We arrived in New Delhi on September 26, 2016 — a week after the Uri attack had left at least 17 Indian soldiers dead. India attributed the attack to Pakistan-based militants who had crossed into Kashmir. The political class and media were in an uproar, demanding retribution. We were there to launch our new book, Not War, Not Peace?. Its purpose is precisely to analyse Indian options to motivate Pakistan for preventing such cross-border terrorism.

Toby Dalton
Dalton is the co-director and a senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order.
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One of us braved the Indian-television scene and appeared on several news and discussion shows with various Indian counterparts to discuss what India could – or should – do to respond to this latest attack. The discussions on these shows were desultory and loud. The question for most participants was not whether to carry out a military reprisal, but rather how hard to strike. Some went so far as to say India should not shy away from the threat of nuclear war in mounting military operations against Pakistan. When we presented the book’s analysis to a group of eminent generals and ambassadors – serving and retired – they also, generally, insisted that India must strike back to demonstrate resolve. 

On the afternoon of September 29, India’s director general for military operations, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, announced that the Indian army had carried out “surgical strikes” on “terrorist launch pads” on Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control (LoC). The official announcement was thin on details: nothing about the units involved, how far they had crossed into the other side, how many “launch pads” had been attacked or how many terrorists were killed. Operational details were later supplied by Indian media sources, but much of this coverage stretched credulity.

Details aside, the Indian operations were acclaimed as a tactical success. And they certainly were a public relations victory for the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration. Triumphal adulation poured in from across the political spectrum, especially from the right, praising the brave actions of the army commandos and the decisive leadership of the government (captured by the hashtag #ModiPunishesPak on Twitter). 

George Perkovich
Perkovich works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues; cyberconflict; and new approaches to international public-private management of strategic technologies.

The Congress party’s vice president, Rahul Gandhi, gave Modi his “full support and that of the Congress party” and declared that “the entire nation is standing by him.” Ram Madhav, general secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), threatened: “For one tooth, the complete jaw.” And prominent television talk-show host, Arnab Goswami, taunted on Twitter: “Dear terrorists, you don’t need to cross LoC for getting killed [sic]. Army has started home delivery … ”

After having absorbed terrorism from Pakistan for years with no discernable military reaction, India’s “surgical strikes” seemed to produce a national catharsis. They were hailed as the end to the policy of strategic restraint that had informed India’s response to prior attacks, which had come to be seen as a sign of weakness rather than wise leadership. Some scholars argued that the strikes had redrawn deterrence redlines and that India had proven Pakistan’s nuclear threats to be empty. 

In Pakistan, the reaction was the polar opposite. “What surgical strikes?” asked government officials, military spokesmen and media commentators alike. India had done nothing more than routine shelling, they suggested, causing minimal damage. In any case, the Uri attack was a false flag operation, orchestrated by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), as a way of justifying Indian “retaliation” and the public relations triumph that would follow. 

Whether Pakistan’s response reflected reality (that the Indian operation killed few if any soldiers and militants), or was a semantic dodge (that the Indian actions were not technically “surgical strikes”), Pakistan’s relative nonchalance avoided an immediate escalation of conflict. 

The ensuing weeks saw a significant increase in violence. Shelling and other actions along the LoC since then have claimed the lives of at least 115 soldiers by our count from news reports. Civilians on both sides have also been deliberately targeted and killed. An attack on another Indian army base at Nagrota resulted in the deaths of seven Indian soldiers. The cross-border ceasefire – often broken since it was agreed upon in 2003 – may now be truly dead and buried. But, as yet, no major escalation beyond these “normal” hostilities has occurred. 

The lack of escalation is certainly good news. Still, the situation remains precarious. Whether or not the Pakistani security establishment can completely control all actors who have the determination and capability to conduct attacks in Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian heartland, there is sufficient evidence for Indian (and international) officials to conclude that Pakistan still has not done all it can to curtail infiltrations and attacks against India.

If a new attack occurs and inflicts major casualties in India, especially among civilians in the heartland, the kudos the Modi government won at home for the response to Uri will compel it to act more forcefully. Pakistani military and civilian leaders, fearful of each other and of militant political forces, cannot let a substantial Indian military operation against targets on Pakistani soil go unanswered.

