By Moeed W. Yusuf
Nearly two decades ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton prophetically characterized Kashmir as the “most dangerous place on earth.”1 Since conducting nuclear tests in 1998, India and Pakistan have regularly faced crises linked to Kashmir, the disputed region at the northern tips of the two nations. Serious tensions over the last two months provided the latest reminder of the ease with which Kashmir could transform into a nuclear flashpoint.
On February 14, Adil Ahmad Dar, a native of the Pulwama district in Indian Kashmir, ambushed a paramilitary convoy, killing 40 security personnel. The attack, which was claimed by the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), was the deadliest terrorist incident in Kashmir in three decades.
In the days that followed, India and Pakistan engaged in aggressive threat-making and massive tit-for-tat artillery exchanges on the Line of Control, which separates Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir, and India suspended several travel- and trade-related confidence-building measures. In just two weeks, the situation had escalated into the most dangerous crisis India and Pakistan had experienced since their overt nuclearization in 1998.
Tensions spiked on February 26, when India conducted air strikes on an alleged JeM terrorist camp deep inside Pakistan. India claimed to have killed “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis” in the attack.2 Pakistan retaliated the next day with its own air strikes in Indian Kashmir and also captured an Indian pilot, whose aircraft was shot down during a mission over Pakistani airspace.
The crisis was now on the brink of major war. India reportedly contemplated launching multiple conventional missile strikes inside Pakistan.3 Pakistan promised an immediate, scaled-up response. Fortunately, these plans never materialized. Instead, tensions subsided rather abruptly over the next two days.
Although the risk of nuclear conflagration remained extremely low during the Pulwama crisis, the episode witnessed unprecedented escalation. India and Pakistan not only engaged in air warfare, traditionally seen as escalatory by leaders on both sides, but India’s deliberate choice to strike Pakistan beyond Kashmir signaled a willingness to cross new frontiers. Pakistan too had never responded in such a tit-for-tat manner in previous crises in the nuclear era.
To learn how such an escalation happened and stopped short of a nuclear conflict requires an understanding of past trends in crisis management in South Asia. Despite the unprecedented aspects of the Pulwama episode, the initial escalation and subsequent termination of the crisis conformed to the historically established dynamics of crisis management between the two sides. Yet, the crisis also offered a stark reminder of the increasing complexity of these dynamics and the challenges this poses for crisis de-escalation.
Past Crises in South Asia
Pulwama was the fifth major Indian-Pakistani crisis since the two sides tested nuclear weapons in 1998. In each of the previous crises, third parties, principally the United States, were essential in brokering a peaceful end to the episode. Although India and Pakistan have displayed varying degrees of brinkmanship, each time they have welcomed third-party mediation, seeing it as an insurance policy against all-out escalation. Indeed, their crisis behavior through the years has been aimed as much at attracting third-party support as it has been at compelling the adversary to bend in the face of each other’s direct threats.4
U.S. success in crisis management was historically a function of its unwavering commitment to de-escalation above other competing regional interests and alliance preferences. During the first post-nuclearization crisis, the Kargil conflict in 1999, the United States shocked Pakistan by setting aside Washington’s history of angst and mistrust with India to back New Delhi’s demand for a unilateral reversal of Pakistan’s unprovoked military incursion into Indian Kashmir. In the next two crises, the 2001–2002 military standoff on the international border and the 2008 Mumbai crisis, each triggered by terrorist attacks linked to Pakistan-based outfits, the United States played down the middle despite the fact that its position on global terrorism naturally aligned with India’s. It worried that a more partisan stance in India’s favor would embolden Indian leaders to use military force against Pakistan in retaliation to the terrorist strikes.
None of these crises threatened to cross the nuclear threshold. Each episode featured nuclear signaling, including statements from both nations hinting at their resolve to employ nuclear weapons, unsubstantiated press reports of unusual movements around nuclear sites, and meetings of the agencies responsible for authorizing nuclear use. These signals, however, were largely aimed at playing on third-party nations’ fear of war to compel them to intervene in favor of one side or the other.
U.S. officials tended to take such indications seriously. Washington’s policymakers radiate an inviolable belief that all nuclear contexts carry a greater-than-zero risk of deliberate or inadvertent escalation. They therefore have been keen to intervene even though South Asia’s recessed nuclear postures—India and Pakistan are believed to store their nuclear warheads separately from their delivery systems—create a major buffer against swift escalation to the nuclear level.
