Pakistan's nuclear evolution: A primer

By Moeed Yusuf

Exactly two decades ago this day, Pakistan tested nuclear weapons following India’s lead, becoming the seventh country to declare its nuclear capability to the world. As the street erupted in jubilation, Pakistani officials talked up the benefits of the country’s newly earned status.

Nuclear weapons were to: (i) neutralise India’s conventional military superiority and deter Indian aggression; (ii) prompt India to consider settling outstanding disputes with Pakistan in the absence of a military advantage; (iii) offer greater strategic independence and enhance Pakistan’s ability to ward off undesirable external pressures; (iv) take away the need to continue spending money exorbitantly to match India’s conventional military might; and (v) offer a psychological boost that would act as an additional uniting factor for the nation.

None of these were fanciful. Nuclear literature produced during the Cold War directly or indirectly associated nuclear weapons’ acquisition with each of these attributes.

So, how have we fared?

Deterring India

While the concept of nuclear deterrence has been stretched in various directions over the years, in its essence, it is about preventing a major war. As long as the rivals in question have a nuclear capability that cannot be completely destroyed by the other side before one has a chance to use it – a ‘survivable’ arsenal in nuclear lingo – the threat of nuclear retaliation is supposed to hold back adversaries from harming each other in any serious way.

South Asia checks the box quite comfortably. Since 1998, India and Pakistan have invested substantially in modernising their nuclear forces — to the point that basic survivability of their arsenals is no longer in doubt. Today, Pakistan boasts nearly 150 nuclear warheads and an array of missile and aircraft systems to deliver these warheads.

Crucially, throughout the nuclear era, wars like the ones in 1965 and 1971 have been absent. Nuclear weapons have had an undeniable role in holding the two sides back, especially India, who could otherwise arguably have felt less restrained in the post-1998 crises caused by terrorist attacks it blamed on Pakistan.

To be sure, the South Asian reality has been pretty ugly beyond the absence of a major war. Pakistan and India were involved in a limited war in Kargil in 1999, the first active military confrontation between two nuclear powers since the Sino-Soviet Ussuri river clashes in 1969, and they have experienced several other serious and modest crises as well. The two most prominent ones – the 2001-02 military standoff and the Mumbai crisis of 2008 – and several minor bouts of tension, for instance, the Pathankot terrorist attack and the ‘surgical strikes’ episode in 2016, were triggered by terrorist attacks. Besides, we have had alarmingly high rates of violence on the Line of Control in Kashmir during the 1998-2002 period, and again in recent years.

This violent instability does not undermine the deterrence per se. Deterrence literature acknowledges the possible emboldening effect the nuclear umbrella can have on countries to compete violently at lower levels of conflict. The logic of this “stability-instability paradox” is simple: since all-out war is irrational, countries – non-state actors would fall in the same category in South Asia’s case – can use violence to further their interests with greater impunity. South Asia’s experience can be explained through the lens of this paradox.

Forcing compromise and dispute resolution

As Pakistani leaders argued this case, their contention was essentially a political one: India would want to settle Kashmir because it would be forced to see nuclear Pakistan as an equal. The real reason this correlation is relevant is not because of any illusion of equality. Rather, it is that nuclearisation tends to increase incentives for countries to seek ways to avoid even the slightest risk of major war. Theoretically, this could lead them to consider addressing underlying causes of conflict. That said, there is also an equally, if not more, important opposite effect of nuclear weapons: they tend to freeze territorial status quo. Where the stronger party also happens to prefer the status quo in terms of disputes, nuclear weapons play to its advantage as they dilute the opposing incentive to revise the ground realities. Both these effects have been in play in South Asia

The incentive to freeze the status quo

After years of gaming and scheming the use of nuclear weapons as war fighting tools during the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union realised that seeking to forcibly alter recognised zones of territorial control in geographical areas that really mattered to either side would be the most assured way of inviting nuclear war. Since then, this has been an unsaid rule of sorts for nuclear rivals. South Asia is no exception. The region’s nuclearisation has generated a clear global preference for avoiding any forcible change in the status quo in Kashmir.

This is why the Kargil operation brought Pakistan universal condemnation. Simply put, the action was a gross misreading of the implications of nuclearisation on the part of General Pervez Musharraf and company. Rather than recognising that the world, still not fully recovered from the shock of the nuclear tests a year earlier, would naturally fixate on the fact that Pakistan had broken the norm of nuclear states avoiding the use of force to affect territorial redistribution, they hoped to get support to keep the occupied territory in their control.

