It’s still the most dangerous border on Earth. Yet compared to the recent tweets of President Donald Trump, it remains a marginal news story. That doesn’t for a moment diminish the chance that the globe’s first (and possibly ultimate) nuclear conflagration could break out along that 480-mile border known as the Line of Control (and, given the history that surrounds it, that phrase should indeed be capitalized). The casus belli would undoubtedly be the more than seven-decades-old clash between India and Pakistan over the contested territory of Kashmir. Like a volcano, this unresolved dispute rumbles periodically — as it did only weeks ago — threatening to spew its white-hot lava to devastating effect not just in the region but potentially globally as well.
The trigger for renewed rumbling is always a sensational terrorist attack by a Pakistani militant group on an Indian target. That propels the India’s leadership to a moral high ground. From there, bitter condemnations of Pakistan are coupled with the promise of airstrikes on the training camps of the culprit terrorist organizations operating from the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. As a result, the already simmering relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors are quickly raised to a boiling point. This, in turn, prompts the United States to intervene and pressure Pakistan to shut down those violent jihadist groups. To placate Washington, the Pakistani government goes through the ritual of issuing banning orders on those groups, but in practice, any change is minimal.
And in the background always lurks the possibility that a war between the two neighbors could lead to a devastating nuclear exchange. Which means that it’s time to examine how and why, by arraying hundreds of thousands of troops along that Line of Control, India and Pakistan have created the most perilous place on Earth.
How It All Began
The Kashmir dispute began with the birth of the kicking twins — Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan — as independent countries. They emerged from the belly of the dying British Raj in August 1947. The princely states in British India were given the option of joining either of the new nations. The dithering Hindu ruler of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir (its full title) finally signed a legally binding instrument of accession with New Delhi after his realm was invaded by armed tribal raiders from Pakistan. This document offered that state’s citizens the chance to choose between the two countries once peace had been restored. This has not happened so far and there is no credible prospect that it will.
After the 1947-1948 Indo-Pakistani War that followed independence, India was left in control of almost two-thirds of the princely state (18% of which it lost to China in the Sino-Indian War of 1962). Crucially, the 45% of the former princely state that remained in its hands included the Vale of Kashmir. Guarded by snow-capped mountain peaks, covered with verdant forests of fir and pine, carpeted by wild flowers in the spring, and irrigated by the Jhelum River, it has been described by poets and others as “paradise on Earth.” Its population of seven million is 96% Muslim. And it is this territory that is coveted by Pakistan.
In 1989, having secured the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan after a 10-year struggle, some of the Afghan Mujahedin (“Holy Warriors”), including Pakistani militants, turned their attention to liberating Indian-controlled Kashmir. In this, they had the active backing of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, of Pakistan’s army. Earlier, the ISI had acted as the conduit for channeling U.S. and Saudi-supplied weapons and cash to the Mujahedin coalition.
At that time, the two Pakistani groups in the Mujahedin coalition, which always harbored an anti-Indian agenda, emerged front and center. They were the Jaish-e Mohammad (Army of Mohammad) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), led respectively by Masoud Azhar and Hafiz Saeed. Working with those Kashmiris who wanted their state to secede from India, they soon began to resort to terrorist acts.
The Indian government responded with draconian measures. In July 1990, it passed the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, or AFJKSP, a law that authorized the state government to declare any part of Jammu and Kashmir a “disturbed area,” where the Indian army would be free to shoot anyone acting in contravention of “any law” or in possession of a deadly weapon. Indian forces could now arrest people suspected of committing any offense without a warrant or enter and search any premises to make such arrests. In other words, from then on, the armed forces had carte blanche legal immunity to do whatever they wished without the slightest accountability.
Yet resistance to Indian rule did not subside. In fact, the slogan “Azadi” (Freedom) caught on, emboldening both terror groups to jointly launch an audacious attack on the Indian Parliament building on December 20, 2001, with the aim of taking lawmakers hostage. (They were bravely blocked by armed guards.) In the crisis that followed, the mobilized armies of the two neighbors, each already a declared nuclear power, faced off across their international border and the Line of Control in Kashmir. Pressured by Washington, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf banned the two terror organizations in January 2002. Yet both of them soon resurfaced under different names.
In June 2002, at a regional conference in the Kazakh city of Almaty, Musharraf assailed then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for ignoring the wishes of the Kashmiri people. “The possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances,” he stated grimly, refusing to commit his country (as India had) to a “no first use” policy on nuclear arms. Vajpayee accused him of “nuclear blackmail.” At home, however, Musharraf’s hardline stance was applauded by the militant groups.
Over the years, the crisis only deepened. In November 2008, for instance, working with the ISI, the operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and two other inns. After a 60-hour siege, 166 people, including 28 foreigners, were dead. Despite initial denials, Pakistan would finally acknowledge that the Mumbai conspiracy was, in part, hatched on its soil, and place Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Saeed under house arrest. But no charges would be leveled against him and he would, in the end, be released.
After the Mumbai carnage, Jaish-e Mohammad’s chief, Azhar, kept a low profile for several years, only to reappear publicly in 2014, issuing fiery calls for more attacks on India (and the United States as well). In September 2016, his fighters stormed an army camp in Uri, an Indian garrison town near the Line of Control, killing 19 soldiers.
With the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, under Narendra Modi gaining power in New Delhi in 2014, repression of the Muslim separatist movement in Kashmir only intensified. Within three years, the number of security personnel — army troops, paramilitaries, border guards, federal armed policemen, state policemen, and intelligence agents — had reached 470,000 in Jammu and Kashmir, which had a population of only 14.1 million. As a result, the proportion of local Kashmiris among anti-Indian fighters only rose.
A Sensational Terrorist Attack
This February 14th, a 19-year-old suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, drove a car bomb into an Indian convoy heading for Kashmir’s capital city, Srinagar. At least 40 Indian paramilitary troops were killed — the worst such attack in the troubled history of the state. Jaish-e Mohammad proudly claimed responsibility.
After dropping out of his village school, Dar had gone to work in a neighbor’s sawmill. During a four-month-long protest sparked by the killing of a popular 22-year-old local militant leader, Burhan Wani, in July 2016, Indian troops gunned down nearly 100 protestors, while injuring 15,000, including Dar. In response, he crossed the Line of Control and joined Jaish-e Mohammad. In the wake of his suicide attack, Indian soldiers raided the home of his parents, locked them inside, and set it on fire. And so it continues in the officially “disturbed” Kashmir.
In response to the deaths of the soldiers (and keenly aware of an upcoming nationwide election), Prime Minister Modi exploited the situation for political ends. He turned popular grief into an emotive and prolonged commemoration of those military deaths. TV networks focused on the flag-draped coffins of the slain troops, while local BJP candidates followed their hearses. The cremations were telecast live, while Modi proclaimed that “the security forces have been given complete freedom. The blood of the people is boiling.”
On February 26th, temporarily released from civilian control, the Indian military launched a “pre-emptive” air strike on an alleged Jaish-e Mohammad training camp near Balakot, six miles inside Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The last time the air forces of either country had crossed the international border was during their 1971 war.
India claimed to have killed more than 300 militants, but Islamabad reported that the Indian bombs had actually hit a totally deserted site. (This would be confirmed later by satellite analysis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute which concluded that no damage had been done to the hilltop facility India claimed to have struck.) The next day Pakistan announced that, in a dogfight between warplanes of the two countries, an Indian fighter jet had been shot down and its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, captured.
India angrily demanded that he be set free immediately. On February 28th, while announcing the pilot’s release during a televised address, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan warned against miscalculation and the explosive potential for such aerial skirmishes to escalate into a wider conflict in the most dangerous environment on the planet. He said, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think that, if this escalates, what will it lead to?”
This was a barely disguised reference to the devastating nuclear arsenals that the two South Asian neighbors now possess, with 135 nukes in New Delhi’s possession and 145 in Islamabad’s. Those arsenals are more than capable of causing havoc far beyond South Asia. It’s estimated that even a “moderate” Indo-Pakistani nuclear conflict could create a global “nuclear winter,” killing directly or indirectly up to a billion people as crops failed and starvation stalked the Earth.
Those Nuclear Arsenals
Pakistan’s arsenal now includes tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) with “low” explosive power for battlefield use. In 2011, it tested its first one successfully. Since then, according to Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan, author of Nuclear South Asia: Keywords and Concepts, Pakistan is believed to have assembled four or five of these annually. They are to be fired from the Nasr, a short-range missile. Two successful tests of it were conducted this January.
Islamabad began producing and deploying TNWs after India adopted a “Cold Start” military contingency plan to punish unacceptable Pakistani provocations like mass-casualty terror strikes. After repeated denials, in early 2017, India’s army chief finally acknowledged the existence of the plan, involving the creation of eight division-size integrated battle groups (IBGs). Each is to consist of infantry, artillery, armor, and air support and is to be able to operate independently on the battlefield. In response to major terrorist attacks from Pakistan or by Pakistani-based groups, the IBGs are to rapidly penetrate that country at unexpected locations and advance up to 30 miles beyond the border, disrupting command-and-control networks while trying to avoid locations likely to trigger nuclear retaliation. In other words, the goal is to be able to launch an overwhelming conventional strike swiftly but in a limited fashion in order to ward off a Pakistani nuclear response. Overall, India’s contingency plan assumes unrealistically that, in the heat of the battle, leaders on both sides will remain calm and rational.
Responding to Islamabad’s production of theater nuclear weapons, New Delhi initiated a super-secret nuclear program revealed only in December 2015, thanks to an investigation by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. A top-secret, government-run, $100 million rare materials plant near the city of Mysore in southern India now houses a nuclear enrichment complex that has been operating since 2012. It feeds the country’s nuclear weapons program and, far more ominously, has laid the foundation for an ambitious Indian hydrogen bomb project.
