Milan Vaishnav on South Asian Nuclear Tensions

Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.

He is the author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (Yale University Press and HarperCollins India, 2017), which was awarded the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay New India Foundation book prize for the best non-fiction book on contemporary India published in 2017. He is also co-editor (with Devesh Kapur) of Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India (Oxford University Press, 2018) and (with Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur) of Rethinking Public Institutions in India (Oxford University Press, 2017). His work has been published in scholarly journals such as Asian Survey, Governance, India Review, India Policy Forum, Studies in Indian Politics, and PS: Political Science and Politics. He is a regular contributor to several Indian publications.

Previously, he worked at the Center for Global Development, where he served as a postdoctoral research fellow, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He is an adjunct professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and has previously taught at Columbia and George Washington Universities. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. He spoke to Ellie Wainstein CMC ‘19 on March 7, 2019.

Biography and Photograph courtesy of Mr. Vaishnav.

With the recent escalation in violence between Pakistan and India, many people are worried about further escalation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. What is driving the most recent round of tensions besides the terrorist attack that killed dozens of Indian paramilitary personnel? 

On February 14th, terrorists from Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a known terrorist entity that finds safe haven in Pakistan, launched a suicide bombing that killed 40 members of India's paramilitary forces and injured dozens more in Pulwama in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was the deadliest attack in three decades in Kashmir, which is a state that has seen quite a lot of violence throughout its history. The Pulwama attack prompted a firm response from the government of India in the form of aerial strikes on Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorist camps in Pakistan. It is worth emphasizing that these camps were in Pakistan proper, not in the Pakistani-occupied parts of Kashmir. Both the use of airpower and the location of the target were seen as a significant escalation in India's posture. Pakistan countered the aerial strikes by bombing targets on the Indian side of Kashmir. Pakistan also shot down an Indian Air Force plane and briefly detained an Indian Air Force pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman. Right now, it looks as if major hostilities have ceased after Pakistan returned the downed Indian pilot on March 1. While there has been some firing and artillery shelling along the Line of Control, major hostilities have ceased.

With Pakistan and India pointing nearly 300 nuclear warheads at each other, many people are worried about the possibility of war between two nuclear powers. What are the overall chances of nuclear war breaking out between the two countries?

That's a difficult question to answer. What people in the United States and in other capitals around the world are worried about is not necessarily that the respective governments would take a concerted decision to use nuclear weapons as a measure to punish the other country. Rather, the worry is that things would escalate such that, either due to some miscommunication or perhaps some breakdown in the chain of command, one of the countries might trigger a nuclear response. For now, it looks like the chances of this are low. Pakistan's return of the Indian Air Force pilot has given both countries an off-ramp that they can both jump on in terms of exiting this particular cycle of escalation. Now the focus is on diplomacy. India is intent on forcing Pakistan to take actions against these terrorist groups which operate within Pakistani borders. It is also trying to use the United Nations as a way to step up sanctions on some of these terrorist groups and their leaders which find safe haven in Pakistan (although a move by the United Nations Security Council to designate JeM chief Masood Azhar was blocked by China, a staunch ally of Pakistan’s). also India continues to work with United States and other international partners to put pressure on Pakistan to take action at home. That's where the focus is so, for now, the prospect of nuclear war seems quite limited.

The February 26th Indian air raids targeted the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), that claimed responsibility for the February 14th suicide attack which killed 40 Indian security personnel. This marked the first time that the Indian fighter jets crossed deep into Pakistan since 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, demonstrating an abandonment of India’s policy of “strategic restraint” against its neighbor for terror attacks. Why did India opt for this particular form of retaliation?

For a number of years, the government of India has exercised what it calls “strategic restraint”. It has been the victim of multiple terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan, most notably the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, which consisted of a series of spectacular attacks on a major Indian city. In each case, the Indians refrained from using force as a response to the terror attacks. After years of exercising such restraint, the government of India felt that its back was against the wall. In 2016, after an attack at a military facility, the government of India launched what it called a “surgical strike” on terrorist camps across the Line of Control. This was, again, not proper Pakistan, but across the LoC. Given that India was attacked again on February 14th, the government felt that responding in the same manner as they did in 2016 was not sufficient. They had to up the ante and try to demonstrate to Pakistan that there would be severe costs for this kind of activity. India is trying to change the equation between the two countries and give India more room for maneuvering in the conventional space, short of a resort to nuclear weapons.

How would you assess Pakistan’s response to India’s actions so far?  How likely will Pakistan restrict the activities of anti-Indian terrorist groups inside its borders? 

I am extremely skeptical that, in the short run, Pakistan will do all that much to crack down on terrorist elements that operate freely in the country. We've seen this movie before: a terrorist attack occurs, Pakistan is under great pressure to act at home, it rounds up the usual suspects, and it claims that it has arrested or detained dozens of terrorists or terrorist leaders. Then, when no one is looking, those individuals are allowed to roam free and everything is essentially as it was until the next attack. Right now, Pakistan is following the same playbook. The government announced that it arrested dozens of Jaish-e-Muhammad fighters and that it has cracked down on their terrorist camps and training facilities. However, it is really too early to know if these actions are simply cosmetic or if they really do represent a break. The reason I am skeptical is because the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment has relied on these terrorist groups as crucial proxies for decades, as a way of putting pressure on India and of providing “strategic depth.” I am not quite convinced that the Pakistani military calculations have changed all that much in just a matter of weeks.

This recent outburst of violence has led the US, UK and France to propose that the UN Security Council blacklist Azhar Masood, the chief of JeM. New Delhi has attempted to designate Masood as a terrorist for the last three years, but has been blocked by China every time. However, China has not yet acted against this proposition. Is there a chance China will let it pass? What role has China played in this round of India-Pakistan tensions? 

China decided to block the resolution. This is not the first time; I believe they have blocked it no fewer than three times on previous occasions. It's not all that hard to understand why China is reluctant to crack down on Pakistan. Pakistan is China’s strategic ally and a useful counterweight to India.  Moreover, Pakistan is a key element of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Therefore, Pakistan matters quite a lot for Beijing. China taking action against Pakistan would be punishing an all-weather friend and an ally. I just don't see that calculation changing right now, especially given the way in which United States and India have strengthened their partnership. China prefers to have Pakistan as a counterweight to the US-India axis.

What must occur to settle the current escalation and to prevent future violence from occurring between India and Pakistan? 

There are a few things. First, Pakistan has to come to grips with the terrorism problem within its own sovereign borders. The only way that is possible is for the civilian government to be able to wrestle away some power from the military and intelligence establishment. Until the civilian leadership can do that, the military and intelligence apparatus will be able to work with relative autonomy and continue to patronize militant groups. Second, India also has to look in the mirror. Violence in Jammu and Kashmir--India’s only majority-Muslim state--has steadily risen over the past few years. There is a danger that more Kashmiris could be radicalized if the sense of alienation and “othering” continues. Right now, it is important to point out that the young man who blew himself up in the Pulwama attack on February 14th was an Indian national from Kashmir. Yes, he was radicalized by JeM. But, at the end of the day, he was an Indian citizen. India has to remain vigilant about the potential for domestic conditions in Jammu and Kashmir to spiral out of control. This is a domestic, political, and governance issue that successive Indian governments have been unable to solve.

The U.S. has traditionally tried to restrain both sides during crisis. Why has the Trump administration refused to fill the role of peacemaker this time?

The Trump Administration certainly did not have as public a role in defusing the conflict as past administrations have. This was especially true in the initial aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Indian soil. However, what we are learning now, is that there was quite a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy happening between Washington and New Delhi and Washington and Islamabad to send messages. It is true that in past cases in which India has been the victim of terrorism, the United States has condemned the violence, but asked India to exercise strategic restraint in mounting a military response. This time around, the Trump Administration did not ask for that restraint. The United States affirmatively stated that India had a right to act in its own self defense. That was a significant difference. Privately, however, Washington was working with both capitals to make sure that this particular cycle of violence did not get out of control. Whether it was because of the American intervention or not, it seems major combat thankfully has ended for now.

Ellie Wainstein CMC'19Student Journalist

Photograph courtesy of Mr. Vaishnav.

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