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In May 1999, an Indian military patrol stumbled on several groups of Pakistani soldiers who had set up posts in Kargil, in the Indian-controlled section of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Within weeks, India and Pakistan plunged into in their fourth war since 1947. The region’s mountainous terrain made land operations difficult, but throughout the fighting the Indian military exercised a surprising degree of restraint. Indian pilots scrupulously refrained from crossing or firing over the line of control, the de facto border in Jammu and Kashmir, despite coming under punishing fire from the Pakistani side. The Kargil War, as the conflict became known, ended two months after fighting broke out, when the Indian military recaptured the territory it had originally controlled.
Analysts generally point to Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons the previous year as the cause of India’s restraint. Indian policymakers likely feared that crossing the line of control would trigger a wider conflagration, one that could turn nuclear.
That history made it all the more surprising when last week, on February 26, Indian jets crossed not merely the line of control but the international border with Pakistan to strike an apparent terrorist camp in Balakot. Not since the war of 1971 had the Indian Air Force carried out a sortie within undisputed Pakistani territory. The strikes came in response to a terrorist attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Jammu and Kashmir earlier in February claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terrorist group.
The next day, the Pakistani Air Force hit back. The particulars remain murky, but it’s clear that Pakistani jets crossed the line of control. India scrambled aircraft in response, and each side lost at least one plane during the ensuing skirmish. Pakistan then announced that it had captured a downed Indian pilot.
Worried analysts now fear that, since India and Pakistan have breached the informal norm against using air power across the border, they will be unable to prevent further escalation. Hawkish publics in both countries are calling for retaliation. Can the politicians exercise restraint?
No one can say for sure, but history suggests that there is cause for optimism. During the Kargil War, India worked to contain the fighting to the regions around Pakistan’s original incursions and the war concluded with no real threat of nuclear escalation.
Less than two years later, the two countries plunged into crisis once again. In December 2001, five terrorists from the Pakistan-based groups Lashkar-e-Tabia and Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked the parliament building in New Delhi with AK-47s, grenades, and homemade bombs, killing eight security guards and a gardener. In response, India launched a mass military mobilization designed to induce Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups. As Indian troops deployed to the border, terrorists from Pakistan struck again. In May 2002, three men killed 34 people in the residential area of an Indian army camp in Kaluchak, in Jammu and Kashmir. Tensions spiked. India seemed poised to unleash a military assault on Pakistan. Several embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad withdrew their nonessential personnel and issued travel advisories. The standoff lasted for several months, but dissipated when it became apparent that India lacked viable military options and that the long mobilization was taking a toll on the Indian military’s men and materiel. The United States also helped ease tensions by urging both sides to start talking. India claimed victory, but it was a Pyrrhic one, as Pakistan failed to sever its ties with a range of terrorist organizations.
Now that both sides have gone through the motions, neither is likely to escalate any further.
Other nuclear states have also clashed without resorting to nuclear weapons. In 1969, China, then an incipient nuclear weapons state, and the Soviet Union, a full-fledged nuclear power, came to blows over islands in the Ussuri River, which runs along the border between the two countries. Several hundred Chinese and Soviet soldiers died in the confrontation. Making matters worse, Chinese leader Mao Zedong had a tendency to run risks and dismissed the significance of nuclear weapons, reportedly telling Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that even if half of mankind died in a nuclear war, the other half would survive and imperialism would have been razed to the ground. Yet despite Mao’s views, the crisis ended without going nuclear, thanks in part to the efforts of Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, who took the first step by travelling to Beijing for talks.
There’s reason to believe that the current situation is similar. Pakistan’s overweening military establishment undoubtedly harbors an extreme view of India and determines Pakistan’s policy toward its neighbor. The military, however, is not irrational. In India, although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a jingoistic disposition, he, too, understands the risks of escalation, and he has a firm grip on the Indian military.
Another source of optimism comes from what political scientists call the “nuclear revolution,” the idea that the invention of nuclear weapons fundamentally changed the nature of war. Many strategists argue that nuclear weapons’ destructive power is so great that states understand the awful consequences that would result from using them—and avoid doing so at all costs. Indian and Pakistani strategists are no different from their counterparts elsewhere. Even Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a political neophyte, underscored the dangers of nuclear weapons in his speech addressing the crisis last week. And Modi, for all his chauvinism, has scrupulously avoided referring to India’s nuclear capabilities.
The decision by India and Pakistan to allow their jets to cross the border represents a major break with the past. Yet so far both countries have taken only limited action. Their principal aim, it appears, is what the political scientist Murray Edelman once referred to as “dramaturgy”—theatrical gestures designed to please domestic audiences. Now that both sides have gone through the motions, neither is likely to escalate any further. Peering into the nuclear abyss concentrates the mind remarkably.