Will India and Pakistan Go To War?

By Saawani Raje

28 February 2019 


“Will India and Pakistan ever go to war?” This question has gained new significance since Pakistan shot down two Indian fighter jets early on the morning of 27th February and captured the pilot of one. For Pakistan, this escalation makes sense if you consider the escalation pyramid explained in the preceding piece. It could be in Pakistan’s strategic interests to frame Indian strikes on terrorist camps as a violation on Pakistani territory. This deflects from the main issue at hand — the existence of terrorist training camps in Pakistani territory (a claim that Pakistan has always vociferously denied) — and avoids the risk of international isolation.  This piece unpacks the question of the possibility of war by analysing the trend of Indian and Pakistani crises through the lenses of nuclear deterrence, international intervention, and crisis management. It argues that while there might be escalation in confrontational rhetoric even up to the level of a limited conflict, an all-out war on a scale seen previously in 1965 or 1971 is highly unlikely for a number of reasons.

Historically, it has been argued that India practices strategic restraint. However, a re-reading of past crises, especially wars against Pakistan in 1948, 1965 or 1971, actually shows Indian political and military leaders’ willingness to escalate.[1] Any restraint in these crises was influenced by issues like limited capabilities, risks associated with escalation, and the need to maintain national and international legitimacy.[2] Under Narendra Modi’s government, the ‘surgical strikes’ of 2016 reiterate the political and military leadership’s willingness to use force against Pakistan as an answer to its provocation. For India, this escalation is a risk the Modi government can afford to take. The possibility of war refocuses any discontent that the Indian public has with the government. It serves to unite Indian citizens behind the government against a common enemy: Pakistan. The social and news media rhetoric in India evidences this with repeated calls for war with Pakistan since the 14 February attack.[3] This rhetoric is especially significant given that this is an election year, and the BJP campaign has engaged quite strongly with the idea of nationalism. It is also India’s chance to call Pakistan’s bluff about its nuclear red lines. A show of strength in this regard might be a strong signal to the Pakistani establishment that India does not tolerate provocation and refuses to be held hostage to its nuclear doctrine. However, the evidence is greater to support the argument that India and Pakistan will in fact not go to war, especially on this occasion.

Firstly, both India and Pakistan have made it clear that they do not want war. When addressing the Pakistani retaliatory strikes on 27 February, Pakistani Major General Asif Ghafoor emphasised that no Indian military targets had been hit because Pakistan does not ‘want to go on the path of war.’ The Indian Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj echoed this sentiment when she said, ‘India doesn’t wish to see further escalation.’ Escalation to war is a risk neither side is willing to take. The existence of nuclear weapons and the economic costs of war are two factors that greatly influence this reluctance. Secondly, it is in the interests of the international community to step in with increased concern about the stability of the region in an attempt to stop escalation, as has been seen before.

Nuclear weapons in South Asia

Between 1974 and 1998, both India and Pakistan went through a period of ‘nuclear opacity.’ This was a situation in which neither state’s leaders had acknowledged the existence of their state’s nuclear program, but there was enough evidence about the program’s existence to influence the other nation’s perceptions and actions.[4] During this time, awareness about the other’s nuclear arsenal raised insecurities; however, neither state wanted to escalate tensions because they were unsure about the other’s nuclear posture. Such was the case in the 1986 Brasstacks Military exercise and a 1990 crisis between the two states that CIA Deputy Director Richard Kerr described as ‘the most dangerous nuclear situation’ he had faced. In both cases, the states reached the brink of crisis and withdrew, in part due to concern and ambiguity about each other’s nuclear posture.[5]

Following tests in 1998, both states declared themselves nuclear weapon-capable states. The Pakistani nuclear doctrine was India-specific and emphasised that given Indian conventional capability, Pakistan reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first in extremis.[6] This provided Pakistan with compelling incentive to provoke India, while remaining secure in the knowledge that its nuclear policy severely limited Indian retaliatory options. As exemplified in the 1999 Kargil conflict when, despite rhetoric from both sides showing willingness to explore nuclear avenues of escalation, India showed restraint in not crossing the Line of Control, avoiding crossing Pakistan’s nuclear red line.

