With India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, on the brink of an armed conflict, Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistani-American and associate vice-president, Asia Centre, United States Institute of Peace, has just published a prescient book, titled Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia. He speaks to Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa about what needs to be done to prevent a no-holds-barred war between the two countries. Edited excerpts:
Q How serious is the current situation between India and Pakistan?
A. This is the first time after the Kargil war of 1999 that India and Pakistan are likely to end up in a military confrontation of some kind. I don’t think it had come this close even in 2001, after the attack on Indian Parliament, or in 2008, after the Mumbai attacks. This is the highest probability of going to war since Kargil.
Q. So you think we could be on the brink of a war?
A. Look, we are heading for a disaster and nobody should be complacent about the reason for that. The problem for India and Pakistan is twofold. One, India cannot afford to end it at one all it has to be one up. Now, one up is not possible in an escalatory ladder because every single time India reacts, Pakistan will say, I will be the last one to shoot’.
Two, India and Pakistan have no bilateral escalation control mechanism in place. They have done things in an ad hoc manner in the past and there is no real understanding on how to get out of the escalating crisis. You need the world to descend on India and Pakistan and say, look we will figure this out, but this needs to be done immediately to end the crisis now. But I don’t see that happening.
Q. The US used to broker peace between the two countries. Do you think they will do so now?
A. They haven’t as yet and that’s because the US is distracted by the North Korea summit and the Afghanistan talks. India and Pakistan were not on the radar. In the past, by now, you would have had senior officials from the US, UK and other countries landing in India and Pakistan and talking to both sides to fix things. That has not happened yet and, while they are engaged, I am not sensing that kind of urgency. I don’t think a phone call from DC helps any more. I think this is about proactive diplomacy, about people showing up, this is about the UN Security Council stepping in without taking sides, saying we want an end to any escalation and the rest we will figure out.
Q. Do you also see a nuclear dimension to this escalation?
A. I would be shocked if both establishments are not beginning to think of what kind of nuclear signalling they would have to do if this goes on for one more round. I don’t see any danger of immediate deployment, I don’t see any real nuclear crisis in terms of essential use, but it is absolutely clear that both sides right now would be thinking about protocols, what they want to signal and what kind of movement they want to make, if this goes on for one more round, which I will not rule out at this point.
Q. You don’t think that India and Pakistan are capable of dealing with the crisis right now?
A. The interpretation of the cold war was that if nuclear war ever happens, it is going to happen despite countries wanting it, not because they want it. There is absolutely no question both sides are rational and don’t want a nuclear war. They will not go there, but once the fog of war and the dynamics of crisis play out, there are many things that could go wrong in that process. So, you don’t want to come close to that threshold. And so, the question is, do India and Pakistan have bilateral escalation-control mechanisms? We know how to get into a crisis, but do we know how to come out of a crisis? That is where the failing lies.
We have not worked out how to pull out of a serious escalated crisis without the help of stronger third parties, like the US. The history so far has been that these stronger third parties show up and try and mitigate the crisis the moment it escalates. For two nuclear powers to be in that position, where they are still looking elsewhere, is not the way to go. That is fundamentally the issue.
Q. What are these mechanisms to control nuclear escalation that you are talking about?
A. To begin with, Pakistan and India’s most comprehensive memorandum of understanding (MoU) document on how to manage a post nuclear relationship came out in 1999 during then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore. Since then, we haven’t been able to achieve even five per cent of what was envisioned in that documentaccident control measures, risk reduction measures, the need for hotlines between top leaders. We haven’t achieved any of this because of the shape of our relations and how things are.
We need risk reduction measures that are implemented transparently. The issue is that we don’t trust each other’s conversations, so the first thing that disappears during a crisis is a real sincere effort to use communication channels to sort the problem. Both sides see it as a low-cost option to use the third party to get what they need because they know they have no direct ways to get concession from the other side.
Q. Your book uses the term brokered bargaining’. What does that mean?
A. Go back to May 1998. If you had heard Indian prime minister Vajpayee and then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, one of the things they were telling their respective nations was that they didn’t have to worry about dictation from outside and that they were strategically independent. That is what nuclear weapons do to states.
The puzzle here is that 20 years down the line, the two nuclear powers in a moment of crisis are still beholden to the third parties coming in and resolving their crisis. So you still need a broker as you don’t have a direct bilateral escalation-control mechanism. Since those are not there for various reasons, the third parties, worried that something may go wrong, actually come in of their own accord.
Q. So where do we go from here?
A. This is not about what happens now, this is about who says what. That is now crucial for India and Pakistan, to figure out a back channel to agree on scripting and messaging that will get them out of this mess. This is now a game of spinning narratives very carefully and in a way so that both sides can tell their audiences that they have declared victory. n