In this context, the lack of any apparent strategy and political determination (in both India and Pakistan) to change the current dynamic and establish a peacemaking process is dangerous. Can serious people in either country believe this situation is sustainable over a long-term period, that violence can continue to be managed? 

Reactions to Not War, Not Peace? illustrate the problem. The book analyses whether India’s army-based reprisal with armoured incursions into Pakistan – limited precision air strikes, covert operations, changes in nuclear doctrine or non-violent means of compelling Pakistan – would be likely to motivate the other side to prevent further cross-border terrorism — and with what risks of escalation? Each of these options has been debated in India. The book makes no recommendations, but rather seeks to assess the logic and capabilities India would need in each case, and to explore the potential implications if India actually undertook any of the actions mentioned above. 

As it turned out, India’s “surgical strikes” were less extensive than any of the military options we had considered in the book. But the attack on the army base at Uri was also less provocative than a major terrorist attack on civilian targets that we had postulated about.

Before the Uri attack, early Indian reviews of the book praised it for, among other things, being “remarkably devoid of judgment,” and providing “sustained analysis [that] is rare in Indian strategic discussions.” But, after Uri, we were accused of a myriad sins, including “trying to scare and deter India from taking any action against Pakistan” and justifying Pakistan’s “terrorism-based strategy”.

Readers in Pakistan called us, among other colourful characterisations, “Indian lobbyists in Washington spewing disinformation and hatred against Pakistan,” and alleged that we had crafted “a devil’s cookbook”, with recipes for how India can coerce Pakistan. Based on the analysis presented in Not War, Not Peace? and related articles, some American colleagues accused us of soft-peddling on Pakistan, with one suggesting we did so in order to get visas to travel there.

If it is difficult for some in South Asia (and in the United States) to seriously engage with the kind of dispassionate analysis we present in Not War, Not Peace?, then it is no surprise that the political and media classes in both societies, with some notable exceptions, are unwilling to stick their necks out to urge both governments to change course and pursue mutual accommodation. We recognise that, as Americans, we provoke special responses. We must be either pro-Pakistan/anti-India (in India), or pro-India/anti-Pakistan (in Pakistan). Or we are seen as agents of the American government, advocating a policy intended to weaken one state or the other. 

But when the messenger – whether American, Pakistani, Indian or other – becomes the focus of debate, rather than the merits or demerits of the message, it is difficult for anyone to develop and promote analyses and ideas that can challenge prevailing narratives and divert actors from a dangerous course. (We are painfully aware that this phenomenon has now bedevilled American discourse and politics too, endangering not only our governance, but also the interests of people around the world who are affected by what American leaders say and do.) 

At the risk of inviting further charges of bias for attempting balanced analysis, we are concerned that the continued violence across the LoC, the lack of progress in redressing the suffering and the interests of Kashmiri Muslims and the absence of sustained serious diplomacy between India and Pakistan, leave the two countries one high-casualty terrorist attack away from war.

We are not naïve. It is most likely that Indian and Pakistani leaders will continue with the same policies and tactics, seeking to score points internationally, letting the militaries punish each other around the LoC and using covert or sub-conventional means to destabilise the other side and sow violence where possible. 

The cheerleading in India surrounding the “surgical strikes” has not given way to more sober analysis of long-term strategy, let alone the kind of statesmanship that could lead both states away from violence. In Pakistan, the smooth transition to new leadership in the army is a welcome sign. But the continued political and civil-military gamesmanship has drowned out the few voices raising alarms about the absence of an alternative national security vision for the country. 

All of this suggests a depressing, unstable equilibrium in India-Pakistan affairs. The equilibrium is based on strategic circumstances that do not allow either country to exploit the weaknesses of the other in ways that would bring about some fundamental change. Pakistan’s continued use or tolerance of terrorist proxies, its growing stockpile of nuclear weapons and its campaign to highlight Indian human rights abuses in Kashmir will not force India to negotiate the future of the Kashmir valley. And India’s recent diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism –and threats of military reprisal to future attacks – will be insufficient to compel fundamental change in Pakistan’s behaviour toward India, absent progress in and on Kashmir.

