crises) there has still existed a pervasive sense of unease and uncertainty throughout the region.
This uncertainty has since been greatly exacerbated by the Indian Parliament’s unilateral decision to repeal the Jammu and Kashmir region’s special constitutional status last month. As a result, the nuclear dimension is again being forcefully played out in the political rhetoric coming out of both countries, especially from India. However, while the risks of a nuclear conflict have remained unabated within any conflagration between India and Pakistan, what’s extremely worrying is that this aspect has become increasingly normalized with each passing crisis. That despite the grave danger and urgency which such rhetoric should evoke amongst policymakers on both sides, the allusions to the threat of nuclear war have become routine, almost to the point of being irrelevant. As both countries have found space for conducting military operations below the nuclear threshold, this apparent depreciation of the risks of a potential nuclear exchange presents an alarming insight into the strategic calculus being employed by both countries.
More recently however, this lack of appreciation of the risks of nuclear war appears to have reached new lows within the Indian policy framework relative to Pakistan’s stance on the issue. This is because while Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence framework is directly premised on the threat of all out nuclear war, India has in the recent past increasingly resorted to a policy of nuclear brinkmanship by toying with the notion of a ‘winnable’ nuclear war. Buoyed by its conventional and economic superiority, India’s strategy has been to systematically discredit Pakistan’s willingness to resort to the nuclear option in what Indian policymakers have often mockingly referred to as ‘calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff’. All while making incendiary statements referring to the all-out destruction and annihilation of Pakistan, in the same vein Iran used to once make against Israel, or North Korea has done against the US and its East Asian allies.
Hence, with India’s leaders playing the role of the aggressive and unpredictable madmen in charge of nuclear weapons, the onus is now increasingly on Pakistan to highlight the dangers of Indian weapons of mass destruction as currently being in the hands of some of the world’s most fervent extremists. Whether Prime Minister Imran Khan will be able to successfully make such a case at the UNGA is unclear at this point. However, it is unlikely that the irony of the situation will be lost on his audience comprising the rest of the 191 delegations in attendance at the UN, at yet another historic gathering.