World War I Redux: Can India and Pakistan Avoid Nuclear War?

World War I Redux: Can India and Pakistan Avoid Nuclear War?

The graves of the fallen in World War I serve as a dire reminder of how the failure of diplomatic engagement and crisis prevention could be catastrophic.


Almost 104 years have passed since the conclusion of World War I, yet its lessons have never been more pertinent. This is especially relevant for South Asia—where India and Pakistan find themselves at odds over Kashmir, a conflict that has been made more deadly by the introduction of nuclear weapons. The similarities between modern South Asia and WWI Europe are notable. In 1914, France desired the return of Alsace Lorraine; today, both Pakistan and India seek to resolve historic disagreements over to whom Kashmir belongs. A century ago, Serbian separatism and nationalist groups like the Black Hand posed a strategic challenge for Austro–Hungarian leaders; today, Kashmiri separatism remains a thorn in New Delhi’s foot. Islamabad’s patronage of groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, only adds fuel to the fire, eerily reminding us of Serbia tolerating the activities of Black Hand. At the same time, Pakistan blames Indian intelligence for fomenting dissent in Balochistan province, an allegation the Indians repeatedly deny. A military engagement between the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces in 2019 following a bomb attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, that killed forty-six Indian police officers serves as a stark reminder of how the actions of insurgents, even when acting on their own accord, and spark interstate conflict. Another such future incident, followed subsequently by a military clash, might escalate out of control.

The deeply rooted Indo-Pak rivalry can be traced back to their independence from Britain in 1947. What has changed is that today’s relations are being influenced by a renewed struggle for global primacy between the United States and China. The United States views India as an integral part of its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been a long-standing Chinese ally and has benefitted from Chinese military sales and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Just as Britain regarded German infrastructure development in the Ottoman Empire with suspicion, New Delhi (and perhaps Washington) views the CPEC with an apprehensive gaze. Indian interpretations of the strategic threat posed by a Sino-Pakistani alliance are only magnified by the clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along their border from 2020 to 2022. India and China have already fought one war in 1962 and strategists in New Delhi now routinely talk about the “two front” threats their country faces. Just like Europe in 1914, the stage is set for a catastrophic clash in South Asia, one that might drag the Chinese to prevent the fall of Pakistan.


India’s economic rise has resulted in military modernization, but leaders in New Delhi still face the daunting task of pulling 300 million citizens out of poverty, especially if they wish to emulate China. On the other hand, Islamabad faces a perpetual economic crisis and should, ideally, have no interest in any conflict. Yet, Pakistan’s historic patronage of insurgent groups that target India has provoked an angry response from the Modi government. Fearing getting blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force, Pakistan has been reining in these groups and jailing their leaders. However, the possibility remains that a few of them might act autonomously, especially after Indian authorities abrogated Kashmir’s special privileges and bifurcated the state. A repetition of the Mumbai 2008 attacks by a few insurgents, even in defiance of Pakistani authorities, would spark a conflict in South Asia, albeit with the added specter of nuclear weapons. The question then becomes whether the Chinese will sit by and watch an allied nation be defeated or mobilize on India’s northern border to prevent an outright Indian victory. The United States would then face pressures to act, either by providing India with intelligence and weaponry, or even mobilizing its naval forces on China’s eastern coast in order to prevent an Indian collapse. Alternatively, the United States could sit tight and do nothing, and accept the consequences of inaction. Such a scenario is highly unlikely, but then again, most of us never thought a global pandemic would bring the world to a standstill either.

In his seminal book Leaders, U.S. president Richard Nixon noted that the essence of statesmanship was to accurately predict a crisis before it occurs and act to prevent it from materializing. Good leaders learn from their mistakes; visionary leaders learn from the mistakes of others. The failure of the Serbs to rein in Black Hand and prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the streets of Sarajevo in 1914 serves as a dire reminder to policymakers in Islamabad about the consequences of using violent groups for geostrategic objectives. Turning a blind eye or failing to prevent another Mumbai-style attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba would result in a clash with India that would be highly detrimental, especially if Pakistan wishes to recover from this year’s devastating floods and get its economy back on track. Pakistan might draw a lesson from the failures of the Ottoman Empire in allaying British concerns about German influence in the Middle East. Islamabad should dedicate considerable time and effort to assuage the Indians that China’s infrastructure projects are only economic in nature and do not pose a military or strategic threat to India.