Ironically, the years of nuclear opacity have been relatively more stable than the years following the declaration of India and Pakistan as nuclear powers. In addition, cases like Kargil, the 2001-02 military standoff between India and Pakistan, or the 2008 Mumbai attack show an emboldened and provocative Pakistan that uses its first strike nuclear doctrine as a shield against a restrained India that is limited by its no-first use doctrine. Pakistan’s testing of tactical nuclear weapons further complicates issues, as this operationalises nuclear weapons. Pakistan thus continues to attack India in low-level unconventional methods because it is safe in the knowledge that India’s ability to retaliate is limited. It thus falls upon India to call Pakistan’s bluff. The excuse of targeting terrorist havens in Pakistani territory, as the much-publicised surgical strikes showed, provide an efficient instrument for India to do just that. Thus, escalation of conventional conflict is a much bigger risk in South Asia than is purported.

International involvement in de-escalation:

The question then is, despite the increased instability, why does the conflict between the two states not lead to war? The answer lies in the examination of past wars between India and Pakistan and the role of the international community in bringing them to a close. India-Pakistan crises in 1965, 1999 and the 2001-02 standoff all saw the international community scramble to bring about de-escalation.[7] In all the crises, India adopted a strong coercive posture, possibly with the knowledge that in event of increased escalation, the international community will step in to cease hostilities as it did in each of those conflicts.        

In sum, nuclear weapons increase stability in the region in general. They do increase the likelihood of low-level conflict, but they decrease the likelihood of all-out war between the two states. Secondly, escalation of conflict between India and Pakistan has always been looked at with growing concern by the international community, which has more often than not played a pivotal role in the cessation of hostilities, as the cases of 1948, 1965 and Kargil show. These factors decrease the likelihood of India and Pakistan going to war with each other despite the possibility that they will engage in an escalation of rhetoric or even low-level hostilities. While the rhetoric in India today is inherently advocating strong retributive action against Pakistan, the above factors show that despite an escalation of rhetoric, diplomatic efforts or even limited military action, India and Pakistan will not actually end up in an all-out war with each other. The social media #saynotowar hashtag that is currently seen across a lot of Indian and Pakistani social media might be more on point than ever.

Saawani Raje is a PhD candidate at the King’s India Institute and a recipient of the King’s India Scholarship, as well as a Senior Editor at Strife. Her PhD research is primarily a historical examination into civil-military decision-making during crises in independent India. You can follow her on Twitter @saawaniraje.


[1] Rudra Chaudhuri, ‘Indian “Strategic Restraint” Revisited: The Case of the 1965 India-Pakistan War’, India Review 17, no. 1 (1 January 2018): 55–75, https://doi.org/10.1080/14736489.2018.1415277; Srinath Raghavan, 1971 A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[2] Rudra Chaudhuri, ‘Indian “Strategic Restraint” Revisited: The Case of the 1965 India-Pakistan War’, India Review 17, no. 1 (1 January 2018): 55–75, https://doi.org/10.1080/14736489.2018.1415277.

[3] Fatima Bhutto, ‘Opinion | Hashtags for War Between India and Pakistan’, The New York Times, 27 February 2019, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/opinion/india-pakistan-crisis.html.

[4] Scott D. Sagan, ed., Inside Nuclear South Asia, Reprint edition (Stanford, Calif: Stanford Security Studies, 2009).

[5] Devin T. Hagerty, ‘Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: The 1990 Indo-Pakistani Crisis’, International Security 20, no. 3 (1995): 79–114, https://doi.org/10.2307/2539140.

[6] ‘Krepon et Al. – 2013 – Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in Sou.Pdf’, accessed 27 February 2019, https://www.stimson.org/sites/default/files/file-attachments/Deterrence_Stability_Dec_2013_web_1.pdf.

[7] Farooq Naseem Bajwa, From Kutch to Tashkent: The Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 (London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2013); Malik V. P. General, Kargil : From Surprise To Victory (New Delhi: Harpercollins, 2010); ‘To the Brink: 2001-02 India-Pakistan Standoff’, accessed 27 February 2019, http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/to-the-brink-2001-02-india-pakistan-standoff/; Sumit Ganguly and Michael R. Kraig, ‘The 2001–2002 Indo-Pakistani Crisis: Exposing the Limits of Coercive Diplomacy’, Security Studies 14, no. 2 (April 2005): 290–324.

Image source: https://www.dailypioneer.com/uploads/2016/story/images/big/9431_1.gif

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan