Challenges in Pakistan-India Relations

Riaz Mohammad Khan

(Originally published in Sameer Lalwani and Hannah Haegeland (eds.), Investigating Crises: South Asia’s Lessons, Evolving Dynamics, and Trajectories, Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2018, 75-95.)

Relations between Pakistan and India are largely a story of rivalry, conflict, and a failure to address disputes, yet there are bright spots where the leadership of the two countries have demonstrated good sense by containing a crisis or conflict or successfully resolving issues of such seminal importance as the sharing of rivers. On several occasions in the past, the two countries have shown the capacity to manage, if not prevent, crises. More than ever before there is a need to institutionalize this capacity. These two neighbors with expanding nuclear arsenals can no longer afford the risk of an all-out mutually destructive war. From this perspective, I examine lessons learned from past crises and look at what can be done to minimize the risk of conflict in terms of crisis management, counterterrorism, and stable normalized bilateral relations.

Paradoxically, the unremitting hostility between the two countries, which is partly rooted in the traumatic circumstances of their independence, exists alongside a reservoir of centuries of common experience and cultural overlap that made plausible such acts of native diplomacy as former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s participation in the inaugural ceremony of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and the latter’s surprise detour to Lahore in December 2015 to attend his Pakistani counterpart’s granddaughter’s wedding. But in early 2016, attacks by a handful of militants on the Pathankot and Uri bases against the backdrop of sustained youth agitation in the Kashmir Valley have erased the impact, if any, of the two reciprocal gestures. As long as the two countries are unable to resolve their current and recurring disputes and conflicts, they will continue to sow seeds of crises that can spiral unexpectedly to the existential threat of all-out conflict.

There is no dearth of potential communication channels between the two sides. A much larger number of people in both countries favor normalization of the bilateral relationship than believe that Pakistan and India are in a permanent quasi-ideological deadlock. However, these promising sentiments cannot always restrain a developing crisis or substitute for formal mechanisms and active communication channels to prevent or defuse a conflict situation. Over the decades, the two countries have resorted to formal and informal mechanisms, including international, regional, bilateral, and third-party mediations that have been largely ad hoc and dependent on the evolving crisis situation. This pattern is inadequate for two nuclear armed neighbors. India and Pakistan need permanent and reliable institutional mechanisms for diplomatic and political contacts to prevent or handle crises.

Section one of this essay considers the background and nature of past India-Pakistan crises and conflicts, while section two reviews the existing confidence-building measure (CBM) regime. Section three lays out several proposals for achieving lasting normalcy in bilateral relations and improving counterterrorism efforts and crisis management mechanisms. It concludes with specific proposals for improving crisis management, including backchannel communications, bilateral summits, and doctrinal shifts.

Crisis Anatomy: Lessons from Past Conflicts and Crises  

The Background of Conflict in South Asia: Kashmir

The Kashmir dispute lies at the heart of Pakistan-India tensions and conflict. Pakistan regards Kashmir as an unfinished agenda of the partition of British India and emphasizes the Kashmiris’ right to choose between the two successor states. India anchors its position in a controversial accession document.1Josef Korbel, Danger in Kashmir (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 84-85. Immediately after independence, when fighting broke out over Kashmir, India took the matter to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) which called for a ceasefire and plebiscite, followed by several U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan resolutions to sort out differences on procedure and conditions.2Of particular importance are U.N. Security Council Resolution 47 of April 21, 1948 and Resolution 98 of December 23, 1952, as well as U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan Resolutions of August 13, 1948, and January 5, 1949. Initially, the question of withdrawing troops as well as Pakistan-backed tribesmen from the state territory proved insurmountable. Later, India demurred on the resolutions and invoked circumstantial changes following Pakistan’s membership in U.S.sponsored alliances in the mid-1950s.3A.G. Noorani, The Kashmir Dispute 1947-2012, vol. 2 (New Delhi: Tulik Books, 2013), 25-27. During the intermittent negotiations over the years, India insisted on formalizing the status quo.

Kashmir stirs deep emotions in Pakistan as a large segment of the population in eastern Punjab shares common ethnicity in addition to centuries old cultural links. On the other hand, India regards the part of Kashmir under its control as a symbol of India’s multi-religious and multicultural democratic persona.

Efforts to resolve Kashmir gradually shifted from the UNSC-recommended plebiscite to focus on subregions of the erstwhile princely state, as evident in the 1950 Owen Dixon plan.4For a history on the Dixon plan, see A.G. Noorani, “The Dixon Plan,” Frontline 19, no. 21, October 2002. For a quick review of various Kashmir peace plans, see Muzamil Jaleel, “A Guide to Kashmir Peace Plans,” The Guardian, January 22, 2002. This subregional approach — echoed five decades later in the four-point formula — evolved through back channel diplomacy initiated by President Pervez Musharaf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.5Kashmir Study Group, Kashmir: A Way Forward (Larchmont: Kashmir Study Group, 2005). The subregional approach implicitly concedes that a new political dispensation is required for areas of large Kashmiri demographics, especially the valley where political alienation and agitation is chronic and exerts constant pressure on New Delhi to look for an acceptable settlement.6See Sameer Lalwani, “Valley of the Brawls: Tensions Rise in Kashmir,” Foreign Affairs, February 11, 2016. Also see March 2016 comments on the recent rift between Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party in India-administered Kashmir.

The 1948 and 1965 India-Pakistan Wars were centered on Kashmir and ended in a ceasefire through active UNSC intercession. The 1965 war prompted an ex-traregional mediation effort by the Soviet Union resulting in the 1966 Tashkent Declaration. The third ceasefire, formalized under UNSC Resolution 307, came in December 1971 when India took advantage of a civil war situation to intervene militarily to break up Pakistan. The episode was unrelated to Kashmir, but the cessation of hostilities on the western front established a new Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and led to the bilaterally negotiated Simla Agreement, which is among the foundational documents meant to govern post-1971 relations between the two countries.

Other Disputes, Conflicts, and Crises

The background of other disputes provides the necessary context for how conflicts and crises developed and were managed in the past and what lessons can be gleaned from their successful management and de-escalation.

