By Saira Baig
It’s far too easier to make war than peace in this part of region — that is South Asia — which is already full of it: disputed borders, acute resource shortages, and threats ranging from extremist violence to earthquakes. But in 2019, a crisis stood out among all: rising tensions between India and Pakistan. And as serious as both were in 2019, everyone expects it to get even worse this year.
The year 2019 was a dangerously tense year for nuke holders India and Pakistan having already fought two of their three wars over the Himalayan region.
In February, a young Kashmiri man in the town of Pulwama staged a suicide bombing that killed more than three dozen Indian security forces — the deadliest such attack in Kashmir in three decades. Jaish-e-Mohammad — a Pakistan-based terror group with close ties to Pakistan’s security establishment — claimed responsibility. India retaliated by sending jets across Pakistan-administered Kashmir and launching limited strikes, for the first time since a war in 1971. Soon after, Pakistan claimed it had carried out six air strikes in Kashmir to showcase its might, and it also shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured the pilot. The confrontation, which de-escalated when Islamabad announced the pilot’s release several days later, represented the most serious exchange of hostilities in years.
Then, in August, India revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the India-administered part of Kashmir, and declared it a new territory of India. New Delhi also imposed a security lockdown in Kashmir that included the detention of hundreds of people and a communication blackout. For Islamabad, which claims Jammu and Kashmir as its own, the move amounted to a serious provocation, if hardly a hostile act. Pakistan retaliated by expelling India’s envoy from Islamabad and suspending trade with New Delhi. Undaunted, in the weeks that followed, senior Indian officials, including the defence and foreign ministers, turned their attention to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which New Delhi has long claimed, and suggested they eventually planned to reclaim it.
Bilateral relations remained fraught over the past few months of the year. Islamabad issued constant broadsides against New Delhi for its continued security lockdown in Kashmir. By year’s end, an Internet blackout was still in effect. Then, in December, India’s parliament passed a controversial new citizenship law that affords fast-track paths to Indian citizenship for religious minorities — but never Muslims — fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The new law angered Islamabad never just for excluding Muslims, but because of the implication — accurate but hardly anything Islamabad likes to admit — that Pakistan persecutes its Hindu and Christian communities.
These prolonged tensions often overshadowed what was arguably the biggest story in both the countries in 2019: economic struggle. India suffered its biggest economic slowdown in six years, and Pakistan confronted a serious debt crisis. The two were hardly unconnected: given the inability of New Delhi and Islamabad to fix their economies, both governments arguably sought political advantages from the distractions of saber rattling.
Against this tense backdrop, the opening in November of a new border corridor that enables Indian Sikhs to enter Pakistan visa-free to worship at a holy shrine, which in better times could have been a bridge to an improved relationship, amounted to little more than a one-off humanitarian gesture.
Bad as this crisis is, it is poised to get worse this year. And the underlying tensions between the neighbours seem to sharpen.
Islamabad rounded up dozens of Islamist militants this past year, but New Delhi was never convinced Islamabad was taking strong and irreversible steps against New Delhi-focused terrorists and their networks. And New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir in 2019 represented worst-case scenarios for Islamabad.
The two nuke-armed nations will enter 2020 just one big trigger event away from war. The trigger could be another mass-casualty attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir traced back to a Pakistan-based group, or — acting on the threats issued repeatedly by New Delhi in 2019 — an Indian preemptive operation to seize territory in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
In either scenario, escalation would be swift. Bilateral relations are much worse than they were during last February’s confrontation. Ever since its resounding re-election win last spring, India’s ruling party has pursued its Hindu nationalist agenda in increasingly aggressive fashion — which gives it hardly any incentive to go easy on Pakistan, which, in turn, will never give in easily.
Analysts say a nuclear conflict — although closer — is still remote. But they also agree that rhetoric from both sides combined with the possibility of even a small change to India’s no-first-use nuke policy (only China and India have an unambiguous policy) is never safe.
For example, if India firms up the change in its no-first-use policy, Pakistan might take this as a signal that India could launch a pre-emptive strike at Pakistani nuclear installations. And that might, in turn, prompt Pakistan to use up all its nuclear weapons first. And so, you get this destabilising dynamic where as soon as the crisis becomes nuclearised, there is an incentive for both sides to go first.
Some analysts on either side call the escalating rhetoric a ‘war of words’ that will never on its own lead to military action.
However, the increasing tensions combined with references to nuclear conflict from both sides mean that the two countries are now likely to have changed the status of their nuclear weapons readiness from ‘peacetime’ to ‘crisis’.
In practice, this means moving the three main physical components of a weapon — the warhead, missile-delivery system and fissile material core — either assembled or closer to where they need to be, ready for launch. In peacetime, each component is kept at a different location, for safety and security.
Such a state of readiness for a strike heightens the risk of a nuclear accident, but is hardly in itself a sign that war will break out.
But if there is another attack inside India — as happened in February — India’s armed forces might again respond with force. That would precipitate a reaction from Pakistan’s military, prompting retaliation from India. Unless one side voluntarily holds back, the prospect of such military escalation concerns analysts because it could eventually lead to strikes against nuclear targets.
The doomsday clock for the next India-Pakistan war is ticking at a minute to midnight. Diplomatic intervention from Washington and other third parties, and cooler heads on both sides, may keep it from ticking further forward. But it’s hard to see a path to unraveling such tightly knotted tensions.
Saira Baig is a freelance writer focusing on politics (in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America), feminism, cinema and fashion