Their miscalculation was likely a function of the fact that neither Musharraf nor others in the know on Kargil had ever had any professional exposure to a nuclear strategy. Nonetheless, Kargil was a watershed with lasting effects. Even staunch allies like China and Saudi Arabia shied away from backing Pakistan. It was also the first time the US unequivocally hardened its position on the Line of Control by stressing its sanctity as a firm, even if not legal, delineation of zones of control between India and Pakistan. The world’s general consensus on Kashmir has remained unchanged ever since.

The incentive to address deeper issues

The opposite effect that tends to push countries to find sustainable peace has also been on display. The two most important attempts at forward movement in the India-Pakistan relationship since 1998 can both, in part, be attributed to the presence of nuclear weapons.

International concerns about nuclear risks in South Asia in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests were largely responsible for the initiation of diplomatic parlays shortly thereafter. These culminated with Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous trip to Pakistan in 1999 and with the ‘Lahore Declaration,’ incidentally still the most comprehensive vision for nuclear risk reduction and confidence building between the two countries. Pakistan scored a win by having Kashmir included as part of the dialogue agenda and by initiating backchannel negotiations on the dispute. The dialogue process was cut short by the Kargil war.

The bilateral composite dialogue between 2004-2008 was in part triggered by the experience of the 2001-02 standoff that saw Indian and Pakistani militaries come head-to-head and brought extreme international pressure to lower tensions. In this case, India’s failure to use force against Pakistan despite a full-scale military mobilisation was a stark reminder of the reality of deterrence and international opposition to military conflict in South Asia. This, combined with Vajpayee’s and Musharraf’s statesmen-like approach at the time, led to an intense peace process. The two sides made remarkable progress, and if the accounts of Pakistani officials involved are to be believed, they came within touching distance of a compromise solution that offered Kashmiris hope of a normal life — without altering the territorial status quo.

That moment has long passed. Since then, the status quo bias of nuclear weapons has decidedly trumped any spirit of compromise in India-Pakistan relations. A summary of the last two decades would suggest India has come out ahead: not only are we no closer to resolving Kashmir politically but the world has zero appetite for any conversation of altering Kashmir’s current territorial reality.

The quest for strategic independence

South Asia has flipped the logic of the link between nuclear weapons and strategic independence on its head. Conventional wisdom holds that since nuclear weapons offer immunity from major military action from the enemy (or its stronger third-party patrons), a nuclear possessor has greater freedom to push back against external pressure and act more independently. This is especially true for crisis moments when the stakes, and therefore the urge to hold one’s own in the face of undesirable pressure, tend to be the highest.

My new book, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments, focuses on this subject. I conclude that more than identifying reasons for Pakistan’s puzzling behaviour on this count, there is a need to rethink the very association of nuclear weapons with a country’s ability to thwart external influences, especially during crises. The conventional logic was generated in the Cold War when the central competition involved the two strongest powers of the world. Regional nuclear states will always operate in a global context with greater powers concerned about nuclear war and able to influence the behaviour of the antagonists. Regional rivals would therefore not be nearly as independent as the US and Soviet Union were during the Cold War.

Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif at the site of Pakistan's nuclear test | White Star
Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif at the site of Pakistan's nuclear test | White Star

South Asia’s major crises since 1998 bear this out. Fearful of a nuclear war, the US and other states with influence over India and Pakistan involved themselves as eager mediators without waiting for an invitation to do so from either rival. During the crises, they used their leverage over both antagonists, offering them inducements and threatening punishment, in pursuit of one principal objective: de-escalation of the immediate crisis.

This interest of strong third-party actors in brokering crisis termination put India and Pakistan in a paradoxical situation: the urge for strategic independence had to be balanced with the reality that defying these external actors could play into the hands of the rival and force the third party’s hand to tilt the crisis in its favour.

One additional factor accentuated this dynamic in South Asia. This had to do with the failure of India and Pakistan to conclude robust bilateral crisis prevention and risk reduction protocols to manage their tensions in crisis moments. This is in stark contrast to the Cold War where the superpowers concluded a plethora of such agreements and followed them scrupulously. These proved critical to reducing the risk of a nuclear war during the various crises between the two superpowers.