As for New Delhi, angrily snubbing Islamabad is an emotion, not a policy. The current government in New Delhi might find it useful to castigate Pakistan publically for electoral benefits but a visionary long-term strategy would entail diplomatic engagement. After all, both countries are neighbors, and the cold logic of geography cannot be wished away. Emulating the path taken by Austria-Hungary and embarking on an endeavor to teach the other side a lesson might seem tempting to Indian policymakers. However, just as the Austro–Hungarians discovered, imparting lessons by using military force may turn out to be a costly endeavor. The nuclear missiles that both sides gleefully parade on their national days would kill 125 million people if used. India might also learn a few lessons from Austria-Hungary’s mishandling of ethnic grievances. The key to lasting peace lies in winning the hearts and minds of Kashmiri Muslims, not in declaring martial law or perpetually putting Srinagar under a curfew. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s concerns about Indian patronage of separatist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army in its Balochistan province have to be addressed if India expects Pakistan to crack down on groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.

The Germans and French learned that using violence to readdress historical claims over territory or revise boundary disputes was a suicidal policy. It took the slaughter at battles such as Verdun to drill this harsh reality into the German and French publics (although they still went on to fight World War II). Islamabad and New Delhi have a choice: repeat the same mistake or resolve territorial disputes via dialogue. Seventy-five years after the partition of India and creation of Pakistan, demographic change all but rules out the idea that either side can assert sovereignty over the entire Kashmiri region. It would be unreasonable for India to imagine it could administer the Pakistani side of Kashmir, with its 99.5 percent Muslim population that has grown accustomed to viewing India as a foreign entity. Likewise, the Jammu region now features a Hindu and Sikh majority, ruling out any chance of Islamabad governing the area. The best strategy for both sides is diplomatic engagement—not inaction and angry snubs. Specific strategies that could mitigate tensions would include a resumption of trade, reviving the Track II dialogue between retired government officials, resuming sporting events, and toning down antagonistic rhetoric. Furthermore, if New Delhi feels apprehensive about China’s increasing influence in South Asia, then a proper counter would involve stepping up and strategizing India’s own regional infrastructure development plan and investment initiative in the region—if not in Pakistan, then at least in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. A policy that only involves publically criticizing China will merely make the Indian government appear more belligerent in the eyes of other South Asian leaders, particularly those in Islamabad.  

As for the United States, the appeal to side with the Indians might seem tempting, especially now that the long war in Afghanistan is over. Some might even feel inclined to punish Islamabad for the fall of Kabul. However, it would be precarious to give off any signal that could be mistakenly understood by Delhi as approval to resort to military action—similar to the one the Austrians received from Germany. WWI teaches us that intelligent statecraft necessitates crisis prevention—not duking it out on the battlefield. An Austro-Hungarian-German alliance on one side and a Russo-Serbian pact on the other doomed Central Europe and killed millions. A scenario that sets an Indo-American entente against a Sino-Pakistani alliance is destined to repeat the same mistakes.

Therefore, one of the objectives of American foreign policy in South Asia ought to be the prevention of a war caused by the actions of a few terrorists. A policy focused on crisis prevention would require diplomatic engagement with both Islamabad and New Delhi to prevent a regional conflict as well as cooperation with Beijing, since a nuclear war in South Asia is none of their national interests. Other countries with long-standing ties with both countries, such as Britain and the United Arab Emirates, can also mediate by urging New Delhi and Islamabad to resume dialogue. The graves of the fallen in World War I serve as a dire reminder of how the failure of diplomatic engagement and crisis prevention could be catastrophic.