The Rann of Kutch War and Sir Creek. A mini-war broke out in December 1964 along the border of the Pakistani province of Sindh and the Indian state of Gujarat. Each side had differing historical claims relating to the boundary demarcation going back to the British decision to separate Sindh province from the Bombay Confederacy in the early 20th century. Skirmishes continued until May 1965 when, as a result of British mediation, the two countries agreed to a ceasefire and to refer the dispute to an international tribunal. The Rann of Kutch award settled the boundary except for its westernmost extremity of Sir Creek for want of survey. Pakistan claims the boundary lies on the eastern bank of the creek, as indicated on a hand-drawn map of 1914 delineating the southern boundary of Sindh. India invokes the Thalweg principle of international law.7For more on the Thalweg doctrine, see “Rule of the Thalweg,” Oxford Reference, oi/authority.20110803103515186. To make matters more complicated, over the century the topography of the creek and adjoining area have changed considerably. The differing claims are quantifiable to an area of about 74 square kilometers of the creek surface and over a thousand square kilometers of exclusive economic zone. The issue is essentially technical. Under a period of improved relations in 2006, there was a minor diplomatic breakthrough for a survey of the area.8The two sides had agreed on the need to survey the creek for depths. But progress remained stalled as they could not agree on the mouth of the estuary. In 2005, an innovative approach was agreed to survey an area enclosing the creek within a parallelogram of arbitrarily selected coordinates without prejudice to the positions of the two sides. The selection took more than six months which pushed the survey to winter 2007 when the political environment started unraveling. However, even this bilateral progress required both an innovative approach and significant political push despite good India-Pakistan relations that year.

Siachen. Since the 1972 Simla Agreement, military hostilities have been a frequent occurrence along the LoC and have shaped two significant conflicts aimed at territorial acquisition. In the 1984 Siachen dispute, India launched Operation Meghdoot to push its military presence over the Siachen Glacier, which today is the highest battlefield in the world and where more lives have been lost on account of severe weather conditions than as a result of exchange of fire. If military presence and activities are contributing to the melting of the glacier, the conflict is no less than a monumental ecological disaster in the making for the entire region.9Debarati Mukherjee, “Environmental Impact of Siachen Conflict,” Deutsche Welle, May 1, 2010. Pakistan regards the Indian ingress to be a violation of the Simla Agreement understanding, which proscribed change of the ground (territorial) realties in Kashmir through use of force.10Article 4 (ii) in Simla Agreement of July 2, 1972 states “[i]n Jammu and Kashmir, the line of control resulting from the ceasefire of December 17, 1971, shall be respected by both sides without prejudice to the recognized position of either side. Neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations. Both sides further undertake to refrain from the threat or the use of force in violation of this line.” See Ministry of External Affairs (India), “Simla Agreement July 2, 1972,” July 2, 1972, On the other hand, India invokes the 1949 Karachi Agreement to delimit the erstwhile ceasefire line in Kashmir, which was demarcated up to point NJ9842 and suggests vaguely that beyond this point it should run “thence north to the glaciers.”11“Agreement between Military Representatives of India and Pakistan Regarding the Establishment of a Cease-fire Line in the State of Jammu and Kashmir,” July 29, 1949. Meanwhile, following its provisional boundary agreement with China, Pakistan assumed an imaginary line linking NJ9842 with the Karakoram Pass to be the extended LoC. Efforts to address this low intensity but simmering conflict have been almost exclusively bilateral. India effectively conducted a fait accompli at Siachen, which the Pakistan Army challenged and attempted to dislodge unsuccessfully multiple times. Left unaddressed, this enduring friction point has the potential to feed into future crises.

Operation Brasstacks. The Brasstacks crisis from November 1986 to February 1987 is atypical and therefore merits mention. It was the product of both Pakistan and India misreading each other’s intentions. The newly appointed Indian Army Chief Gen. Krishnaswamy Sunderji planned and initiated a massive military exercise in the Rajasthan desert close to a vulnerable point of the Pakistani border where the main communication arteries connect the southern and northern parts of Pakistan. The exercise mobilized over half a million Indian troops and even included amphibious assault groups. This caused deep concern in Islamabad.12According to Aziz Ahmed Khan, Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner in Delhi at the time, the Pakistani High Commission had started plans for evacuation in case of a conflict. As a precaution and countermeasure, Pakistan redeployed one armored corps with elements closer to the Indian Punjab, stirring deep anxiety in New Delhi because of the large number of Indian troops shifted from the Indian Punjab to take part in the exercise. The resulting tension obliged Pakistan President Zia ul Haq to dispatch Foreign Secretary Abdul Sattar to Delhi. Subtle signals were reportedly conveyed that in case of attack Pakistan was capable of inflicting “unacceptable” damage. By February 1987, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered a winding down of the exercise — now part of case studies taught at Pakistan military war colleges. High-level political engagement was critical to Pakistan’s management strategy for controlling escalation during the Brasstacks crisis.

Kargil. The second major LoC-related conflict in 1999 around the Kargil heights (which Pakistan had lost in 1971) triggered a large crisis in part because it was an incomplete fait accompli and was fought under the nuclear shadow. Kargil took place on the heels of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in May 1998, which established a cycle of overt nuclear deterrence — a most consequential development for relations between the two countries and for strategic balance in the region. With this backdrop, a local Pakistani army command initiated a recapture of the heights during the winter months — when Indian troops traditionally vacated forward posts in the area — which spiraled into full blown hostilities in May 1999. For Pakistan, the move was a mirror image of the Indian ingress in Siachen and on a smaller scale in the Qamar and Chorbatla sectors along the LoC. For India, it was a flagrant violation of the Simla Agreement.