The combination of the unwillingness of the third parties to leave nuclear crisis management to regional nuclear states and the rather barren space of nuclear risk reduction between India and Pakistan created an incentive for the two rivals to flip the logic of strategic independence of nuclear states. India and Pakistan, therefore, willingly transferred the burden of crisis management to external influencers. Indeed, South Asian crises of the past are better characterised as competitions between India and Pakistan in trying to gain traction with the third-party influencers than as bilateral affairs ala the Cold War

Offsetting the need for exorbitant conventional military expenditures

The offsetting effect of nuclear weapons on conventional military expenditures flows from a strategic logic: nuclear weapons can offer a higher level of security at a much lower cost than the kind of investments needed to provide similar levels of conventional deterrence against enemy aggression. A logical extension is that this offsetting dynamic can cause downward pressure on overall defence-related expenditures and could, therefore, free up more resources for non-security needs.

The argument is inherently weak since, in building on its strategic logic, it ignores bureaucratic imperatives that regularly drive decision-making. Even during the Cold War, the superpowers ended up investing exorbitantly in their nuclear as well as conventional capabilities, with no signs of any offsetting trend. Military budgets world over are driven as much by organisational interests as they are by actual need. Nuclear establishments, even if integrated within military structures to some extent, are not a purely military phenomenon.

Given the central role of the scientific community and the usual secrecy surrounding nuclear programmes, nuclear establishments tend to be somewhat removed from the mainstream military bureaucracies. Nuclear budgets are also often contained within the nuclear establishments, with only limited crossover. Overwhelming majority of the military establishment continues to depend on budget line items associated with the conventional realm. Notwithstanding the military’s domination of the nuclear programme in Pakistan, this is fundamentally true for the Pakistani case as well. Pakistan’s military decision-makers do not view nuclear demands as part of their core resource pool and are, therefore, reluctant to entertain the offsetting option.

Two other factors have ensured the absence of any dampening effect of the nuclear programme on overall defence expenditures.

Firstly, the security establishment continues to see conventional deterrence as the first line of defence against India and is committed to maintaining some semblance of balance in the conventional realm vis-à-vis the eastern neighbour. Specific nuclear acquisitions, particularly Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapon capability, have been justified as antidotes to changes in India’s conventional posturing, that is, its limited war doctrine called Cold Start. However, the tactical capability has been developed in addition to a conventional upgradation that is also aimed at plugging the gap in Pakistani defence the Cold Start threatened to create. In other words, for now, conventional and nuclear choices seem to be doubling up rather than offsetting each other.

Secondly, the expenditure on the nuclear programme itself is on the up. Pakistan’s nuclear modernisation has continued at a swift pace throughout the first two decades of overt nuclearisation. The desired size of the arsenal seems to have undergone upward revisions over time. Pakistan has formally moved from its original minimum credible deterrence posture to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ – essentially a play on words to justify acquisition of weapons systems originally considered superfluous. The build-up phase is set to last for the foreseeable future, with increased resource demands for more sophisticated weapons systems and capabilities coming down the line.

Two official talking points lead me to this conclusion.

One, any concerns about the logic behind the switch from credible minimum to full spectrum deterrence are met with assurances that the nuclear establishment understands Pakistan’s resource constraints and will not go beyond a modest capability. I have no doubt about the sincerity of this intent. And yet, organisation theory tells us how rational actors can end up becoming too insular and sceptical of critique, eventually allowing organisational rather than strategic interests to drive their decisions.

The less transparent a bureaucracy, the greater the likelihood of this; nuclear establishments the world over, by their very nature, tend to be both secret and insular. For many critics, Pakistan may already be showing signs that bureaucratic-scientific interest is taking over the strategic need for the type of modernisation it is undertaking.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Two, the principal justification for continuing to modernise the arsenal is tied to India’s building up of its own capability. This argument is problematic; it is premised on a conventional, not nuclear, military logic. In the conventional realm, your requirements remain dynamic; as the adversary acquires new capabilities that can offer it dominance in the battlefield, you are compelled to compensate for the change.

Nuclear deterrence, however, must be seen as a ‘phased’ concept. It is tied to the adversary’s acquisitions in the initial part of one’s nuclear development. But once you have acquired a modest-sized arsenal with tested designs and diverse delivery means that are able to credibly inflict unbearable pain to your adversary, there is little need to continue matching the rival. Conceptually, there is an absolute number (to be determined by each possessor for itself) in terms of stockpiles, warheads and diversity and quantity of weapon and delivery systems, and even a certain extent of qualitative proficiency, beyond which the adversary’s upgradation should become irrelevant and ignorable.

