How the India-Pakistan Conflict Leaves Great Powers Powerless

The U.S. helped prevent war in 2008. Those days are gone.

Indian villagers run following shelling across the India-Pakistan border in Jhora village  on January 20, 2018.
( -/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian villagers run following shelling across the India-Pakistan border in Jhora village on January 20, 2018. ( -/AFP/Getty Images)

A decade ago, the world watched in disbelief as terrorists from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group ripped through the Indian financial capital of Mumbai. By the time the 10 attackers were stopped four days after the assault began, they had killed 164 people—Americans and other foreign nationals among them—and left over 300 injured. India’s 9/11, as the Indian media dubbed it, had unfolded. India, having long seen the Lashkar-e-Taiba as a direct proxy of the Pakistani intelligence outfit, the Inter-Services Intelligence, blamed the Pakistani state for having directed the attack. A near-war crisis between the two nuclear neighbors ensued in its wake, offering a stark reminder why U.S. President Bill Clinton termed this part of the world “the most dangerous place” on Earth at the turn of the century.

Ten years after the Mumbai attacks on November 26, 2008, the Indian-Pakistani rivalry remains as entrenched as ever. While the two countries have avoided major wars, they continue to flirt with crises and have been engaged in low-intensity conflict in the disputed territory of Kashmir. This has unfolded in an environment devoid of any robust crisis management mechanisms aimed at reducing the risk of inadvertent escalation and providing dependable ways of directly negotiating a way out of a crisis. With nuclear weapons in the mix, the consequences of escalation could be catastrophic—and the possibility of such an outcome is greater today than it was on the eve of the Mumbai attacks.

India and Pakistan came “fleetingly close” to war during the Mumbai crisis, but fortunate circumstances prevented a military clash. The attacks came on the back of the single most promising peace process the two have ever had. The overall aura of positivity and the trusted channels of communication created through their five-year peace bid helped relieve tensions. A dovish Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh—who was genuinely interested in peace with Pakistan and hesitant to use military force to settle disputes, especially in South Asia’s nuclearized environment—also led India to forego the military option, even as the Indian public and media were calling for blood. Most importantly, third-party states, led by the United States, played crucial mediatory roles and were instrumental in nudging India and Pakistan to end the crisis.

This third-party role is often glossed over—partly because neither India nor Pakistan wants to acknowledge how heavily they tend to rely on outside actors in crisis moments despite being nuclear powers. And yet, the centrality of U.S. crisis management in nuclear South Asia has been not only consistent but also a vital substitute for the missing bilateral escalation control mechanisms between India and Pakistan. Washington was also critical to crisis termination in the previous major crises under the nuclear umbrella: a 1999 limited war in Kashmir and a 10-month military standoff in late 2001 and 2002. U.S. success in all these cases was dependent on its ability to use real-time intelligence to clarify misunderstandings between the two antagonists and to step in with a mixture of threats and concessions to force them to pull back at moments when war seemed inevitable.


None of the pacifying dynamics at play in the past necessarily hold today. The Mumbai attacks abruptly ended the peace process itself. Since then, bilateral tensions have remained high. Diplomatic dialogue between the two remains suspended. India’s nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made total cessation of cross-border militancy emanating from Pakistan a prerequisite for formal dialogue.

India and Pakistan have also failed to conclude any confidence-building measures on terrorism over the past decade. Prior arrangements, like the joint anti-terrorism mechanism that was concluded in 2006, lie dormant. Attempts to collaborate on investigations of terrorist incidents, including of the Mumbai attacks, have failed, with both sides blaming the other. This puts India and Pakistan in a decidedly worse position to work together to thwart potential crisis triggers or to manage risks during crises than they were in on the eve of the Mumbai attacks.

At the same time, terrorism remains an ever-present danger. Even though no attacks on the scale of Mumbai have occurred since, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other anti-India terrorist outfits in the region remain active. Pakistan claims it lacks the capacity to neutralize these groups, arguing that it has had to channel all its counterterrorism focus and resources to fighting the existential threat posed to it by the Pakistani Taliban and other domestically focused groups. However, India alleges continued active Pakistani support for militants and frames their periodic strikes on Indian soil as directed by the Pakistani state. Indian leaders therefore feel justified in directly punishing the Pakistani state for the anti-India terrorism perpetrated by these groups.

Other transnational terrorist outfits, such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda, have also expanded their footprint in the region, further complicating the threat spectrum for both countries. These groups are sworn enemies of both states, and their goal of destabilizing the region would be well served by thrusting the two nuclear neighbors into war. Hindu extremist forces in India could also spark a crisis. These forces, increasingly emboldened within India under Modi, have previously targeted Pakistani citizens in a bid to derail India-Pakistan relations. Pakistan has been increasingly vocal and aggressive in alleging Indian support of terrorist incidents in Pakistan.

Terrorism isn’t the only worry. The “Line of Control” that divides Indian and Pakistani control of Kashmir is also a likely flashpoint. Violence levels along the Line of Control were the highest in 15 years in 2017, with violations of a cease-fire agreed to in 2003 consisting of prolonged and often significant military hostilities.

