After Pakistan’s development of a nuclear deterrent—instead of increased conflict and competition—a relatively stable border can be seen following a brief period of tensions amidst nuclear learning. One explanation is that Pakistan has had to rely less on conventional balancing and sub-conventional provocations and more on its nuclear assets to guarantee its territorial integrity. Leaders from both sides also acknowledge that under the nuclear shadow—and with the support of the Pakistan Army—they came very close to a “non-border, non-territorial solution” to Kashmir in 2007, which many regard as the basis for any future settlement.
Strategic reorientations have many fathers. Focusing on Afghanistan and internal threats has helped spur Pakistan’s adjustment on its eastern border, but this “distraction” explanation cannot sufficiently account for the shift. Pakistan demonstrated it was capable of sub-conventional conflict on two fronts—backing the Mujahideen and later the Taliban in Afghanistan alongside Khalistani and Kashmiri militants in India—during the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, changes in strategic behavior began years before the internal threat was appreciated, suggesting the nuclear factor may bear partial responsibility. The scale and intensity of recent internal operations also would not have been possible without Pakistani confidence that redeployments westward would not jeopardize eastern border security. It is difficult to draw strong conclusions from limited trend lines, but it seems plausible that Pakistan’s national security, reassured by its nuclear assets, is depending less on non-state actors, conventional competition, or frequent aggressive posturing.
To be sure, Pakistan will continue to contest the status of Kashmir, spend significant resources on conventional deterrence, and posit India as a major threat, but it does all of this with far less intensity and singular focus than it did three decades ago. Though it has also helped disrupt American goals in Afghanistan, recent events suggest Pakistan can even adapt and play a more constructive role. Still, reversing longstanding, deeply ingrained policies is contested and vulnerable to some backsliding, as the recent Gurdaspur attack might suggest, even if the overall trend line is improving.
A note of caution is warranted as a nuclear South Asia, even while mitigating pressures for conventional competition, introduces new dangers. Technological developments like tactical nuclear weapons deployed for war-fighting purposes, or missile defenses and multiple independent targetable re-entry vehicles presaging counterforce strategies, could lower the nuclear threshold and exacerbate fears about nuclear safety, weapons security, and escalation control.
Given a tough geopolitical neighborhood and limited resources, relying on a nuclear deterrent may be a net positive for Pakistan’s security, but it will depend very much on how Pakistani and Indian nuclear postures evolve in the coming years. Nevertheless, it is possible that in the aggregate the nuclear revolution is increasing stability in South Asia rather than undermining it, and while fraught with risks, it may also continue to spur adaptations in state behavior, planning, and national security thinking. As international actors begin to acknowledge this, they can pivot their focus from criticism to constructive engagement on mutual security interests.
Sameer Lalwani is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.