This year marks an important yet largely forgotten tenth-year anniversary. A decade ago, the nuclear armed states of India and Pakistan were on the brink of a nuclear war, the closest the two, or any two states for that matter, had come to initiating a nuclear exchange since the US-Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Remember it? No, not that many people do: largely because escalating events on the India-Pakistan border and around the line of control (LoC) in Kashmir were eclipsed and overtaken by others happening on Pakistan’s northern border, in Afghanistan.
On the year of the tenth anniversary of Operation Parakram, or the ‘Twin Peaks’ incident- so called for two distinct peaks of high tension (when war seemed particularly imminent) during the ten month standoff, it remains important to reflect on and revisit those events. A decade on, paradoxically, much and yet nothing has changed. I wonder, if a rapid escalation of events occurred similarly between India and Pakistan today, would the course of those events and outcomes, due to regional geopolitical change and ‘Great Power interest’ shifts, conclude the same or might events follow a terrifying alternate course and perhaps end very differently indeed?
Prelude: Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, at the time of their independence from British rule, Kashmir has been and remains a salient and unresolved issue between the two states, both claiming Kashmir as their respective sovereign territory. The 1998 Indian and Pakistan nuclear weapons tests exacerbated these existing tensions and for a period of ten months from December 2001 to October 2002, India and Pakistan came close to engaging in a war, centred on Kashmir, involving nuclear weapons.
Peak One (December 2001-January 2002): The major catalyst for the events that would transpire was the December 13th 2001 Indian Parliament bombing, carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (also later blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks) and Jaish-e-Muhammad, Indian claimed terrorist organisations operating out of Pakistan with the knowledge and support of the Pakistan Intelligence Service or ISI. India initiated Operation Parakram in December 2001 and subsequently one million men were mobilized around the India-Pakistan border, mostly centred along the LoC in Kashmir, where small scale skirmishes persisted including artillery, mortar and small arms exchanges that resulted in small numbers of loss of life on both sides.
In a deadly ‘cat and mouse’ game, India and Pakistan routinely moved their respective nuclear capable, Hatf-I Hatf-II and Prithvi, missiles around the Punjab region and on January 1st 2002 as tensions continued to escalate, and in accordance with the agreement on the Prohibition of Attack Against Nuclear Installations and Facilities, India and Pakistan exchanged their lists of nuclear facilities- only the day prior US intelligence reportedly predicted that war between the two would commence within days. In an attempt to defuse tensions, but far from meeting the Indian expectation and request that Pakistan hand over 20 wanted terrorists based in Pakistan, on January 12th President Musharraf made a speech insisting terrorists wouldn’t be able to hide in Pakistan. India remained sceptical and maintained mobilization, Pakistan too, but the gesture marked an important turning point during the initial first peak of the crisis.
Peak Two (May 2002-October 2002): On May 14th 2002, following a brazen and provocative militant attack on the families of mobilized Indian soldiers at Kaluchak in Jammu, India pointed the finger of blame firmly at Pakistan and once again tensions rapidly escalated between the two. A week after the attack, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, addressing front-line troops in Jammu, declared “…the time has come for a decisive battle, and we will have a sure victory in this battle.” The US sensing that war was once again imminent and whose primary focus was on Afghanistan at the time (requiring Pakistan’s assistance to intercept Taliban and Al-Qaeda suspects fleeing across their border and out of concern regarding what the impact of a war between the two, let alone a nuclear exchange, would have on the US-led mission in Afghanistan and its wider geopolitical implications) sent Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage to the region in an attempt to mediate an expedient resolution.
The US’ primary fear was that the maintained mobilisation of troops around the LoC, combined with continued ‘sabre rattling’, coupled with unclear goals and poor communication of them could easily lead to misperception of ‘the others’ red lines, leading to the situation unintentionally spiralling to an actual nuclear exchange- through misunderstanding and miscalculation. De-escalation of tension during the second peak occurred only on June 7th 2002, Richard Armitage having secured and publicly announced whilst in New Delhi a pledge from Pakistan’s President Musharraf to do his utmost to permanently cease infiltration across the LoC, allowing India strategic wriggle-room (and an all important face-saving opportunity) to back down from confrontation and war, which thus slowly and reciprocally occurred. India officially ceased Operation Parakram on October 16th 2002. Nuclear war had only narrowly been abated.
One long Trough (2002- Present): Since 2002, paradoxically both nothing and much has changed. India and Pakistan both still see the other as their respective greatest external existential threat to state security and the issue of Kashmir and its sovereignty remains unresolved. With US and NATO forces looking to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, what level of importance will be placed on continued US-Pakistan relations beyond 2014? What will China’s ‘rise’ and its own ‘all-weather’ friendship with Pakistan (and regional ‘Great Power’ rivalry with both India and the US) mean in the context of changing regional dynamics? As the US ‘pivots’ or ‘re-balances’ to Asia, is China’s ‘rise’ actually pushing the US and India into a growing partnership and if so how might and what will India seek to leverage in return for tentatively moving away from its traditional position of foreign policy independence- if it does at all? Can and will India ever be a reliable balancing partner?
I wonder, ask and invite your response: what may transpire and how might events unfold differently, factoring in some of the above considerations, if under similar circumstances India and Pakistan were to once again rapidly find them selves at loggerheads over Kashmir today?
Ben Moles completed a Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. A version of this post originally featured on The East Asia Forum and can be viewed here. (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles