Bravado could escalate India-Pakistan attacks to nuclear level

Bravado could escalate India-Pakistan attacks to nuclear level
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The Pakistani and Indian air forces clashed this morning, with both Islamabad and New Delhi claiming victories. Forty Indian paramilitaries died in a Feb. 14 suicide bomb attack in Indian Kashmir, and the Indian Air Force may have destroyed a terrorist base and training camp in Pakistan in retaliation on Feb. 26. Is there going to be further escalation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors?  Possibly. Will there be a nuclear element? That, I am sorry to have to say, also is possible.

Welcome to South Asia, where the rival militaries have gamed for years a nuclear war that isn’t quite Armageddon — the war to end wars — but an exercise in bravado, national pride and humiliating the other side.

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India first tested a so-called “peaceful nuclear device” in 1974. A Hindu nationalist government tested another in 1998, prompting Pakistan to test two devices in the following weeks. (Don’t believe the larger, exaggerated numbers flung around for the number of tests. There was a lot of spin then, as there is now.)

If only the Indian and Pakistani militaries confined their competitive machismos to the absurd theater of the end-of-day lowering of their national flags at the Wagah border crossing, when rival soldiers chosen for height and military stiffness bid to outperform each other.

Even a limited nuclear exchange between the two rivals would produce anything between 10 million and 100 million casualties, mostly civilian, in the cities of the Punjab province which straddles the border. The discrepancy in the figures is a consequence of the mathematical variable of at what height nuclear bombs are detonated. The smaller figure suggests detonation high in the air. If it is on the ground, or close, the blast flings a huge amount of dirt into the atmosphere, which means that, although you might survive it, the subsequent radioactive fallout would kill you in the weeks following.

The Pakistani military’s fear is that the Indian army has an overwhelming advantage, in terms of men and tanks, so may mount a “Cold Start” conventional attack that quickly could seize the major Pakistani city of Lahore and effectively win a war without employing nuclear weapons.  As a consequence, whereas India, initially at least, developed strategic nuclear weapons designed to reach all of Pakistan, the latter’s military switched to tactical nuclear weapons to stop dead any Cold Start Doctrine adventure.

But how easy would it be to halt Indian tank divisions pouring across the desert in the flat border region south of the mountainous terrain of Kashmir, where the current action is taking place? It may sound that I have strange friends, but I know people who have “run the numbers” on this. The answer is that it would take more than 20 Pakistani nuclear weapons to blunt an Indian attack.

The conventional wisdom is, or certainly was, that nuclear weapons create a balance of terror between rivals. That logic may have applied in the days of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, but it no longer is valid — at least between India and Pakistan.

Behind the scenes, officials in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and perhaps elsewhere, almost certainly are trying to deescalate the latest Kashmir crisis. Over the years, there have been numerous carefully orchestrated Track II meetings between retired senior members of the rival militaries, designed to produce mutual understanding and thwart imaginable crises.

Elements of the resulting script are obvious. Pakistan denied any link to the original terrorism attack. There was then a forced pause as first Pakistan and then India played host to previously planned visits by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS. India finally launched retaliatory air attacks, which Pakistan claimed merely destroyed hilly forest areas.

Does the crisis stop here? Is honor satisfied? Adherence to any sketched-out game plan appears a little loose. A retired Pakistani general said his nation’s flag would be planted in New Delhi, the Indian capital. Another official said Pakistan would retaliate at a time and place of its choosing.

This doesn’t sound good. A working assumption is that the Pakistani military, which operates separately and usually above any civilian administration in Islamabad, started the crisis. Possible motivation was concern about peace talks in Afghanistan, which they habitually think work in India’s strategic favor.

The last major border crisis, in the Kargil heights in 1999, was orchestrated by Pakistan, thinking that India would not escalate it into a nuclear exchange. But Pakistan badly underestimated Indian determination. Although it blunted Indian air attacks with hastily-gifted North Korean anti-aircraft missiles, in the end its forces were annihilated by Indian artillery. Pakistan never publicly admitted the real number of its casualties.

Today, Prime Minister Imran Khan was chairing a meeting with the authority that oversees Pakistan's nuclear arsenal but also offered talks with India to ease tensions.

National pride and honor can be tricky variables, especially when not accompanied by common sense.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.