It was exactly ten years ago this week that I stood at Boston’s Logan airport waiting to board a flight when TV screens began to flash images of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. I have spent the better part of the decade since researching the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry and the role major crises play in its trajectory.
Earlier this year, I published the findings in my latest book, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford University Press), with a detailed case study of the Mumbai crisis. During the course of my research, I conducted over 80 interviews, including of senior Indian and Pakistani officials who were part of managing Mumbai and prior crisis moments.
As a champion of normalizing India-Pakistan relations, what I discovered thoroughly depressed me.
For starters, I realized what a watershed moment the Mumbai affair was for the bilateral relationship. The attacks led to the breakdown of the most promising peace process India and Pakistan had ever managed. They had made truly remarkable progress. Having looked at this closely enough, I can testify that they were extremely close to achieving a major breakthrough, not only on outstanding areas of dispute, but also on imagining a fundamentally more positive future together.
I found the progress made during the peace process to be even more impressive after I recognized how deep the mutual mistrust among the two officialdoms is. Their conduct during the Mumbai crisis is illustrative. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that associates possession of nuclear weapons with greater strategic independence for countries, India and Pakistan banked heavily on stronger third parties like the U.S. to bail them out of the crisis. When I dug deeper into the reasons, I discovered that it was a function of the acrimony and mistrust between India and Pakistan that has prevented them from setting up dependable bilateral protocols to prevent escalation during crises. Instead, two proud nuclear powers have left themselves more, not less, dependent on the whims of outside actors since acquiring nuclear weapons because they simply refuse to faithfully communicate directly to resolve crises. That the peace process progressed as well as it did despite such mindsets makes the effort all the more striking.
Ten years on, things on the crisis management front are worse. India now acknowledges the presence of a limited war doctrine, popularly dubbed Cold Start, which seeks to punish Pakistan militarily for cross-border militancy. Pakistan responded to Cold Start by producing tactical nuclear weapons, effectively signaling that nuclear weapons may enter the mix early on in a crisis. Both also profess that they will no longer bow to international pressure to hold back from using force. And yet, as these developments make crises more dangerous, there has been no progress on bilateral crisis management mechanisms to prevent uncontrolled escalation. Without such protocols and with easier pathways to escalation, third parties will be just as, if not more, worried – and indeed needed for crisis management. We can therefore expect them to be even more proactive in mediating moments of high tension in the future. Whither strategic independence!
Finally, and most importantly, my research has left me convinced that both sides are blinded by their rivalry to the point that they have lost sight of how much they are losing out on in the grand scheme of things. The entire focus of their diplomacy towards each other tends to be on undercutting the other. With India’s economic rise, there is now seems to be a growing sense among some in official circles that they no longer need to patch things up with Pakistan. In Pakistan, the urge to continue challenging the larger neighbor at any cost remains steady. This, even when data unequivocally shows that the peace dividend of a normalized relationship between these two nuclear neighbors would run into tens of billions of dollars – for both sides. Bottom line: the status quo means that India and Pakistan are operating well below their potential, thereby handing over the advantage to other peers in the world that aren’t locked in such intense rivalries. Yes, both economies are growing – India’s much faster than Pakistan’s – but both could grow far quicker were they to find a way to normalize their relationship.
Rather than allowing the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai attacks to spur further anger, both sides should use this opportunity to pledge to work together for a better tomorrow. The 2003-07 peace process offers the obvious model.
Moeed Yusuf is associate vice president at the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace. He is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018). The book examines crises between regional nuclear powers and specifically the role of stronger third parties in crisis management. For more on his writings, visit his site.