Taking this approach could allow Pakistani planners to be more relaxed about some of India’s high-end technological investments that they currently feel warrant a response. For instance, Pakistan need not react to Indian missile advancement beyond a point. It can independently determine for itself its counter-value strategy (the threat of targeting Indian cities to cause prohibitive damage to life and property) and identify the requisite inventory for various types of missile batteries after building in necessary redundancies.

In my estimation, Pakistan has already reached its target for its operational systems and will be able to do so within this decade for the systems that are in the testing and development phases. A similar exercise can be undertaken in terms of calculating the required fissile material irrespective of the size of Indian stockpiles. Moreover, platforms such as Indian ballistic missile defence can be all but ignored given its lack of utility in a context where two rivals are geographically contiguous and where mere changes to offensive missile postures can neutralise any advantage India may gain from this capability.

This is not where Pakistani planners seem to be at the moment. Pakistan’s investments in the nuclear realm are more reflective of a country unsure of the credibility of its deterrent. If so, the nuclear programme’s demands on resources will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Needless to say, a larger arsenal will incur greater management costs, especially because maintaining a nuclear arsenal is far more expensive than building it.

National unity and psychological security

When Pakistani leaders flaunted this as a positive effect of nuclearisation, they seemed to have believed that the psychological boost nuclear weapons provide will allow them to use it as a rallying cry for unity.

The state has gone to great lengths to present the nuclear capability as a pillar of Pakistani nationalism. It has worked. Virtually all survey-based data and anecdotal evidence suggests little to no dissent on Pakistan’s nuclear programme. The street sentiment remains positive and nuclear weapons continue to be internalised as a source of pride.

Ironically though, this feeling has come about not because of any sense of psychological security but despite its absence. In fact, the officialdom radiates deep insecurity when it comes to the management of the nuclear capability. They hold an excessively sceptical view of the world’s intentions towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme and insinuate a grand international design (US, India and Israel are often mentioned as its champions) to defang Pakistan’s capability.

Three developments since 1998 may have contributed to this mindset. Firstly, the revelation of the A Q Khan nuclear black market exposed massive security lacunas in Pakistan’s nuclear protocols and brought the world’s microscopic eye on the programme. Secondly, the post-9/11 terrorist threat within the country further crystallised the global focus on and scepticism about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. And thirdly, India’s post-9/11 rise to become a key US partner compared to the constant trials and tribulations of the US-Pakistan relationship has tilted the diplomatic power balance in the region in India’s favour.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

The net result is a vicious cycle: the world complains; Pakistan becomes more sceptical and reacts by digging in further; outsiders get more worried and persist; Pakistan, in turn, becomes more paranoid. The dynamic has had several implications for Pakistan’s international and domestic nuclear diplomacy:

Firstly, rather than elevating Pakistan’s international status, the combination of the terrorist threat within and the presence of nuclear weapons have put Pakistan in the global limelight squarely as a problem case. The global hype about the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear programme persists and the western world refuses to treat Pakistan as a normal nuclear country. Pakistani planners cry foul and ascribe malign intent.

Secondly, ironic as it is, Pakistani planners have had to spend considerable time and energy worrying about protecting the nuclear capability that was supposed to provide them the ultimate level of security. This includes positive measures to improve safety and security protocols to avoid any terrorist breaches of nuclear facilities and to comfort the world but also decisions related to nuclear modernisation and management protocols to reduce any possibility of a bolt out-of-the-blue attempt to disarm Pakistan.

Thirdly, the nuclear establishment has responded by hunkering down further and defying the global demand to slow down the programme’s build. Pakistani decision-makers seem to feel that they are working against a clock — an euphemism for the world sooner or later forcing an end to the ability of countries like Pakistan to build their arsenal further. This is also why Pakistan has gone to lengths to forestall multilateral negotiations on potential arrangements like the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty that would stop countries from producing fresh fissile material, leaving the nascent nuclear powers at a disadvantage.