A number of factors contributed to stable management and de-escalation of the Kargil conflict — most notably open communications, India’s calculated choice not to expand the theater of conflict,13Jaswant Singh, “Kargil and Beyond” (speech by Jaswant Singh at India International Center, New Delhi, July 20, 1999). Pakistan’s consistent call for de-escalation, and a face-saving exit from international interest. Importantly, while insisting that Pakistan vacate the occupied heights in Kargil before any discussion, India did not shut off contacts, even those made at the prime minister level and through an informal backchannel. India agreed to receive Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, only to repeat the same message.14Sartaj Aziz, Between Dreams and Realities: Some Milestones in Pakistan’s History (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2009), 269-70. Pakistani political leadership, caught unprepared, embarrassed, and under international pressure, needed a face-saving way to implement its decision to withdraw. This was finally provided by a joint Pakistan-U.S. statement issued when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to Washington on July 4, 1999. The joint statement included a promise of “personal interest” by President Bill Clinton in encouraging the resumption of the dialogue process set out by the Lahore Summit to address all issues including Kashmir.

Twin Peaks. Like the 1999 Kargil conflict, the 2001-2 Twin Peaks crisis caused by the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament and the June 2002 attack on an Indian army camp at Kaluchak took place under the nuclear umbrella. India blamed elements of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) for the attacks. These, and the later November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, offer important case studies for dealing with future challenges. They also provide insight into behavioral patterns of the two countries during crisis situations within the nuclear overhang. After the December 2001 attack, India reacted with Operation Parakram, involving large-scale military mobilization. Pakistan responded with its own military mobilization. As a result, nearly one million troops were in an eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation for over one year. But Pakistan also kept emphasizing the need for de-escalation. As international concern heightened, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the region in May and June 2002 to defuse tensions.15Secretary of State Colin Powell had earlier travelled to Islamabad and Delhi in January 2002 immediately after the attack on India’s Parliament. In June 2002, on the margins of the Asian Security Forum Summit at Almaty, President Vladimir Putin and President Jiang Zemin separately met Indian and Pakistani leaders to bring down tension. The same concern was expressed by NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in their contacts with Islamabad and Delhi. The standoff eased in late 2002. To pave the way for the scheduled South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad, Musharaf declared a unilateral ceasefire along the LoC in October 2003. Unexpectedly, the 2002-3 period of tension was followed by five years of relative peace and sustained negotiations to address a range of issues and witnessed the most substantive effort ever undertaken bilaterally to address Kashmir.

2006-7. While India’s reaction to the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 (26/11) has been forceful and continues to have an effect on efforts to restart dialogue, its response to two preceding incidents, the 2006 Mumbai train bombings and the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombings, were muted. After the 2006 Mumbai train blasts, India stalled the ongoing dialogue, resuming it after a short suspension and following an agreement between the two countries to set up an antiterrorism mechanism. There was no evidence of Pakistan-based operatives behind these blasts. The Indians reacted when it emerged that one of the suspects had fled to Karachi and then onward to the Persian Gulf. The Samjhauta Express bombings clearly had the qualities of local terrorists who wanted to target Pakistanis travelling from Delhi to Lahore. One Indian Army officer who allegedly belonged to an extremist Hindu group, Lt. Col. Purohit, was arrested, but the investigation and court proceedings remain inconclusive.

The Mumbai Attacks. The 2008 Mumbai attacks shocked India as the carnage perpetrated by 10 members of the defunct Pakistan-based LeT played out on TV screens for three days and left more than 160 people dead. Powerful voices within the official Indian circles called for military action targeting LeT or any other similar group to retaliate and assuage inflamed public sentiment. As detailed by former Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon in his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, the Indian leadership — having evaluated all options — decided against military or kinetic action.16Shivshankar Menon, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (Gurugram: Penguin Random House India, 2016) 92-103. Instead, India reacted with strong official and public indignation, launching a forceful media and international campaign demanding action by Pakistan against suspected Pakistan-based accomplices in the attacks and the perceived terrorist sanctuaries inside the country. The purpose was to highlight India as a victim of cross-border terrorism and to put Pakistan on the defensive internationally. This decision was largely responsible for restraining the crisis. The 2008 Mumbai crisis did not lead to military escalation.

From a Pakistani perspective, management mechanisms for the 2008 Mumbai crisis centered on demonstrating good will and supporting prosecution of the guilty parties. The Pakistan government condemned the attacks. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who happened to be in Delhi for talks at the time of the attacks, promised cooperation in any investigation. Pakistan later detained suspects, including alleged mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi. But the court trial remained inconclusive for technical/legal reasons such as inaccessibility to eyewitnesses and to the principal accused, who was arrested by the Indian authorities and later executed in 2012. The Indians dismissed these procedural legal requirements as pretext for prevarication on bringing culprits to justice. They blamed the Pakistan intelligence agency of complicity. India suspended bilateral dialogue with Pakistan and moved terrorism to the center of its concerns. The Mumbai attacks continue to cast a bleak shadow over bilateral relations, inhibiting dialogue and positive movement. Broadly, 26/11 appears to have deeply wounded the Indian psyche.

Pathankot and Uri Incidents. In January 2016 an Indian Air Force base came under attack, resulting in the death of three Indian military personnel and four militants that India suspected of belonging to defunct Pakistan-based JeM. India avoided accusing Pakistan but demanded action. Pakistan’s crisis management strategy mirrored its approach to the 26/11 incident. Pakistan detained some JeM members, placed the group’s leader under house custody, and agreed to cooperate with investigations. Meanwhile, the resumed foreign secretary-level talks in March — where Pakistan expected the revival of comprehensive dialogue — failed to reach any agreement. India insisted that first there should be talks on cooperation on counterterrorism and progress on prosecution of the Pathankot suspects. The Pakistan side could not agree because it was already stung by strong domestic criticism for an unprecedented omission of Kashmir in a bilateral joint communiqué with India issued on the sidelines of the Ufa Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in July 2015. The communiqué had focused on counterterrorism. The joint investigation stalled when a Pakistani investigation team visiting Pathankot averred that the attack incident could have been staged by India to derail talks.

An attack on the Uri military base near the LoC occurred in September 2016. Nineteen security personnel and four militants were killed. India reacted by claiming that it conducted a “surgical strike” against militant camps on the Pakistan side of the LoC and vowed to isolate Pakistan internationally. Pakistan denied any Indian military strike inside its territory. Controversy over the surgical strike aside, the Uri incident snuffed out already fragile hopes for a resumption of bilateral dialogue.

It is also important to note that both the Pathankot and Uri incidents took place against the backdrop of a simmering youth uprising across the valley that intensified with the killing of Kashmiri youth leader Burhan Wani of the Hizbul Mujahideen in July 2016. Since 2015, there have been increased violations of the LoC resulting in both military and civilian casualties and exchange of accusations. Occasional flag-staff meetings are the only active mechanism to locally address and restrain these hostilities. Any other contacts thus far have remained on hold.

The above review of India-Pakistan crises and conflicts shows the wide range of modalities that were utilized by the two countries to address disputes and arrest crises with often questionable success. The most successful methods appear to have been channels of high-level communication and engagement with third-party mediators. However, recent lower-level crises reveal these channels have atrophied and third parties are less engaged. Clearly, the two countries lack established procedures, institutionalized dialogues, or agreed approaches to handle crises. This deficiency is particularly risky since the two countries have crossed the nuclear threshold and are declared nuclear weapon states.

Differing Narratives, Existing CBMs, and Dangerous Strategies

A number of existing India-Pakistan CBMs have proven effective in past crises. The potential utility of these CBMS in preventing and managing future crises, however, is limited because (1) they are vulnerable to competing narratives and domestic pressures, (2) they have not been institutionalized, and (3) they have not evolved alongside shifting military doctrines and capabilities or kept pace with crisis management needs in a changing threat environment.

Differing Narratives

To understand the complexities of Pakistan-India relations and why peace efforts remained short of substantive progress, we need to appreciate the different and often conflicting narratives and perceptions on important issues.

These narratives sharpen under stress, focusing on selective concerns. The ubiquitous media further reinforces polarization of positions. While Mumbai looms large in Indian minds, Pakistanis speak of killings in Gujarat and Kashmir. India points to nonstate actors in Kashmir as terrorists, while Pakistan perceives these actors as freedom fighters. India accuses Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence of complicity in terrorist acts committed inside India; Pakistan charges India’s Research and Analysis Wing of supporting subversive and militant elements inside Pakistan. India rejects Pakistan’s contention that given the nature of extremist militancy and the phenomenon of nonstate actors, terrorist acts cannot be completely prevented and they must not be allowed to stall dialogue.17See the joint statement issued at the end of President Musharraf’s visit to New Delhi on April 18, 2005: “They determined that the peace process is now irreversible” [paragraph 5]. The two leaders pledged that they would not allow terrorism “to impede the peace process” [paragraph 8]. “Joint Statement, India-Pakistan,” Ministry of External Affairs (India), April 18, 2005, Pakistan seeks international intercession/mediation, but India is wary of intervention except on terrorism.

On terrorism, Pakistan’s thinking has evolved. Having been pulled into a conflict with historical roots in the region and the greater Middle East, Pakistan views itself pitted against a wider extremist and sectarian threat and expects the world to appreciate its sacrifices and the much larger challenge it faces. In operations spread over nearly a decade, Pakistan has lost more soldiers than in all wars with India. Pakistan’s own military bases have come under attack, and there is strong suspicion of foreign instigation. Also, Pakistan argues that its counterterrorism efforts must be sensitive to possible right-wing reaction. India, on the other hand, accuses Pakistan of being selective and that it targets only those militants who are a direct threat to Pakistan. Internationally, the Indian stance on terrorism finds resonance. This combined with rising Hindu nationalism in India has stiffened the Indian attitude toward Pakistan. Such divergences have clouded the mindset of the two sides over the years, impeding the mutual accommodation needed for progress in almost every area of prospective cooperation.

Existing CBMs

There are many CBMs currently in place that have sometimes proved useful in past crises, but they are not institutionalized, are vulnerable to domestic pressures, and are not designed to stave off major crises. These CBMs are entirely inadequate for managing crises in a changing environment with evolving military doctrines and capabilities.

Over decades, mainly through bilateral exchanges and intermittent dialogue, the two countries have developed a body of security-related CBMs largely to address the flare up of tensions along the border and the LoC and to check misunderstanding in case of nuclear or missile accidents. These include field commander-level flag-staff meetings, hotlines at military and diplomatic levels, formal agreements for exchange of information in case of nuclear or missile accidents, accidents at sea, advance notification on missile tests, an arrangement for annual exchange of information on location coordinates of nuclear sites as part of a commitment not to target these sites,18For recent analysis on this agreement and the potential for it to be modernized and expanded, see Toby Dalton, “Modernize the South Asia Nuclear Facility ‘Non-Attack’ Agreement,” Stimson Center, Off Ramps Initiative, June 28, 2017, an agreement on prevention of air-space violations, an agreement on advance notice on military exercises, maneuvers, and troop movements, and an agreement between the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency and the Indian Coast Guard.

These measures essentially aim at risk reduction in a peacetime environment. For example, under a 1988 agreement both sides routinely exchange lists of nuclear sites on every first day of the calendar year. Similarly, they notify each other of missile tests a couple of days in advance,19For analysis on this notification regime and how it might be bolstered, see Frank O’Donnell, “Launching an Expanded Missile Flight-Test Notification Regime,” Stimson Center, Off Ramps Initiative, March 23, 2017, which is also international practice. Flag-staff meetings and military contact at the level of director general (military operations) are of an ad hoc character, which also serve as ready mechanisms to de-escalate tension, especially along the LoC and the Working Boundary.20For a list of confidence building measures, see Michael Krepon, “South Asia Confidence-Building Measures (CBM) Timeline,” Stimson Center, April 14, 2017,

The two countries have yet to develop regular and permanent political-level mechanisms, such as was partly the intent of the composite dialogue which was instituted in 1997 to address a range of principal bilateral issues. Regular international and regional conferences and events provide important occasions for leaders to meet on the sidelines to push for forward movement. Yet these meetings do not necessarily take place and become the casualty of the vicissitudes of the prevalent political environment. Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif avoided a formal meeting even though the occasion was provided by the June 2017 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana.

New Dangerous Strategies and Doctrines

A recent set of doctrinal and strategic developments introduce new risks into the regional environment and thus heighten the need for better CBMs and crisis management options. By introducing elements of speed and integration for rapid, decisive military actions, existing CBMs and crisis management mechanisms (like third-party intervention) will no longer have the same capacity to shape events and incentivize restraint.

Since the early 1970s, several attempts to negotiate a serious CBM — namely a nonaggression or no-war pact — have faltered because Pakistan insisted on a mechanism for the resolution of Kashmir, whereas India demanded a commitment by Pakistan not to stir or abet insurgency in Kashmir using nonstate actors. The Indian concern increased as Kashmir was gripped with widespread uprising and protests beginning the late 1980s. The terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the subsequent year-and-half-long military escalation influenced Indian military strategists to conceive of better preparedness for a quick punitive strike in case of a major terrorist act linked to Pakistan. This was the genesis of India’s Cold Start doctrine. The Mumbai attacks further sharpened doctrinal approaches for strategic response and counter-response in the event of similar attacks in the future, including possible ingression into Pakistani territory. Given the conventional imbalance, Pakistani riposte was unconventional and contingent upon justifying the development and use of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off the humiliation of losing territory. This theoretical reprisal, often loosely played out in wargame exercises, led to an assertion by the Indian side that use of any kind of nuclear weapon against Indian military forces anywhere, even if they were to be inside Pakistan, would be regarded as a nuclear attack against India warranting a full nuclear strike.

These doctrines are predicated on conventional and non-conventional measures that can inexorably spiral toward a nuclear exchange. They are not theoretical musings but are instead wedged into the complex matrix of tangible concerns over Kashmir, terrorism, and expanding nuclear capabilities. Despite being fraught with extreme risk, these doctrines are advocated in earnest. This is an apocalyptical scenario regardless of whether or not the doctrines enjoy political blessing. It mimics the worst of Cold War strategies and can arise under the miasma of distrust, rivalry, and hostility between the two countries.

India’s Cold Start doctrine and the equally questionable Pakistani response need cool scrutiny. Punitive action to humiliate and destroy a nuclear-armed military by use of force is as reckless and unacceptable as the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons, however limited in scale, purpose, or intent. The premise that a subconventional (terrorist) act should provoke a massive conventional retaliation, which in turn must be countered by an unconventional (limited nuclear) response, is deeply flawed. The key assumptions underlying this spiral of escalation must be questioned.

These precepts are too dangerous for hardball or wargaming by those steeped in a military culture of suspicion and strategies of action-counteraction. Any scenario inexorably leading to a nuclear exchange or based on a gamble as to who will blink first is insane in the extreme. Such a trajectory should be considered only to develop mutually agreed intercepts, wire trips, and mechanisms. Diplomacy and dialogue must intervene at every point of the trajectory to avert a catastrophe. Resort to international intercession and mechanisms must not be ruled out.

If and when there is requisite political willingness, perhaps motivated by third parties or in the aftermath of the next crisis, there are a litany of new CBM ideas that could be implemented. I propose several in the next section, but many other pragmatic measures have been put forth in recent scholarship, by both seasoned analysts and fresh voices.21For example, see Arka Biswas, “India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs: Focusing on the Sub-Conventional,” South Asian Voices, May 16, 2016; Tanvi Kulkarni, “India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs: A New Approach,” South Asian Voices, May 19, 2016; Sitara Noor, “India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs: Addressing Mutual Concerns,” South Asian Voices, May 17, 2016; and Sobia Paracha, “India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs: Internal Dialogue as Catalyst for Peace?” South Asian Voices, May 18, 2016. Also, see Toby Dalton’s commentary on this series, “What’s the Future of CBMs in South Asia?” South Asian Voices, May 26, 2016; Robert Einhorn and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, The Strategic Chain: Linking Pakistan, India, China, and the United States, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2017); and Stimson Center, Off Ramps Initiative, September 5, 2017,

Explore scholarship from Stimson's Off Ramps Initiative and South Asian Voices online magazine.

What Needs to Be Done?

Three questions arise from the above discussion and analysis. First, what is needed for enduring normalcy in bilateral relations? Second, what must be done to prevent as far as possible incidences of terrorism that have the potential to set off escalation? Third, what is required to manage and arrest a crisis situation from spinning out of control? The first objective may require a longer-term approach, but the other two have urgency. However, none of them will be feasible without serious and sustained dialogue. The international community wants to see such a dialogue initiated not just because it is desirable but also because it is imperative due to the nuclear dimension.

Normalized Relations

An enduring normalization of relations between the two countries depends on the resolution of outstanding issues, Kashmir in particular. As long as Kashmir festers, there will be acts of violence that India will link with elements in Pakistan. India downplays the indigenous alienation that erupts in prolonged protests and agitation, especially in the Kashmir Valley, which represents nearly 54 percent of the population of Indian-administered Kashmir.22Kashmir Study Group, Kashmir. There, India has failed in its attempts over the years to manage Kashmiri disaffection and conflict.23Happymon Jacob, Kashmiri Uprising and India-Pakistan Relations: A Need for Conflict Resolution, Not Management (Paris: Institut français des relations internationales, 2016).

India needs to understand that Kashmiri alienation does not solely stem from Pakistani instigation and that Pakistan gains little by random acts of terrorism that only draw universal opprobrium. Terrorism and extremism are a complex phenomenon. At the government and military levels, Pakistan is showing a commitment to address the challenge. Also, there are better options to bring pressure on Pakistan than trying surgical strikes or, even worse, a blitzkrieg against a nuclear-armed neighbor. On the other hand, Pakistan must establish credibility in dealing with extremist militant groups without distinguishing between their purported objectives. Clearly, it has not been enough to ban LeT and JeM. Stronger measures and proactive policy are required to restrain and discourage these groups whose actions only misrepresent Kashmiri sentiment and distort Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.

