Update: It’s escalating faster.
-Air bases in Pakistan at "war alert levels"
-Indian PM Modi reportedly gives "free hand" to military
-Heavy clashes reported now in the Kashmir region
-Pakistani PM Khan calls for talks
-Many countries urging calm between the two nuclear armed powers
— Trey Yingst (@TreyYingst) February 27, 2019
When Americans think of the risk of nuclear war, they often think of North Korea or Iran in their pursuits of nuclear weapons that can strike the United States. Others might look to Russia or China, the two largest nuclear arsenals that are both capable of striking the United States today. We rarely consider the most volatile potential nuclear standoff in the world right now between India and Pakistan.
This is a mistake made by American media, as the tensions between India and Pakistan have been the most likely catalyst for a nuclear war since both nations acquired nuclear weapons capabilities. If World War III starts any time in the near future, it will likely start in south Asia between these nuclear neighbors.
Tensions have been high for decades and reached a critical tipping point two weeks ago following a terrorist attack in Kashmir. Since then, there have been exchanges between the two sides, including an air strikes on terrorist training camps by India’s air force and the downing of two Indian fighter jets yesterday.
IAF Sources: 12 Mirage 2000 jets took part in the operation that dropped 1000 Kg bombs on terror camps across LOC, completely destroying it pic.twitter.com/BP3kIrboku
— ANI (@ANI) February 26, 2019
In response to PAF strikes this morning as released by MoFA, IAF crossed LOC. PAF shot down two Indian aircrafts inside Pakistani airspace. One of the aircraft fell inside AJ&K while other fell inside IOK. One Indian pilot arrested by troops on ground while two in area: DG ISPR
— Govt of Pakistan (@pid_gov) February 27, 2019
The geopolitics surrounding this conflict are as complicated as they get. Both governments are considered friendly with Washington DC, though there have been diplomatic conflicts with Pakistan’s government in recent years.
China is not officially allied with Pakistan, but that’s just on paper. They have strong ties with Islamabad and consider their neighbors in India to be a major potential threat.
Russia, like the U.S., has relationships with both sides, but may lean towards Pakistan if push comes to shove.
Could a war start between India and Pakistan soon? If things don’t deescalate quickly, it seems almost inevitable. Both sides are leaving room for deescalation despite the increased military activity, but they have gone to war in the past with less provocation. There seem to be two possible ways for this to turn into a nuclear war.
Scenario 1: Pakistan counters Indian military incursions with tactical nuclear weapons
Pakistan is the only nuclear armed nation that does not have a policy against first nuclear strikes. All other nuclear armed nations (other than Israel, which denies having a nuclear arsenal) state as national policy that they will never use nuclear weapons unless nuclear weapons are used against them first.
Nobody knows what the threshold is for Pakistan to use their nuclear weapons. This is by design. Because India’s conventional military forces both outnumber and are better equipped than Pakistan’s, they’ve always used the threat of nuclear weapons as their countermeasure to India’s superiority. This is similar to NATO’s stance against Russia through the Cold War. Russia was militarily capable of running over Europe through sheer size, but the presence of nuclear weapons in Europe was always viewed as the balance.
Pakistan views their nuclear arsenal the same way. They may not be able to stop India head-to-head in a conventional war, but they would be willing to nuke Indian forces, possibly even within their own borders if necessary. If this current conflict continues to escalate and India gets more aggressive with their military strikes, Pakistan may feel it necessary to use tactical nuclear weapons to level the playing field.
Scenario 2: India fears a nuclear strike so they preemptively attack known launch facilities in a counterforce offensive
If diplomacy breaks down, either through escalation of military strikes and counterstrikes or through a terrorist attack similar to the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, it’s very possible pressure for action by the vast Indian population would result in an attempt by India to take out Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities before they’re able to use them. India has extremely accurate ordinance delivery systems that are capable of pinpoint strikes. They also have intelligence about all of Pakistan’s launch facilities… at least they hope they have information on all of them. Combine those two ingredients with a strong, albeit untested missile defense system and we may have a recipe for a counterforce offensive.
This scenario would make it much more likely China would get involved early. They may view the action against Pakistan as a precursor to action against Chinese nuclear facilities. If that’s their perspective, they may attempt to take out India’s nuclear capabilities shortly after India takes out Pakistan’s.
America would be drawn in
Two things are certain about America’s response to a nuclear war regardless of how it starts. First, there is very little chance anyone will want to get involved directly in a nuclear war in south Asia. Second, any action by either Russia or China would make it nearly impossible for us to stay out of it. Nearly 1/5th of the world’s population is in India and Pakistan. The economic fallout from any nuclear war in the region would be crippling to much of the developed world.
Public sentiment will initially demand that we stay as far away from the conflict as possible. If India is able to take out Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities without China getting involved, it’s possible we could stay out of the conflict and focus on building a lasting peace. But that may be wishful thinking. India is strong and technologically advanced, but it’s hard to imagine them completely incapacitating Pakistan. It’s even harder to imagine China not getting involved.
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The most unpredictable components are the terrorist organizations on both sides. Pakistan has multiple Islamic terrorist groups that want India out of Kashmir. India has Hindu terrorist groups that want a deeper separation from Muslims, a goal that becomes easier to achieve through a war with Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Islamic State and al Qaeda are still active in the region and would love to see these countries at war.
Any one terrorist organization could engage in an operation that prompts either or both sides of the conflict to get more aggressive.
If tensions are not brought down quickly, war seems inevitable. While American attentions are directed towards Michael Cohen’s testimony or Jussie Smollett’s latest claims, WWIII may be ramping up in south Asia. From there, it will spread. We need to be watching.