Finally, the nuclear establishment has pulled back from its earlier willingness to allow an expert-level debate on nuclear matters. The establishment feels that its job is to provide the country a robust deterrent capability and that it must isolate itself from the broader national issues to ensure this. Even mildly critical foreign and local voices are seen with a fair amount of suspicion; the belief is that such critique could dilute the national consensus on the nuclear programme. The nuclear establishment also fears that an open public debate on the subject may get caught up in divisive political sloganeering and allow even greater negative influences on the programme.

The upshot, however, is that as Pakistan conducts nuclear diplomacy, it comes across as a country that is insecure and besieged. This is a slippery slope and could easily lead the nuclear establishment to go too far in insulting itself. As already explained, every effort to dig in raises even further alarm internationally, in turn, constraining Pakistan’s ability to mainstream itself as a nuclear power.

What lies ahead?

Pakistan’s nuclear journey has been unlike any other. Having faced opprobrium for developing a clandestine programme in the first place, the country has remained under the scanner even after its nuclear tests. One can, therefore, understand Pakistan’s hypersensitivity to critiques of its programme. On the other hand, it is not difficult to comprehend why the world reacts with extreme concern to a country that has been excessively violent and politically fragile in recent years and from where leakage of nuclear material has taken place in the past.

Still, the bottom line is that Pakistan’s nuclear capability is here to stay. The international community ultimately recognises this and wants a safe and secure programme that does not threaten anyone beyond establishing a deterrent effect vis-à-vis India. What arsenal quality and quantity and type of management protocols can achieve this objective has been a matter of intense debate and disagreement between Pakistani leaders and the world.

Looking ahead, it is crucial for Pakistan to be seen as a responsible nuclear power. It must meet its deterrent requirements without forcing the international community’s hand to isolate it. This requires an ongoing constructive dialogue with the US and relevant multilateral institutions. Specific decisions driving nuclear modernisation need to be explained transparently but with an openness to consider developments that may be harming Pakistan’s interest in being fully mainstreamed into the legal nuclear regimes.

An obvious challenge for Pakistan is that its growing conventional differential vis-à-vis India is going to continue, forcing it to rely even more heavily on its nuclear capability in the decades ahead. Yet, going too far in this direction is sure to worry the world and may also push Pakistan to blur the line between considering nuclear weapons as a deterrent and a warfighting tool. There are already concerns that acquisition of the tactical nuclear weapon capability may have moved the needle closer to the latter.

Even more importantly, the nuclear establishment needs to strike a balance between protecting the nuclear narrative from politicisation and encouraging genuine expert-level domestic debate on nuclear strategy. Absence of avenues for scholars, especially younger minds, to engage in the field will both alienate them and, crucially, deprive the establishment with useful input any and every bureaucracy requires to optimise its decision-making.

Two decades from now, my principal benchmark for evaluating Pakistan’s (then four decades-old) nuclear journey would be whether it is able to present itself as a mature, self-confident nuclear power. Its ability to do so would automatically imply that it has managed to maintain a robust deterrent, has balanced the need for nuclear modernisation with the goal of international mainstreaming, is comforted against external threats to the programme, and has checked the bureaucratic temptation to hunker down and avoid constructive critique. The alternative could be an ongoing build up in defiance of international opinion and at massive cost to the domestic resource pool – an overkill that Pakistan can ill-afford.

Moeed Yusuf is the associate vice president of Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. He is also the author of 'Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia' (Stanford University Press, 2018). For book excerpts and commentary, visit his website.

Pakistan's nuclear journey
Pakistan's nuclear journey

Nuclear arms: Does Washington need to be neutral in South Asia?

By Travis Wheeler

The American crisis management in South Asia since India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in May 1998 has had the overriding objectives of preventing crises from escalating to limited warfare, and preventing limited warfare from transitioning to all-out conflict. Scholars such as Stephen Cohen have suggested that the United States has succeeded in the past by playing crises “‘down the middle’, serving as an umpire between two contending parties.” Strobe Talbott, who served as a deputy secretary of state during the Bill Clinton years and was a key interlocutor of Indian and Pakistani leaders after the tests, echoed this when he characterised the US approach to crisis management as one of “studied neutrality”. Senior officials in South Asia have shared these perceptions of the US role and even groused that an “umpire” could not successfully manage crises between India and Pakistan.

The United States has not been a neutral third party in the progression of nuclear-tinged crises between India and Pakistan beginning with the Kargil Conflict in 1999. Yet, this new approach to crisis management has not resulted in a loss of access to or influence among decision makers in India or Pakistan. This suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Washington does not need to be neutral to be an effective crisis manager in South Asia

The end of US neutrality: why it happened

The “neutral umpire” or “honest broker” role certainly applied during the first two nuclear-tinged crises on the Subcontinent — the 1986-87 “Brasstacks” crisis and the 1990 “Compound” crisis. Both crises were prompted by large-scale military exercises. Misperception surrounding the meaning of these exercises and ensuing military maneuvers could have resulted in escalatory spirals. Washington was a spectator during “Brasstacks”, but served as an “honest broker” in defusing Indian and Pakistani concerns and dampening prospects for escalation during the 1990 crisis.

The 1999 Kargil conflict was the turning point in the US crisis management in South Asia. The United States has sided decisively with India and come down hard on Pakistan in this and every subsequent crisis. It has done so for two main reasons. First, these crises have been triggered by the provocative acts of one actor – Pakistan – or the non-state actors that find refuge there. This has meant that the US crisis managers have had to focus on risky triggering actions, not sources of misperception, to avert escalation — and this has changed the substance of the US crisis management. Secondly, India and Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons has increased the stakes of the US crisis management.

Due to these factors, the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush concluded that preventing escalation on a nuclearised Subcontinent required holding the instigator of the crisis primarily responsible for de-escalation rather than responding ‘“even-handedly’ by holding both sides partially to blame” as had been the case in earlier crises.

US crisis management in the 1999 Kargil conflict

What has the end of a US neutrality in crisis management meant in practice? A closer look at Kargil highlights its core elements and explains why the United States adopted a new crisis-management ‘playbook’.

Firstly, the United States avoided any equivocation about which country was to blame for the crisis. Washington declared that Pakistan had surreptitiously infiltrated forces across the Kashmir divide. This ill-conceived and dangerous act triggered the conflict, a point President Bill Clinton underscored repeatedly in his communications with Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. That Pakistan’s military would attempt a fait accompli to change the status quo along the Line of Control mere months after Vajpayee had taken a “risk for peace” by travelling to Lahore in February 1999 cemented the perception of Pakistan as a “reckless” actor in Washington.

Photo by Ishaque Chaudhry
Photo by Ishaque Chaudhry

Secondly, Washington held that the party responsible for initiating the crisis was also primarily responsible for bringing the crisis to a peaceful resolution before it escalated beyond a limited war. Washington fretted that New Delhi might move its conventional forces across either the Line of Control or the international border, potentially compelling Pakistan to use its nascent nuclear capability. The Clinton administration maintained, however, that the surest way to reduce the risk of nuclear use was to apply pressure on Pakistan to carry out an “immediate and unconditional” withdrawal and abstain from incursions across the Line of Control in the future. Appeals to Indian restraint were part of Washington’s ‘playbook’ but the United States put the burden of de-escalation on Pakistan.

Thirdly, the Clinton administration refused to reward Pakistan with a commitment to become more involved in negotiations over Kashmir. “I can’t publicly or privately pretend you’re withdrawing in return for my agreeing to be an intermediary [with respect to Kashmir],” Clinton told Sharif during their Blair House summit on July 4, 1999. “I am not – and the Indians are not – going to let you get away with [nuclear] blackmail.” Sharif was desperate to gain an advantage out of the crisis to help with his political survival. Clinton rejected this gambit and insisted that Pakistan withdraw its forces and return to the Lahore Declaration. The emphasis on the declaration, which called for India and Pakistan to resolve their disagreements on a bilateral basis, undermined Pakistan’s renewed intention to “internationalise” the Kashmir dispute.

In abandoning the role of a “neutral umpire”, the United States took clear positions that favoured India’s interpretation of the crisis as well as its preferences for crisis termination — all the while denying Pakistan a quid pro quo for withdrawing from Kargil. In retrospect, taking India’s side was a foreseeable American reaction because India was the status quo power seeking to maintain the integrity of territory it already controlled while Pakistan was the aggrieved state trying to change the status quo by the use of force.

The lack of a US neutrality, while undoubtedly exasperating to Pakistani leaders, was, perhaps surprisingly, not a barrier to effective crisis management during Kargil. A key reason was that the United States was not alone in calling on Pakistan to withdraw and respect the sanctity of the Line of Control. China, Pakistan’s “all-weather” friend, backed the US position, which militated against the notion that the United States was treating Pakistan unfairly or “colluding” with India.