To consternation in world capitals, it was also revealed that this plant has a larger twin 160 miles north of Mysore in southern India that goes by the innocuous name of the Aeronautical Test Range. Conceived in March 2007 by the defense ministry, its construction started in 2012 on nearly 13 square miles of land. It is to become the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic-research laboratories, and weapons- and aircraft-testing facilities after its completion in 2020. Among the project’s aims is to expand the government’s nuclear research, to produce fuel for the country’s nuclear reactors, and to help power its fleet of new nuclear submarines. This nuclear city is to be protected by a ring of military garrisons, turning the site into a virtual military facility, which also means that it will not be open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its overarching aim is to give the country an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel that could be used to create hydrogen bombs and so further enhance the power of India’s already devastating nuclear arsenal.
Both of these projects are directed by the office of the prime minister. India’s Atomic Energy Act and its Official Secrets Act have placed everything linked to the country’s nuclear program under wraps. In the past, those who tried to find out more about these activities were bludgeoned into silence.
According to Gary Samore, an Obama-era White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, “India intends to build thermonuclear weapons as part of its strategic deterrent against China. It is unclear when India will realize this goal of a larger and more powerful arsenal, but they will.” Once manufactured, however, nothing would block India from deploying them against Pakistan. “India is now developing very big bombs, hydrogen bombs that are city-busters,” commented Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy. “It is not interested in [producing] nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield; it is developing nuclear weapons for eliminating population centers.”
In other words, while India has long been in a nuclear arms race with Pakistan, it is no longer sticking to the same race course. In late March, Modi announced that India recently launched a rocket successfully shooting down one of its satellites. This creates the possibility that, in a future nuclear war with Pakistan, it could preemptively “blind” the Pakistanis by destroying their space-based communication and surveillance satellites. A race of another kind could be in the offing.
The central motive that drove Pakistan to develop its nuclear arsenal, however, remains unchanged. It was the only way Islamabad could deter New Delhi from defeating it in a war waged with conventional weapons. India’s 2.14 million-strong military, equipped with 5,967 artillery pieces, 4,500 tanks, and 2,216 aircraft, is significantly larger and better armed than Pakistan’s 1.55 million soldiers, 3,745 artillery, 2,700 tanks, and 1,143 aircraft. In addition, New Delhi’s annual defense budget of $55.9 billion is more than five times Islamabad’s $10.8 billion.
Little wonder that, in his February 28th televised address, while announcing the Indian pilot’s release, Prime Minister Khan suggested that the two sides “should sit down and resolve our problems through dialogue.” He claimed that his own political party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (the Pakistan Movement for Justice), and the country’s powerful military were “all on one page” in wishing to mend fences with India.
Pakistan’s Belated Suppression of Violent Jihadists
In late February, India handed over to Pakistan a dossier with information on Jaish-e Mohammad, its top leadership, and their involvement in several terror attacks. Islamabad initially said that the dossier was being “examined.” However, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi added that his government could act against Masoud Azhar only if New Delhi provided “solid, inalienable evidence” strong enough to convince the country’s judiciary.
And yet on March 8th, the Pakistani government acted, launching a crackdown on leading terrorist groups. Among other things, it outlawed the Jamaat-ud Dawa (Society of the Islamic Call), or JuD, a welfare organization that raised funds for Lashkar-e-Taiba. It sealed the banned organization’s headquarters in Lahore as well as more than 200 schools, seminaries, and hospitals it ran. It also banned its chief, Hafiz Saeed, from leading Friday prayers on the sprawling JuD complex and kept him under surveillance.
One key factor that spurred such action was a warning the Pakistani government received on February 22nd from the Paris-based intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It threatened to add Pakistan to its blacklist of non-cooperating countries if, by May, it failed to take specific steps against the financing of terrorism. To be added to the FATF blacklist could mean being sanctioned by most Western nations, a development only likely to deepen Islamabad’s current financial crisis. (Recently, it has had barely enough foreign reserves to pay for two months of imports or service a huge loan it secured from the International Monetary Fund in 2013.)
In January 2018, President Donald Trump had already cancelled plans for Washington to give Pakistan $1.3 billion in military aid and had imposed sanctions on the country for its support of terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban. On Twitter, he accused Pakistan of “providing nothing but lies and deceit.” Soon after, the FATF placed Pakistan on its “gray list.”
Still, none of that proved sufficient to compel Pakistan’s powerful military high command to cede its traditional monopoly on national security and foreign policy decision-making, including its covert backing of anti-Indian extremist groups through the ISI. Only when pressure continued to build, bolstered by fresh urging from Washington, London, and Paris, was a critical mass reached that made those generals finally fall in line with recently elected Prime Minister Khan’s more conciliatory stance toward India.
Now, the international community can only hope that the carnage and chaos of February was the last in a tragic series of encounters between nuclear neighbors that could otherwise lead South Asia to devastation and the world to nuclear winter.
Dilip Hiro is a TomDispatch regular and the author of 37 books, including The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan . His newest book, Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Struggle for Supremacy, has just been published.