The South Asian sub-continent had remained turbulent since two nation-states Pakistan and India had been carved out by the British in 1947. Since partition, the relations of Pakistan and India had been contentious mainly because of the disputed region of Kashmir. Both archrivals have fought three wars over Kashmir and their relations have been mired with hostility and distrust ever since. The relations between the two states grew more sensitive when both acquired nuclear weapons. With nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence was achieved and it led to strategic stability in South Asia. This strategic stability doesn’t rule out the occurrence of conflicts between the two archrivals. The small clashes can easily get out of hand and can disturb strategic stability. The recent example of the Pulwama attack in February 2019, illustrates this point of view. The world saw that due to the attack on Pulwama, the blame game started by India, and in few days tensions escalated and Pakistan and India were standing at the brink of nuclear war.
Nuclear deterrence is the only factor that provides strategic stability in the region but the presence of nuclear deterrence is not always helpful in ensuring peace. It somehow retains space for small conflicts and the threat of escalation of these conflicts is always present. The best example of this was a crisis between both states that happened in the second month of 2019.
In February 2019, Indian paramilitary forces were targeted by a terrorist attack. More than 40 soldiers died in the attack and the Indian authorities were quick to blame Pakistan on this incident. Prime Minister of Pakistan openly stated that, if Indians could provide any actionable evidence that terrorists are linked with Pakistan they will utilize all necessary resources to bring the perpetrators to justice. But Indian authorities did not provide any evidence and they were adamant to Punish Pakistan for what they call support of terrorism in Indian occupied Kashmir. On the night of February 26, Indian fighter jets intruded Pakistan’s air space and claimed to destroy a terrorist camp. But later it was revealed that there was no causality in Pakistan. Pakistan responded the next day by engaging a target inside Indian occupied Kashmir next and in a subsequent dog fight, India lost one of its fighter planes and the pilot was captured by Pakistan. After this India planned to hit the target with conventional missiles and Pakistan also promised to do the same. This readiness by both states to strike the target with missiles in each other’s territory brought the region to the brink of nuclear war. However, Pakistan released Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman as a “peace gesture” which played an important role in diffusing tension. Although the nuclear war was averted by taking some rational decisions from both sides this crisis demonstrated the fact of the fragility of peace between India and Pakistan. It also created fear in the minds of the international community that any upcoming crisis, maybe our luck will be not sufficient enough to avert nuclear war in South Asia.
When two nuclear-armed neighbors are involved in continuous rivalry or they have longstanding disputes between them, there is always a fear that any crisis between them could escalate and soon get out of control. The main threat that is associated with escalation is that the crisis could turn into a conflict that could bring nuclear weapons into the theater of war. There are two major types of strategic thinkers about this issue, one is those who are optimistic about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence while others are pessimists. Both these groups brought their research from cold war times. But it is not necessary that theories that were successful during the cold war may also succeed in the South Asian context because of many structural and technical differences. Leaders of both states have adopted the policy of brinkmanship, during many crises that occurred in the subcontinent. This policy brought with it dangers of escalation during the time of crisis. As Thomas C Schelling said, “Brinksmanship involves getting onto the slope where one may fall in spite of his own best efforts to save himself, dragging his adversary with him”.
After the advent of nuclear weapons, cyber weapons are the most destructive thing that we can imagine in this contemporary world. Nuclear weapons can lead to tangible damage. In the age when the world has become a global village, cyber weapons pose a threat to international peace. Cyberspace provided the fifth domain in the area of armed conflict. Previously, they were air, land, sea, and space. Nuclear weapons are generally used for deterrence purposes and they are mostly used or considered as last option weapons, cyber-attack on the other hand can be materialized when there is no apparent conflict between two states. Due to the deep enmity between Indian and Pakistan, it will always a threat that both countries can target each other in cyberspace. When a cyber-attack is launched against India and Pakistan, they will blame each other but the perpetrators of this attack could be the third party. That could be state-sponsored cyber-attack or even non-state actors and individuals could carry out such endeavors. This has already happened, when a cyber-attack targeted some websites in India. Initially, Pakistan was made responsible for these attacks but later it was revealed that the offensive was done by a third party. It was due to insecurity and doubt present in both states about each other’s intentions or capabilities. While initially cyber-attacks can be very limited in scope but there are fair chances that it could escalate which could result in a conflict with the use of conventional weapons. Therefore in modern times, cyber weapons pose a great threat to the peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. That will ultimately lead to regional instability.
*Fatima Ahmed and Tajjalla Munir are Research Scholar at COMSATS University Islamabad.