More fundamentally, the US crisis management was successful in Kargil because both sides had something to gain from it. The presence of a crisis manager – even one that had unquestionably taken sides – protected India and Pakistan from what they feared most: full-scale war. Indian leaders acted with restraint because they wished to avoid uncontrolled escalation that could result in intolerable losses as well as undermine their economy and status as a rising power. Moreover, India did not need to escalate immediately because the United States was applying heavy pressure on Pakistan.

Pakistani leaders, including army chief General Pervez Musharraf, were apprehensive of losing yet another conflict to India and what that would mean for the army’s standing in domestic politics. As India steadily reversed Pakistan’s gains on the battlefield, Sharif and Musharraf came to understand the necessity of withdrawal but hesitated to do so without political cover from the United States. The American intervention, however onerous, gave both countries an “off ramp” from the road to general war. This explains why Washington lost neither its access to nor influence among the parties to the dispute.

US crisis management in the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” and 2008 Mumbai crises

The Kargil misadventure is unlikely to be repeated. However, the basic “playbook” established in 1999 held in the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” crisis and the 2008 Mumbai crisis. Both were instigated by the risk-inducing behaviour of terrorist groups whose leadership resided in Pakistan — first against the Indian parliament in “Twin Peaks” and then against symbols of India’s global status in Mumbai.

The United States sought to de-escalate “Twin Peaks” by obtaining two pledges from General Musharraf, who now served as army chief and president of a military government after ousting Sharif in a coup in October 1999. The first pledge, made in a major public address in January 2002, was a commitment to crack down on cross-border militancy. The second, secured by then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and conveyed to Indian leaders, was Musharraf’s strong assurance that Pakistan would “permanently” end militant infiltration across the Line of Control. Though the US response was somewhat more restrained than during Kargil lest post-9/11 counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan be jeopardised, Washington was unambiguous about Pakistan’s responsibility for de-escalating a crisis that it had provoked.

The same pillars of the US crisis-management – apportioning blame based on ground realities and putting the onus for de-escalation on Pakistan – followed Lashkar-e-Taiba’s deadly attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. The outgoing Bush administration’s plan was to “show support for India”, get Pakistan to “own up” to its ties to Lashkar, and “convince Pakistan to take enough steps to defuse the crisis”. All the US actions during the crisis – from high-level visits to the region by then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to intelligence sharing and law-enforcement cooperation with New Delhi – pointed toward these objectives. Washington’s one-sided approach to crisis management was once again complemented by relative international unity on the question of Pakistani culpability and a determination in both Islamabad and New Delhi to sidestep a costly conflict.

28th May 1998 | White Star
28th May 1998 | White Star

Implications for future crises

Since Kargil, New Delhi has tilted towards Washington and the Beijing-Islamabad nexus has intensified. Pakistan’s strategic planners appear to believe that they can win any struggle for dominance with “full-spectrum” deterrence. Indian strategists appear committed to attempting to deter Pakistan by punishment — whether by firings across the Line of Control, “surgical strikes”, or offensive conventional campaigns.

Whether and to what degree political leaders share these impulses is an open question — and new research shows that political considerations affect a state’s decision on whether to “select” into a crisis. Still, these strategies, if enacted in future crises, could reinforce escalation dynamics and constrain the diplomatic space in which crisis managers can operate. Nevertheless, Washington is likely to maintain access to and influence among decision makers in Islamabad and New Delhi if it can continue to deliver on its core crisis-management functions: preventing escalation and providing face-saving “off ramps”.

The central lesson of the progression of nuclear-tinged crises following the Subcontinent’s overt weaponisation is that Washington is less concerned about the appearance of neutrality than it is in arresting crises with escalatory potential. If Pakistan – whether by its own actions or by those of anti-India groups based in Pakistan – continues to be responsible for instigating crises, Washington will have little choice but to side emphatically with India. However, even in a crisis instigated by Pakistan, India could once again find itself the subject of a US crisis management if New Delhi fails to exercise restraint and opts for escalation. In this event, the focus of the US crisis management could become more “even-handed”.

Travis Wheeler is a research associate with the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program. He serves as one of the co-editors of the Stimson-War on the Rocks “Southern (Dis)Comfort” series.

Opening image by White Star