While Indian and Pakistani officials acknowledged rising tensions, both militaries believe that low-level military exchanges at this local level would not escalate to a major India-Pakistan crisis. Yet, unlike the pre-2003 period, the mushrooming of news media in both countries has meant that today’s incidents in Kashmir create media frenzies, forcing bellicose rhetoric and raising tensions. In 2016, Modi famously broke from his predecessor’s policy of restraint to order so-called surgical strikes across the Line of Control in retaliation for a terrorist attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir that his government blamed on Pakistan. Last year, Indian claims of Pakistani rocket and mortar firing across the line, and the subsequent killing of Indian soldiers, created a standoff as national leaders on both sides threatened punishment and direct military action. Late last month, the Pakistani army chief directly warned India over its increased cease-fire violations on the Line of Control. These are precisely the kind of dynamics that can stoke war frenzy and raise a government’s political costs of inaction, eventually making an escalatory response more likely.


Still, arguably the most unnerving aspect of the South Asian dynamic is the continued absence of dependable escalation control protocols. India and Pakistan know how to enter a crisis, but they have not agreed to measures aimed at limiting escalation in an ongoing episode, let alone ones aimed at terminating a crisis altogether. Adding to the conundrum are Indian and Pakistani force modernization and investments in destabilizing platforms and postures.

Since the Mumbai attacks, India has acknowledged the presence of its (previously denied) Pakistan-specific limited war doctrine, popularly dubbed “Cold Start.” Through Cold Start, it seeks to use military force below Pakistan’s (assumed) threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Notably, one of the attractions of the doctrine for Indian planners is that it can be employed swiftly enough to forestall the possibility of international pressure to hold India back from using force against Pakistan. Pakistan has developed a tactical nuclear weapon capability in response, which potentially further lowers its threshold for employing nuclear weapons, considerably reducing the time available to third parties seeking de-escalation to respond.

The risks associated with this dynamic are especially acute given the potentially compromised positions third-party mediators may find themselves in going forward. In the past, as the United States and other states stepped in to mediate, India and Pakistan willingly transferred the crisis management burden on to them, asking them to pressure the other to concede ground. The countries’ recognition that they were unprepared to manage the dangers of escalation on their own led them to do so. Over time, however, this dynamic has generated an expectation of U.S. bailouts.

The trouble is that all previous crises occurred at a time when U.S. global supremacy and moral legitimacy were far more entrenched, and great-power competition had not resurged the way it has in the past two years. In past instances of crisis management, states like China and Russia did not try to outcompete the United States. In fact, all third-party states prioritized de-escalation over their larger foreign-policy and security interests, presenting a united front to India and Pakistan and preventing them from playing one third party against the other. This third-party convergence proved crucial to ensuring de-escalation of crises.

The situation is radically different today. The U.S. National Defense Strategy now explicitly points to great-power rivals as the greatest threat to U.S. national security—ahead of terrorism and nuclear cataclysm. Competition between the United States, China, and Russia for influence in South Asia is only intensifying. In Afghanistan, their competitive policies are directly undermining prospects for peace—even though all three countries profess to be working toward the common goal of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. These new great-power dynamics can easily weaken U.S. resolve and ability to lead and coordinate a crisis management approach in the region.

Shifting alliance structures in South Asia may further complicate the management of India-Pakistan crises. India now sees the U.S. role in a crisis with Pakistan as a litmus test of America’s sincerity as a strategic partner. The U.S.-Indian partnership—as well as the all-but-broken U.S.-Pakistani relationship—has raised expectations among many in India that Washington will back New Delhi to punish Islamabad in a future crisis. Pakistani leaders, for their part, hope that China will come to their country’s rescue. If great-power competition influences third parties to prioritize these alliances or to use India and Pakistan as proxies for their great-power gains over the immediate goal of crisis termination, they could transform from being agents of de-escalation to drivers of escalation.

Even as these great powers have focused the global nuclear debate in recent times on rogue states like North Korea and Iran, the South Asian nuclear equation remains unstable enough to continue warranting Clinton’s damning characterization of the region nearly two decades ago.

The world needs to encourage India and Pakistan to reduce the risk of war in the region and help the two neighbors restart an active peace process aimed at addressing underlying issues that cause crises to occur—their outstanding disputes, principally Kashmir, and continued operations by terrorist outfits in the region being the two most pertinent ones. In addition to focusing on crisis prevention, India and Pakistan need to work on creating dependable escalation control mechanisms before the next crisis emerges. At a minimum, this requires enhanced crisis-time communication channels between both countries’ civilian and military leaderships.

Broader risk reduction measures, including revisiting doctrines that make war and use of nuclear weapons more likely, are also crucial. Meanwhile, the United States and other great powers with influence in South Asia must remain prepared to mediate a future crisis. Their success in doing so will depend on their ability to isolate their larger competition from the overbearing need to ensure the absence of an India-Pakistan nuclear war—a decidedly more difficult task now than it was a decade ago.

The 10th anniversary of the Mumbai attacks should serve as a somber reminder, not only of the tragedy but also of just how real the prospect of another crisis remains a decade later.

Moeed Yusuf is the 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.