The fundamental contours of this trilateral dynamic have remained intact over the years, but two developments following the Mumbai crisis complicated nuclear crisis management in South Asia. First, India’s lingering frustration with its inability to prevent terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil began to boil over. In exchange for relative Indian restraint during the Kargil conflict, 2001–2002 standoff, and Mumbai crisis, third parties promised to pressure Pakistan to do more to end anti-India terrorism. Yet, this pressure was never delivered effectively. India’s internal debate increasingly shifted toward the need to break from its restraint and raise Pakistani costs for failing to prevent terrorist operations from its soil. This view found official support when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his hawkish stance toward Pakistan, won office in 2014.
Second, the U.S. outlook toward South Asia began to shift in the post-Mumbai period, tracking closely with the tenor of the debate in India. Growing tensions between the United States and Pakistan over Islamabad’s alleged support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and terrorism in India paralleled a fast-growing U.S.-Indian strategic partnership. Pakistan was increasingly seen as the problem and India as a victim of terrorism, a lucrative economic market, and potential counterweight to China that deserved U.S. support. When it came to crises, the principal focus on preventing major escalation remained as firmly entrenched in the minds of Washington’s decision-makers, but lingering sympathy for India’s predicament with terrorism began to translate into appetite for allowing India to act against Pakistan.
A 2016 terrorist attack on an army base in Uri in Indian Kashmir became the most high-profile crisis since the 2008 Mumbai episode. On September 29, 2016, India retaliated with what it called surgical strikes inside Pakistani Kashmir. The way it did so broke from India’s strategic restraint even though the strikes were largely indistinguishable from the raids India and Pakistan commonly employ across the Line of Control to keep each other off guard. The major difference this time was the Indian leadership’s loud public posturing, aimed at gaining domestic political mileage. Indian leaders were careful, however, to align with U.S. demands for de-escalation. They declared the action as a one-off preemptive strike and privately assured the United States that India wanted the episode closed.
Reacting, the United States publicly blamed Pakistan and denounced it for inaction against terrorists. It simultaneously urged de-escalation, but notably did not criticize the Indian strike. Washington convinced Pakistan that India would not escalate further and discouraged retaliation. Tellingly, Pakistan absorbed the Indian action and simply denied its occurrence.
The Uri crisis did not upend the fundamental contours of crisis management between India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the episode complicated policies for responding to any future attacks alleged to have perpetrated by Pakistani-based terrorists. In a 2018 assessment, I wrote,
The next major terrorist attack in India could force Prime Minister Modi’s hand to act even more forcefully against Pakistan than he did after Uri. Perhaps emboldened by Washington’s conciliatory response to India’s post-Uri surgical strikes, there also is now an expectation in India that the United States will lean on Pakistan to absorb such Indian action. However, having already expended immense political capital in absorbing the post-Uri Indian action, Pakistan may find it extremely difficult to hold back in a similar future context, especially if the quantum of the Indian use of force is greater than after Uri. The scenario has all the makings of a crisis with a high potential for escalation.5
The Pulwama Crisis
It is difficult to overstate how much the Uri situation directly influenced crisis behavior during the Pulwama episode. India’s decision to act militarily was influenced by its experience at Uri. The Pakistani decision not to strike back during that crisis, while helping to de-escalate tensions at the time, emboldened India. Moreover, much like Uri, Pakistan’s signaling—public statements and private diplomacy with third parties—after the Pulwama attack was aimed quite explicitly at calming tensions. This may have further convinced India that Pakistan would not retaliate to an Indian strike, a precedent established during the 2016 crisis. The support of third parties, which India had reason to perceive as stronger than following the Uri crisis, would have further enabled India’s intent to act. After Pulwama, several capitals issued categorical statements supporting India, including hinting at their understanding for India’s desire to retaliate. The United States took the clearest stance it had to date, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting that the United States “stand[s] with India as it confronts terrorism.”6 National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly amplified U.S. support for “India’s right to self-defense against cross-border terrorism” during a conversation with his Indian counterpart.7 India could have reasonably perceived this as tacit U.S. support for Indian military action. Indeed, this seems to have been the U.S. intent: to accept India’s need to let off steam and press Pakistan to hold back in response.
