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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Šumit Ganguly’s Conflict Unending
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J. Peter Scoblic

After languishing for a decade as the stepchild of post-Cold War American foreign policy, Pakistan became a top U.S. priority last fall as Washington sought to eliminate Pakistan’s support for terrorism and secure its help in the war against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.

The renewed attention to South Asia’s strategic importance has also brought renewed attention to India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, particularly after December 13, when the bombing of the Indian parliament led to a dramatic increase in tensions between Islamabad and New Dehli. Even with the war on terror ongoing, the region Bill Clinton once referred to as “the most dangerous place on Earth” seemed as though it might still be just that.

Months later, thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops remain on high alert along the Line of Control, the de facto international border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Testifying before the Senate in February, CIA Director George Tenet said that the Bush administration is “deeply concerned” that if war broke out between India and Pakistan, it could quickly escalate into a nuclear conflict.

But for all the focused attention—indeed perhaps in part because of it—the sources of the India-Pakistan conflict often remain obscured to the nonexpert by the clouds of pressing crises. Into this vague understanding strides the refreshingly direct Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947, a book that manages to explicate the origins and evolution of South Asian political and military strife in a manner that is both straightforward and nuanced—accessible to the neophyte but valuable to the expert.

Written by Šumit Ganguly, a professor of Asian studies and government at the University of Texas at Austin, Conflict Unending opens by noting that existing explanations for the intractable conflict between India and Pakistan are wanting. Neither religion nor the legacy of colonialism nor the Cold War machinations of the superpowers can fully account for the inception and endurance of Indo-Pakistani animosity.

Ganguly argues that India and Pakistan’s rivalry is undergirded by a fundamental difference in their conceptions of state-building, with Pakistan envisioning itself as the home for South Asia’s Muslims and India trying to fashion a state based on civic nationalism. That dichotomy was illuminated and solidified by the first conflict over Kashmir in 1947-1948, in which both India and Pakistan saw not just land but their very identities at stake, and the region remains the focus of the countries’ antagonism to this day.

But as Ganguly points out, a difference in founding principles, although perhaps setting the stage for confrontation, does not explain why war broke out when it did four times over the next 50 years. War between India and Pakistan, Ganguly writes, has been most often precipitated by windows of opportunity that Pakistan found attractive because of a “false optimism” and the strategic miscalculation that resulted—miscalculation encouraged by the “inability of the Pakistani armed forces to engage in an open and honest discussion of Pakistan’s political limitations, its economic weakness, and its social flaws.” (The exception is the 1971 war, in which India took advantage of its own window of opportunity to engage Pakistan while it was in the midst of civil war.)

The book then explores the first and second wars over Kashmir; the 1971 war, which led to the creation of Bangladesh; and the 1999 crisis in Kargil. Throughout, the history presented is brought into relief not only by Ganguly’s thesis, which will deepen political scientists’ understanding of the region and of war in general, but also by his cognizance of how important it is for policymakers today to understand the sources of this conflict. The result is a book that is both scholarly and immediately pertinent.

One of the book’s clear raisons d’etre is the catastrophe that would result from even a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, and Ganguly devotes a chapter specifically to the nuclear aspect of Indo-Pakistani relations. But it is his analysis of the 1999 conflict in Kargil that most incisively explores the ramifications of nuclear weapons on South Asian conflict. Ganguly challenges the notion, often unquestioned, that the nuclear tests of May 1998 were destabilizing for the subcontinent, noting that they were simply a public affirmation of a capability India and Pakistan had had for many years.

Challenging arms control beliefs further, Ganguly suggests that the nuclear dimension may have actually generated an element of stability, explicitly discouraging both sides from full escalation. Yet he maintains that paradoxically because of that ceiling “[E]ach side may feel tempted to probe in peripheral areas to test the resolve of the other side, secure in the belief that the likelihood of escalation is both controllable and calculable.” Given the book’s emphasis on Pakistan’s repeated strategic miscalculation, this is a frightening prospect, and Ganguly rightly sees an important place for confidence-building measures between New Dehli and Islamabad.

More than 50 years after partition and independence, there has been little progress in the Indo-Pakistani relationship, and as Ganguly writes, “the vexed question of Kashmir persists.” But one changed variable is the renewed U.S. participation in the region, which Ganguly welcomes and which could very well alter the prospects for peace. Given the presence of nuclear weapons and the exigencies of the war on terror, the stakes of U.S. involvement in South Asia are high for both the region and the world, making Conflict Unending’s clear account of the core motivations at work both timely and significant.

In Bookstores
Author: Šumit Ganguly

Title: Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Date: 2002

Pages: 190

List Price: $18.50