The backchannel discussions on the so-called four-point formula on Kashmir had been a substantive effort. Spreading over 2005-6, these discussions focused on the concepts of self-governance within subregions of the territory, softening the LoC for intra-Kashmir travel and commerce, de-militarization, and a joint mechanism to safeguard essential interests of the two countries linked to Kashmir. The purpose was to work out an interim arrangement to bring maximum benefit to the Kashmiris, enabling them to be the masters of their own affairs in their respective subregions. The effort stalled following the 2007 judicial crisis in Pakistan and then the Mumbai terrorist attack in November 2008. The two sides have thus far been unable to resume regular dialogue — a necessary step to establish the confidence needed to revive the peace effort. Barring an unforeseeable change of circumstance, if ever there is a political solution it will be along the lines of the four-point formula.24See Riaz Mohammad Khan, “Kashmir Talks: Reality and Myth,” Dawn, September 11, 2017.

The Siachen dispute is the other issue that, if resolved, can have a significant positive impact on bilateral relations. For Pakistan’s military, Siachen has become a litmus test for India’s willingness to abide by any long-term understandings reached on other political issues. In 1984, the Indian army outsmarted the Pakistani army and captured the glacier and northern ridge of the Saltoro Range. Efforts to resolve this problem go back to 1989, when Prime Minister Gandhi had indicated Indian willingness to vacate the glacier to establish a demilitarized zone. In 1992 and then in 2005, serious proposals were placed on the table to establish a jointly monitored zone of disengagement. Indian concern for demarcation of the present Line of Actual Control was accommodated by making a schedule of disengagement an integral part of the formal agreement. Despite Prime Minister Singh’s publicly expressed support for turning the glacier in a “zone of peace,” it soon became apparent that the Indian defense establishment and the Indian top brass were opposed to vacating the glacier.25See Sanjaran Baru, “The Accidental Prime Minister,” The Times of India, April 12, 2014. Baru was a former top aide to the Indian prime minister and blames the Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony and Army Chief J.J. Singh for scuttling the initiative. In his book How India Sees the World, former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran opined that this was a missed opportunity.26Shyam Saran, How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century (New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2017); Karan Thapar, “When History Failed to Turn: Shyam Saran’s Book ‘How India Sees the World’ Identifies Two ‘Missed Moments,’” Business Standard, September 5, 2017. Pakistan was ready to accept any monitoring arrangement to assuage Indian anxiety about the Pakistan Army taking advantage of the disengagement process. Besides this, any military move by Pakistan across the Saltoro Ridge made no military sense.

Following the 2011 Gayari avalanche in which over 140 Pakistani soldiers lost their lives, the Pakistan Army became more insistent on addressing the issue. Progress at this juncture could have had a positive psychological impact on bilateral relations, but India was only prepared to discuss the issue along with Kashmir. Thus, Kashmir and Siachen appear to have become binary problems to be resolved together, if and when addressed. Given its ecological dimension, Siachen is more than a simple territorial issue. If a jointly monitored and managed disengagement zone is established, Siachen can transform from a point of conflict to an arena of cooperation for the preservation of the glacier and the surrounding ecologically sensitive topography. This can be a path-breaking cooperative enterprise. Sir Creek lends itself to technically innovative solutions, including the possibility of turning it into a sanctuary and a jointly managed zone. But, it is comparatively less important and is unlikely to generate enthusiasm for resolution as a standalone issue.

Pakistani thinking often places emphasis on the final resolution of political disputes as the key to normalization of bilateral relations. Before the current demand on first addressing terrorism, Indian thinking had long advocated gradualist, incremental confidence building, opening trade and transit routes as well as cultural exchanges, and building a better environment conducive to resolving disputes. Experience shows that trade relaxation and increased cultural exchanges have proved to be fragile underpinnings for progress toward normalization. Take for example trade. Each time there is a spike in tension, negotiations on trade are interrupted and remain inconclusive. There were positive developments in 2013-14, with a substantive increase in exportable commodities and agreements on rationalizing tariffs, customs facilitation, and establishing banking facilities. The Pathankot and Uri incidents derailed everything. A free trade arrangement envisaged under SAARC and agreements for visa relaxation are in limbo. Travel and commerce across the LoC as worked out in 2005-6 have steadily declined. The relations are accident prone. One terrorist act, a flurry of ceasefire violations, agitation in Kashmir, or even a change of government can reverse progress.

There is no profit in saying that a peace constituency will grow and the danger of war will recede if trade, communications, and energy corridors are developed to link India with Central and West Asia through Pakistan. So far, the prospects of such development appear distant. Past experiences suggest that unless the central concerns of each side are addressed, progress on soft issues will remain fragile. In fact, water disputes carry ominous portents and can pose a serious challenge in the future even though at present Kashmir alone is described as a nuclear flash point.27For commentary on U.S. Secretary of State Powell’s visit to the region in January 2002, see “The Kashmir Flashpoint,” The New York Times, January 17, 2002. Also, see Timothy D. Hoyt, “Politics, Proximity and Paranoia: The Evolution of Kashmir as a Nuclear Flash Point,” in The Kashmir Question, Retrospect and Prospect, Sumit Ganguly, ed., (Milton Park: Cass and Company Limited, 2003).


The fear that a major terrorist act inside India, linked to Kashmir or Pakistan, could cause an action-reaction escalation pushing the two countries toward the nuclear abyss requires that we focus on what can be reasonably done to prevent acts of terrorism.

First, the fact that Mumbai-like attacks serve no conceivable interest of Pakistan, including those linked to Kashmir, must sink into the minds of policymakers and opinion creators on both sides. Extremist militant groups often resort to sensational acts of violence to demonstrate their relevance and viability. Most countries in the region are potential targets. The pace and strategies necessary to counter the danger depend on each country’s circumstances. In this context, the challenge faced by Pakistan is the most complex.

Understandably, Pakistan cannot provide guarantees that there will never be an act of terrorism against India inspired or planned from its territory. The amorphous nature of violent extremism makes it unrealistic to place such a demand when Pakistan itself is a target of terrorist acts. On the other hand, India justifiably expects Pakistan to prosecute suspects involved in the 2008 Mumbai crisis and the recent Pathankot attacks. Pakistan may not be able to meet Indian expectations because of legal complexities, equally important populist sentiment ruffled by ongoing Kashmiri youth agitation, and being perceived as acting under Indian diktat. But Pakistan must do all it can to prevent such acts originating from its territory. Pakistan’s response has now become more an issue of credibility of its commitment than of what the country is able to do within the limitations of its circumstances.

A downward slide began in bilateral relations with the Pathankot attack in the first week of January 2016 and hit the lowest point in September with the Uri attack. A chronology of events during this unfortunate year may help draw some conclusions:

1.  January 1-3, 2016 — The Pathankot attack; India alleged JeM complicity and demanded action. Pakistan agreed to cooperate with investigation, placed JeM chief under house custody, and detained some JeM members.

2.  March 3 — Pakistan arrested former Indian Naval Officer Jadhav Kulbhushan in Baluchistan, accused him of carrying out espionage and subversion. He was later put on trial by a military court. Islamabad claimed the arrest of operatives resulting from information provided by Kulbhushan. Pakistan denied India access to Kulbhushan, and media debates were heated on both sides.

3.  March 8 — The Pakistan national security advisor alerted his Indian counterpart of possible infiltration by militants in Gujarat, and follow-up action resulted in some arrests. Indian media raised questions about Pakistani motivation underlying this unprecedented step by a Pakistani national security advisor.

4.  March 28 — A Pakistan investigation team arrived in Pathankot and complained about limited access.

5.  April 26 — Foreign secretaries of the two sides met under tensions caused by the Kulbhushan incident, and India complained of foot dragging by Pakistan on the Pathankot investigation. The talks ended without any agreement on further continuation.

6.  June 26 — Pakistan considered allowing the Indian investigation team to visit Pakistan.

7.  July 16 — Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri rebel youth leader, was killed by Indian security forces, intensifying the ongoing agitation and protests in Kashmir ignited by the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s attempt to change special status of Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

8.  August 3 — The Indian interior minister visited Islamabad for a SAARC meeting and was unable to have a customary bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart.

9.  September 16 — Uri attack; India froze all contact with Pakistan, declaring that “talks and terror cannot go together.”28“India Ready to Resolve Issues with Pakistan, but Talks and Terror Can’t Go Together: Sushma Swaraj,” The Times of India, June 5, 2017. Two subsequent visits by the Pakistani adviser on foreign affairs in the context of Afghanistan-related meetings in Amritsar and Delhi in December 2016 and April 2017 went by without any bilateral contact.

Two events in particular appear to have vitiated the political atmosphere and killed the fledgling promise of counterterrorism cooperation that had emerged following the Pathankot attacks. First was the arrest — allegedly in Baluchistan — on March 3 of former Indian naval officer Jadhav Kulbhushan, who was operating under the false identity of a Muslim name and with an Iranian passport. According to Pakistani investigators and a televised confessional statement, Kulbhushan was engaged in acts of sabotage in Karachi, which was long suffering from sectarian and ethnic violence. Kulbhushan’s trial in a military court, his later conviction, and Pakistan’s refusal to provide access to him by Indian officials served to further aggravate matters. The second event was the killing by the Indian security forces on July 16 of Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri militant youth leader. His death intensified the youth uprising in Kashmir that was simmering since early 2016 following the break-up of the Bharatiya Janata Party–Kashmiri Peoples Democratic Party electoral alliance over changing the constitutional special status of Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the foreign secretary-level talks on April 20 failed to agree on the start of comprehensive dialogue. The hardened attitudes were reflected by the lack of bilateral meetings when the Indian interior minister visited Pakistan in August in the context of SAARC and when the Pakistani adviser on foreign affairs visited India in December 2016 and later in April 2017 in the context of Afghanistan related conferences. Absence of dialogue only serves to reinforce hardline positions on both sides.

A minor development in March 2016 merits attention. As reported in the media, the Pakistan national security advisor called his Indian counterpart to alert him that a group of extremist militants may try to enter India. Despite the successful follow-up action by the Indian security forces, some Indian commentators suspected the Pakistani motivation for this unprecedented sharing of information. Nonetheless, the initiative by the Pakistani national security advisor is a model for what bilateral counterterrorism cooperation could entail moving forward.

Crisis Management

Within a span of little over one and a half decades since the nuclear tests and the establishment of overt deterrence, the two countries have experienced limited conflict in Kargil, military escalation in 2002, and terrorist attacks in Mumbai and more recently in Pathankot and Uri. At least two of these incidents did not lead to military mobilization. Following the Uri attack, India’s claim of having conducted a surgical strike is dubious. Seen in sequence, the behavioral pattern and responses on each occasion show some awareness on the part of both countries that an all-out war is not an option. Active international concern and interest during each of these crises have also been important factors promoting restraint. The apparent “positive learning curve” from Kargil to Pathankot, however, should not be a reason for complacency.29This expression was used by retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, former director general of the Strategic Plans Division. Khalid Ahmed Kidwai (remarks given at roundtable organized by Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, March 25, 2016). He made the point that each successive tension period was responded to by increasingly greater restraint with both sides remaining conscious of their respective nuclear capabilities. It only reinforces the need for improved crisis management between the two countries.

In light of the above analysis, to stave off a crisis situation the following security-specific recommendations need consideration. Under present circumstances, these six recommended measures may not be feasible in the immediate context, but as two responsible nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan cannot afford to hold back on them for long.

Revive Dialogue. Revive and maintain a regular comprehensive and inclusive dialogue similar to the erstwhile Composite Dialogue. It cannot be a “one-point agenda” dialogue. The format will have to include Kashmir, security, and terrorism along with other issues, although the modality for consideration of each of these issues can be flexible.