During and after our September visit to Delhi, several Indians with long, high-level governmental experience seemed resigned that this dynamic will not change. As Shivshankar Menon, the cerebral former national security adviser put it, “we may need to adopt the Israeli approach of ‘mowing the grass,’ recognise that you can’t change Pakistan’s behaviour and stop the terrorist grass from growing — you will just need to keep mowing it with reprisals and diplomatic pressure.” 

But, as Menon acknowledged, this is not a permanent solution. Nor is it a stable situation. Israelis do not feel particularly secure for all the lawn mowing. They have no prospect of normal relations with the Palestinians living within and adjacent to Israeli territory. And in India’s case, unlike Israel’s, the fields to be mowed may contain nuclear landmines, as well as improvised-explosive devices. Stability, on the other hand, will require serious, analytically sound and politically courageous efforts to address five thorny challenges cooperatively: Kashmir, Pakistan’s control of terrorist groups (or lack thereof), Afghanistan, the advancement of military technology and divergent perceptions about escalation.

Informed Pakistanis and Indians are already aware of what needs to be done to deal with the Kashmir problem and its relationship to terrorism emanating from Pakistan. It is fashionable in dominant discourse in both countries and elsewhere to deny the linkage between these issues as some false equivalence. Yet, privately, current and former officials in both countries acknowledge the linkages and the necessity of diplomacy. 

Stability is unlikely to result from negotiations themselves. Rather, it would derive from both sides demonstrating an understanding of the interests of the other and signalling the willingness to establish conditions for sustained diplomacy to succeed. For instance, Pakistan will need to be prepared to not only discuss terrorism, but also to facilitate intelligence sharing, which demonstrates a commitment to preventing attacks in India. By the same token, the Indian government will have to exhibit – as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government appeared to do in the early 2000s – an interest in a serious political dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir.

So, too, regarding Afghanistan. The governments of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan know that stabilisation cannot occur without, at a minimum, greater cooperation in demobilising the militants who operate against Afghanistan and Pakistan on both sides of the border. But, perhaps, more important in the long-term is mutual reassurance between Pakistan and India that each country’s reasonable interests in Afghanistan will be respected and accommodated. The primary problem is the absence of political will in all three states to take steps to build each other’s confidence that their cooperation will be rewarded. 

The Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar this past December displayed how the three governments are far from being ready to solve problems. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani found it easy to join Modi in blasting Pakistan for its continued complicity with militants (Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed) that project violence into Afghanistan and India. Indeed, both leaders see that Pakistan is so back-footed by its association with terrorism that they feel no compulsion to let it save face. 

The Pakistani government’s publication of President-elect Donald Trump’s fawning (and uninformed) telephone conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif further incensed the Indian government which then took revenge at Amritsar by physically preventing the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, from addressing the press. Afghanistan may fall into further violent disorder but the greatest concern of the powers that be in Rawalpindi and New Delhi is to keep each other from appearing to gain any advantage. 

If the stakes in Afghanistan are well known, there is less awareness of the challenges posed by new military technologies and their potential use by India and Pakistan if violence widens from the LoC in Kashmir. India is on a major military spending spree — procuring advanced air, land and naval weapons platforms. Over time, these new capabilities should enable India’s armed services to better combine forces to project military power with greater precision and lethality. 

Some of these capabilities – cruise missiles and other air-to-ground missiles in particular – could permit India to carry out precise airstrikes against targets in Pakistan from rather long distances, avoiding the risk of sending commandos or other forces into hostile territory. Indian strategists may calculate that using such capabilities, especially against terrorist targets, will achieve retaliation aims without provoking escalation. The temptation is obvious. 

But the potential consequences of using new kinds of military capability raise hard questions. Indian leaders may order a missile strike, for instance, believing it will have a very tailored impact but the damages or casualties could be far larger than predicted or the army in Pakistan could decide for institutional reasons that a reply was needed to restore deterrence. 

Or India could utilise such a capability with the intention of having a shocking, even strategic effect (say, a strike against a target in Punjab) but if the strike does not produce the desired response in Pakistan, what then? Would India have to double down with greater force? The point is not to overpredict the possibility of escalation following any given action but to highlight that the combination of new lethal technologies and increased propensity to use them for punitive operations creates greater uncertainty about managing conflict. 