India’s choice of striking Pakistan beyond Kashmir, the first time since the 1971 war that led to Pakistan's break up and secession of its eastern half, also seems to have been influenced by the Uri crisis. By blaming Pakistan for the Pulwama attack, Modi de facto was accepting that, contrary to his promises, his post-Uri action did not deter militancy. More had to be done, especially with Indian elections looming, to make Modi’s response sellable at home and send a stern message to Pakistan. The solution: a strike beyond the disputed territory, but limited in scale to ensure that escalation remained controllable. To curry favor domestically, Modi exaggerated the damage of the attack. By all independent accounts, India struck a relatively barren target and the strike caused limited damage,8 perhaps exactly what India had intended. The Indian foreign minister subsequently acknowledged that no Pakistani citizens were killed in the strike.9
Third-party failure to curb Pakistan’s response was not for want of trying. U.S. interlocutors spoke to the Pakistani leadership to encourage restraint and to signal, much like after Uri, their confidence that India was not interested in escalating further. Pompeo spoke to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi “to underscore the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action.”10
The United States, however, seems to have underestimated how strongly the ghost of Uri was haunting Pakistan. Islamabad perceived danger in reinforcing a precedent set following Pakistan’s restraint during the Uri situation. It risked convincing India that it could use military force in such situations without fear of retaliation.
U.S. public support for India throughout the crisis also crystallized Pakistan’s perennial fears about U.S.-Indian collusion to undermine Pakistani interests. Moreover, although U.S. interlocutors were in regular touch with their Pakistani counterparts throughout the crisis, senior-level communication took a pause in the run-up to the Indian strike. Pakistan had requested a call between Pompeo and Qureshi, but a bureaucratic delay from Washington led some in Pakistan to wonder if it was a deliberate attempt to allow India time to act. When communication was restored after the Indian attack, the U.S. emphasis was naturally on persuading Pakistan to absorb the strike, thereby reinforcing the perception of a biased U.S. role. In these circumstances, Pakistani decision-makers did not trust U.S. assurances about India’s intent to de-escalate.
The Modi government found itself in a domestic political predicament when Pakistani forces shot down an Indian jet and captured its pilot. The Indian government’s triumphant rhetoric after the Indian strike transformed into serious political pressure as the Indian opposition demanded that the government negotiate the pilot’s return and explain the fiasco. This was precisely the nightmare scenario Indian leaders had hoped to avoid. For India to come out on top in the crisis, it needed Pakistan to absorb the strike. Pakistan’s commensurate response to India’s air operations undermined India’s goal of winning military conflicts despite Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Since quitting after a “one-shot” confrontation was tantamount to losing the crisis, India logically would have looked toward escalation. This may well have been the reason for threatening conventional missile attacks against Pakistan.
The Pulwama crisis was notably devoid of any nuclear signaling from either side. Apart from one meeting of the Pakistani National Command Authority, the agency responsible for nuclear decision-making, neither side engaged in nuclear brinkmanship. This is in line with the trend in South Asian crisis behavior: provocative nuclear signaling has progressively decreased with each passing crisis since 1998. Both sides are confident that existential deterrence holds. The urge to focus the world’s and the adversary’s attention on their respective deterrent capabilities, logical in the early years after the nuclear tests when the operationalization of the arsenals was still under question, has therefore declined.
Still, driven by its ever-present concerns over uncontrolled escalation in any nuclear environment and fearing further escalation, the United States quickly reverted to its traditional unequivocal prioritization of immediate de-escalation over alliance preferences after the Pakistani air strikes and the downing of the Indian plane. The tone and tenor of third-party messaging changed appreciably. There was renewed insistence on restraint and crisis termination, with Pompeo insisting that India and Pakistan “avoid escalation at any cost” and other third parties aligning their messaging in equally unequivocal terms.11 Within one day of the Indian pilot’s capture, the United States persuaded Pakistan to announce his release, thereby deflating some of the domestic pressure on Modi. The next day, the United States tabled a resolution in the UN Security Council to list JeM leader Masood Azhar as a terrorist—his listing being a long-standing Indian demand.12 Washington also compelled Islamabad to crack down on JeM and to acknowledge these actions publicly. Although past Pakistani crackdowns on such terrorist groups have not espoused confidence in their sustainability, they were nonetheless useful in offering Modi a potent face-saver. On February 28, the day Pakistan announced the release of the Indian pilot, U.S. President Donald Trump, largely silent on the crisis to this point, confidently stated that he had some “reasonably decent” news from India and Pakistan.13
The Next Indian-Pakistani Crisis
The Uri crisis had left South Asian crisis management in a decidedly more challenging place. The implications of Pulwama are not nearly as clear. This crisis revealed the dangers of third-party ambivalence, even if momentary, in terms of prioritizing de-escalation over alliance preferences. India’s decision to act militarily beyond Kashmir would have been far more difficult if the United States had insisted on restraint. The crisis also highlighted the ease with which intentions and actions of actors can be miscalculated. India and the United States appear to have assumed that Pakistan would recognize the symbolic intent of the Indian strike and absorb it as it did following Uri. Similarly, Pakistan read too much into U.S. support for India; there was no U.S. intention of encouraging India to go beyond letting off steam.
