Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“We will surprise you. Wait for that surprise” was the message Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the director general of Pakistan Inter-Services Public Relations, had for his neighbors in India on Tuesday evening. It was a testy moment after an even testier day, one that served only to heighten existing tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
Even as President Donald Trump landed in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a landmark summit intended to tame nuclear-armed North Korea, the other side of Asia seemed poised for its own potential war – and without an intervening power, such as the United States, interested in calming things down.
Pakistan and India’s most recent squabble began February 14 when an armed militant in the disputed territory of Kashmir (claimed by both countries) drove an explosive-laden vehicle into an Indian paramilitary convoy and killed at least 40 soldiers. India immediately blamed Pakistan for the attack. “We will give a befitting reply. Our neighbor will not be allowed to destabilize us,” irate Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared as his government, which is up for re-election in May, asked the international community to isolate Pakistan.
Despite these menacing moves, there were few significant statements from the international community – except for the UN Security Council, which issued a rather weak condemnation of the violence. And while the European Union did urge the two countries to de-escalate tensions, it offered no diplomatic efforts to do just that.
Not surprisingly, tensions escalated even further. In the early morning hours of Tuesday, the Indian air force entered into Pakistani airspace and dropped a payload of bombs. India claimed it had attacked a terrorist training camp and killed “a large number” of militants. For its part, Pakistan insisted the attack had hit an uninhabited forest, damaging only trees.
Then, on Wednesday, Pakistan said it shot down two Indian fighter jets and arrested one pilot. India claimed Pakistan had only shot down one plane and that one pilot was missing.
This escalation is reminiscent of the press conference in which Ghafoor, the major general, promised a surprise, telling Pakistanis to “get ready for every eventuality.”
Surprises promised by nuclear-armed nations bode poorly not only for their own populations but for the larger world. While India and Pakistan have been on the brink of nuclear battle before, other powers, notably the United States, have been engaged and present to serve as voices of calm and reason against the war-mongering rhetoric emerging from the countries themselves.
In May 1999, during the Kargil conflict, which (like this one) traces back to the two countries’ dispute over Kashmir, Pakistani commandos entered Indian territory in an attempt to reclaim parts of the valley that Pakistan wanted at the time of partition in 1947. India promised dire consequences. Then, just like now, war seemed possible, and the United Nations, which has long urged a plebiscite in Kashmir, seemed unable to stop it.
Thankfully, President Bill Clinton used his diplomatic skills to talk both countries off the ledge of nuclear oblivion. Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was summoned to Washington. In a meeting recounted in riveting detail in the memoirs of then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Clinton sat Sharif down and invoked the Cuban missile crisis as an analogy to the situation in the Indian subcontinent.
In the words of Talbott, “unlike Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1962, (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee (then the Indian Prime Minister) and Sharif did not realize how close they were to the brink, so there was an even greater risk that they would blindly stumble across it.” It took Clinton’s direct intervention for Sharif to admit that unless he withdrew his commandos, “it would be a catastrophe.”
The blind stumbling into war seems entirely within the realm of possibility in this moment, too. Even though the United States is present in the region, negotiating peace with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, there have been only two top-level forays into the conflict that we know of. On Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to Pakistan Chief of Defense Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat and discussed the current tensions. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with his counterparts in India and Pakistan, urging them to “prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity.”
And while Dunford and Pompeo appear to have at least entered the fray – at least in words, President Donald Trump has remained largely silent. Following the attack on Indian paramilitary personnel earlier this month, he said it was a “horrible situation” but that his administration would have a comment when “it was appropriate.” “It would be wonderful,” the President added, if “India and Pakistan were to get along.”
Indeed, it would be wonderful, but it seems unlikely, especially with the United States uninterested or unaware that it needs to play a key mediating role. Trump, likely diverted by his ambitions in North Korea and by the continuing accusations of obstruction of justice and corruption against members of his campaign and administration, seems unlikely to arrange a Clinton-esque meeting in which he insists that the parties involved recognize the scale of devastation at play.
Below the presidential level, there seems to be a similar forgetfulness about the brewing nuclear conflict. Though the United States has an ambassador in India, it has no designated ambassador to Pakistan (only a chargé d’affaires). This lack of high-level diplomatic appointees able to manage the complex situation adds to the inertia and silence on the US end.
This was not always the case either. Richard Armitage, a deputy secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, was instrumental in pulling the two countries back from the brink of war. Unlike seemingly anyone currently serving in the Trump administration, Armitage took the threat of nuclear cataclysm seriously when an attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 caused both sides to threaten devastation.
Armitage, who admitted he had no doubt that Pakistani generals would deploy nuclear weapons, shuttled between the two countries to ensure that neither they nor the Indians actually did so.
Fast-forward to our current moment, and no Armitage-like figure can be found. National security adviser John Bolton, who was charged by the administration to make the condolence calls following the most recent attack, has not shown any apparent interest in the escalating conflict – beyond his initial statements expressing support for India’s right to self-defense. While he canceled his trip to South Korea to “focus on events in Venezuela,” it does not seem he will shift his focus now to the South Asia region.
In the meantime, the words spoken on both Pakistani and Indian media are truly terrifying. One commentator on Pakistan’s right-of-center Geo News warned that Pakistani retaliation may be the “last war” between the two countries. Indian journalists, for their part, continued their war-thirsty rhetoric, with even moderate columnists taking to Twitter to tout the strike as a “huge huge ops and a huge statement by India.” Vijay Kumar Singh, an Indian minister in Modi’s government, went even further, tweeting, “They say they want to bleed India with a 1000 cuts. We say that each time you attack us, be certain that we will get back to you, harder and stronger.”
These words would only be words were it not that either side was in possession of weapons that have the capacity to eliminate hundreds of millions of innocent people. With the United States distracted by other international and domestic matters, Pakistan and India stand once again at the brink of nuclear cataclysm with seemingly no one ready to stop them.
A nuclear surprise would be a world-ending surprise, and yet, as the minutes and hours and days pass, it seems like an even greater possibility. In a world where nonproliferation is an increasingly weak argument – with even the United States withdrawing from international treaties and the United Nations too weak to enforce others – other countries blinded by the desire for vengeance and drained by the persistence of longstanding territorial disputes could actually consider using them.