Expand Dialogue Process. India and Pakistan must consider expanding and reinforcing the dialogue process. Besides being part of the formal composite dialogue, Kashmir and other disputes were pursued through the modality of a low-key backchannel. At the leadership level, a fresh decision is needed to revive it. An alternative would be using the national security advisor level by expanding its current mandate, which focuses on terrorism. National security advisors can have an overt agenda addressing security and terrorism and a covert agenda to explore possibilities to address other issues. Similarly, flag-staff and director general (military operations) meetings can or should be strengthened for maintaining calm along the LoC and as a CBM. While regular annual interaction at the national security advisor level is advisable, a similar unpublicized annual exchange between intelligence chiefs — of both Inter-Services Intelligence and the Research and Analysis Wing — will be helpful. Institutionalized military contact at a high level can mitigate risk of miscalculation and distrust.

Improve Existing CBMs. Additions to existing nuclear- and missile-related CBMs and hotlines could be added to existing CBMs on accidents at sea and expanded to include additional categories on missile tests such as Pakistan’s Hatf (Nasr) missiles and India’s BrahMos. Existing arrangements for avoiding and preventing ceasefire violations and arresting localized problems along the LoC and the Working Boundary should be strengthened. The diplomatic and security-level dialogue should focus on better exchange of terrorism information and on handling the aftermath of terrorist acts. This should include coordination for investigation and prosecution. An important dimension is managing the media to keep tempers down in the public arena. The Pathankot attacks suggest that discrete official advisories help in both countries.

Eliminate Nuclear Exchange Possibility. The two countries must ensure that the possibility of a nuclear exchange is eliminated and that nuclear deterrence remains an integral part of their security and assurance of defense. In addition to readiness for handling a possible crisis, this also requires efforts to minimize misunderstandings and miscalculations by avoiding military moves in periods of tension and toning down hawkish narratives and strategies fraught with excessive risk.

There is need to revisit the Cold Start doctrine and Pakistan’s claim to pursue full spectrum nuclear deterrence that includes miniaturization. For countries in such close proximity, heightened readiness limits the time needed for crisis management mechanisms to work. Cold Start is premised on a quick and surprise attack,30According to some reports, the Cold Start doctrine is based on mobilization and strike within 36 to 48 hours. which is even inconsistent with the requirement of first establishing official complicity on the part of the Pakistan establishment in instigating a terrorist attack. On the other hand, Pakistan’s assertion of pursuing a full-spectrum nuclear deterrence is both unnecessary and provocative. The two countries should return to espousing minimum credible deterrence, which at least is nonrhetorical and circumspect in intent.

Avoid Communications Breakdown. The two nuclear-armed neighbors cannot afford a breakdown in communication. Regular summitry is important regardless of political tensions and the state of bilateral relations. The two countries should institute regular summit-level bilateral contact at least once every two or three years. If agreed upon, this arrangement will allow the prime ministers of the two countries to meet at least twice during the course of their normal elected tenures to discuss and review in a focused manner issues of bilateral concern. Meetings on the sidelines of U.N. General Assembly or other forums such as SAARC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation provide opportunities to discuss mutual concerns, but these instances are often tentative in terms of timing, format, and preparedness. Regular bilateral summits, even once in three years, would invariably be better prepared, better structured, and free of the uncertainty and speculation that precedes meetings on the sidelines of international forums. Such bilateral summits can help instill confidence, defuse tension, and develop mechanisms to prevent and manage crises.

Acknowledging Both States’ Nuclear Statuses. Major powers can contribute to nuclear stability and security in the region by formally mainstreaming both India and Pakistan in the global nuclear order. They are nuclear weapon states. In practical terms, by virtue of the U.S.-India deal India enjoys access to technologies as a de facto member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Pakistan has no such access, and the resulting discriminatory treatment rankles its policymakers. Pakistan is keen to join the global nuclear community on a fair and nondiscriminatory basis. Its interest to be a partner in a secure and responsible global nuclear regime is apparent in the relevant international conventions it has signed and the unilateral measures it has adopted for the safety and security of its strategic assets.31To date, Pakistan has signed the Convention on Nuclear Safety, Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, Convention on Early Notification of Nuclear Accident, Convention on Assistance in case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, and International Atomic Energy Agency Code of Conduct on Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. Pakistan also regularly submits reports under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540. Removal of this anomaly by acknowledging Pakistan’s nuclear status will exert a healthy influence on Pakistan-India relations and in favor of restraint in regional nuclear policies.


Improving Pakistan-India relations is critical in a region where leadership and government need to focus on the great challenges of socioeconomic development, demographics, food and water security, and climate change. Despite existing communication channels and some will for improving the relationship, the prevailing norm of bilateral deadlock ensures a persistent and dangerous risk of new crises and future conflicts. The nuclear status of each is a continuous reminder of the potential escalatory costs if persisting tensions are not addressed, underlining the importance of doctrinal challenges and the utility of ideas like a return to minimum credible deterrence. South Asia’s long history of India-Pakistan crises are rich sources for lessons in management. There is the obvious need for resumption of dialogue to address all issues, including political disputes. The promise of future cooperative counterterrorism measures (like intelligence sharing) hinges on acknowledgement of the fact that both countries are plagued by the challenge of terrorism. Most importantly, however, institutionalized engagement and formal dialogue and crisis management mechanisms are required, including regular summitry and reviving comprehensive dialogue while also expanding to include multiple civil and military levels.

Riaz Mohammad Khan is a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan. He also served as his country's Ambassador to China, the European Union, Belgium, and Kazakhstan and in assignments dealing with issues related to the United Nations, Afghanistan, and arms control. In his capacity as Foreign Secretary, he led the Pakistan side of the Pakistan-India Composite Dialogue (2005-8) and Pakistan-U.S. Strategic Dialogue (2006-8). He also served as Special Envoy for backchannel diplomacy with India (2009-13), on the Pakistan delegation to the Geneva Proximity Talks on Afghanistan (1982-88), and is currently on the Board of Directors of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He has authored several books, including Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating Soviet Withdrawal (Duke University Press, 1991) and Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity (John Hopkins University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2011).