This crisis experience could potentially lead the United States to revert back to unequivocal prioritization of de-escalation and a resolve to prevent any military action from either side. Doing so would make crisis escalation less likely. Furthermore, New Delhi could internalize Islamabad’s successful retaliation at Pulwama and India’s inability to counteract as confirmation of the absence of space for limited war under the nuclear umbrella, which India has been seeking all along.
Yet, this view ignores the growing global support for India. With each passing crisis, the United States and India have come closer on the issue of counterterrorism. The default position in both capitals is to seek ways of raising Pakistan’s costs for what they see as its continued use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. The Indian public sentiment also tends to bay for blood in crisis moments, forcing Indian leaders to feel compelled to up the ante. Modi has made matters worse in the wake of the Pulwama crisis by using nuclear threats against Pakistan to rile up nationalistic sentiments for political gain in India’s ongoing national elections.14 These factors once again may encourage Indian decision-makers to flex their muscles in crises, and the United States may continue to support this urge. Crisis escalation is therefore a realistic possibility; depending on what type and scale of force is applied, it could end up creating even greater risks of war than experienced during Pulwama.
The Way Forward
Although Indian and Pakistani officials appear to have easily avoided nuclear escalation during the Pulwama crisis, there will always be risks of unintended outcomes between nuclear-armed rivals. These risks can and must be mitigated, most notably by encouraging bilateral escalation control between India and Pakistan. As important as third parties have been to preventing major escalation, the presence of a multitude of actors inevitably complicates crisis communication. At the very least, India and Pakistan should use their direct communication channels dependably and constructively during crises. Fresh confidence-building measures and agreements aimed at instituting crisis risk-reduction measures, including in the nuclear realm, should also be urgently considered.
Still, even the best form of crisis management cannot offer a sustainable solution. This can only come from efforts at crisis prevention. Crisis management therefore must be complemented with proactive attempts at addressing deeper causes of crises, with the aim of eliminating them.
The principal enabling factors of conflict between India and Pakistan are terrorism and outstanding bilateral disputes. A policy approach that combines the two offers the best chance of success. Pakistan must employ all resources at its disposal to eliminate the ability of any terrorists to operate from its soil. India and Pakistan should also sincerely pursue and accelerate the conclusion of pending prosecution against their citizens known to be involved in terrorism on the other’s soil in the past. Moreover, both sides should set up a discrete channel to share any intelligence that could prove helpful in thwarting terrorist plots.
Simultaneously, greater attention is needed to address the Kashmir issue that still underpins much of the motivation for violence in Indian Kashmir. India’s heavy-handed measures to quash ever-growing dissent among Kashmiri Muslims have caused extreme anger and disenfranchisement among Kashmiri youth. The Pulwama attacker was radicalized after being beaten by Indian security forces in 2016. If the status quo holds, more Kashmiri youth will inevitably be attracted to violence, and regional and global terrorist organizations will seek to exploit them. India must adopt a more humane approach in Kashmir to pacify the situation.
Meanwhile, there is a need for India and Pakistan to engage in a quiet dialogue on Kashmir. This may seem far-fetched at the moment, but the last serious back-channel negotiations on the issue were initiated in similarly tense circumstances in the wake of the 2001–2002 military standoff. These brought the two sides close to an agreement before their bilateral peace process stalled in the wake of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The world must encourage India and Pakistan to return to a similar dialogue. Otherwise, South Asia is sure to find itself in yet another crisis sooner or later.
2. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Statement by Foreign Secretary on 26 February 2019 on the Strike on JeM Training Camp at Balakot,” February 26, 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/31090/Statement+by+Foreign+Secretary+on+26+February+2019+on+the+Strike+on+JeM+training+camp+at+Balakot.
4. For an analysis of Indian-Pakistani crisis behavior and third-party mediation in crisis moments, see Moeed W. Yusuf, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).
10. Mike Pompeo, “Concern Regarding India-Pakistan Tensions,” press release, February 26, 2019, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/02/289733.htm.
Moeed W. Yusuf is associate vice president of the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (2018). The author wishes to thank Emily Ashbridge and Talha Ali Madni for their research and editorial support.