To paraphrase Raymond Aron, crises have become the substitute of wars between nuclear-armed states. This corollary to nuclear deterrence applies to South Asia, where Pakistan and India have so far experienced two crises with the advent of covert nuclear weapon capabilities and three more after carrying out underground tests of nuclear weapon designs. One of these crises prompted a war limited in geographical scope, duration, and intensity.
The most recent of these crises was sparked by mass-casualty assaults in November 2008 against iconic targets in Mumbai, including two luxury hotels and the central train terminus. The perpetrators of these attacks were trained, equipped, and directed by handlers within Pakistan. They were affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), an extremist group with ties to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. The Government of India quickly chose not to strike back against the LeT or other targets within Pakistan. An earlier coalition government in New Delhi showed similar restraint after another extreme provocation in 2001, an attack against the Indian Parliament building and those within it. The perpetrators of the attack on Parliament are widely believed to be affiliated with the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), another extremist group which, at that time, maintained close ties to Pakistan’s security apparatus.
The progression of attacks carried out by Pakistani nationals directed against Indian targets has raised questions about whether New Delhi’s forbearance might be expected to continue in the event of future mass-casualty assaults against iconic targets that can be traced back to Pakistan. This essay assesses the progression of five crises between Operation Brasstacks in 1986-7 to the Mumbai crisis in 2008, looking for patterns, shifts, and implications for crisis management and escalation control.