Here arises the challenge of reading signals amidst divergent perceptions about escalation.

Government officials tend to believe that the signals they send are received and interpreted correctly. Yet, most scholarship on this subject finds precisely the opposite: the recipient of signals interprets them very differently than the sender expects. Pakistani officials and politicians have so regularly “played the nuclear card” that the signalling value of such statements has diminished in India. And India’s hype around its “pro-active strategy” is both discounted as bluster and used to justify the development of tactical nuclear weapons in Pakistan. Deterrence requires communication of a credible willingness to use force but when both sides discount the signals as well as the credibility of threats, there is plenty of room for error. 

Finally, there is the question of Pakistan’s capacity to control the groups that conduct attacks on India. India’s apparent lack of worry over the current level of violence and absence of a peace process could be understandable if New Delhi believed that Pakistani leaders firmly control all of the groups that could conduct strikes in India. Indian leaders then could believe that their military power and the increasing international dissatisfaction with Pakistan will compel Pakistani leaders to prevent militants from conducting major attacks on India. 

This “optimistic” scenario still leaves open the prospect of unending low-intensity exchanges like those that have been going on near the LoC for months. But, what if the Pakistani establishment cannot effectively prevent future major attacks? Then India must rely on its own defences and, perhaps, luck. Either way, if a new high-casualty terrorist attack occurs in India, especially in the heartland, a Modi government will be pressed to retaliate more dramatically than before. This, in turn, will put enormous pressure on Rawalpindi to escalate in kind. Our analysis in Not War, Not Peace? raises many doubts about whether and how either state could “win” such a war, and no reviewer has challenged this analysis. 

Indian and Pakistani leaders may continue to be lucky but, as all gamblers know, luck can depart without warning. Continuing to rely on luck to prevent escalation, rather than seeking to stabilise the existing equilibrium and to pursue actual means and structures to guide relations, is a strategic risk for both states. 

To achieve their fundamental long-term interests, there is no plausible alternative for the two countries except direct talks and negotiations. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) process may provide some thin political cover but the talks will not go anywhere if leaders in India and Pakistan are so unresolved or weak that they feel the need for such cover. Nor can China, any more than the US, compel or cajole either India or Pakistan to make the hard compromises necessary for mutual accommodation. 

China wants stability in South Asia. It will quietly press Pakistan to curtail terrorism and is unlikely to participate in military adventurism against India. But Beijing will also not reward Indian bullying by pressing Pakistan to give in on Kashmir. Meanwhile, the American policy under the incoming Trump administration is likely to depart from past conventions but in unpredictable directions. One day the administration may offer to negotiate Kashmir but the next, it could join efforts to isolate Pakistan internationally.

No one will do the hard work for Pakistani and Indian leaders. They must decide if and when their people deserve more than reliance on luck and business-as-usual to avoid a devastating war. When they do decide to seek stability and the prospect of peace, they will probably organise (or reorganise) a secret dialogue between national security advisers and/or emissaries known to represent the centres of power in each country. They will be wise to exchange commitments not to be the first to break off talks if a new crisis erupts. As long as diplomacy stalls, every time there is an attack or insult, the opponents of peace will provoke and prevail.

Again, all of this is rather well known at the top of the two governments and civil societies. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the highly experienced former Pakistani diplomat, wrote recently in daily Dawn that “for Pakistan to be simultaneously locked in a zero-sum relationship with two of its most immediate neighbours [India and Afghanistan] is pure folly. Pakistan can never be stable in such a situation.” Qazi continued, “Pakistan must address India’s core concerns and move towards a principled compromise settlement acceptable to the Kashmiris.”

In India, shortly after Modi came to power, an exceptionally experienced former defence official offered a complementary insight. “The bigger state has to be willing to give more,” he told us. “It’s counter-intuitive: if we are bigger, we can force them to give in and do what we want. But, the psychology of it is the opposite. The only way forward with Pakistan is that we have to be seen conceding more than we are getting. The reality is that we would be getting enormously more by normalising relations and ending their story of conflict etc. We would gain greatly overall.”

These voices matter and should be amplified. If they were listened to, some sense of a better future could be created. At the very least, it will spare readers in South Asia more analysis and advice from white guys from Washington. 

This op-ed originally appeared in the Herald.