Fallout at Kargil: The Nuclear War that Never Was
by Baya Harrison
Half a century of U.S.-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War produced two lessons about warfare in the nuclear era. First, states with nuclear weapons do not go to war with each other. They bluff and threaten. They raise alert levels and ready their missiles for launch. They step to the very brink of the nuclear precipice, but they never take the final plunge into the abyss. The second lesson of the Cold War provides the rationale for the first: war between nuclear-armed states would inevitably lead to a full-scale nuclear war and its resultant horrors. The 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan shattered this conventional wisdom and left the world with more questions than answers about war in the nuclear age.
In the spring of 1998, India and Pakistan demonstrated their nuclear weapons capabilities to the world. Between 11 and 13 May 1998, India tested five nuclear weapons. Pakistan responded fifteen days later with six of its own tests: five for India’s most recent and a sixth for India’s first test in 1974.
The nuclearization of South Asia began a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations. Two contiguous states with a history of war and a bitter territorial dispute could now deliver nuclear bombs to each other’s capitals in three to five minutes. The emergence of nuclear-armed regional competitors revived Cold War era debates about the utility and danger of nuclear deterrence. The logic of nuclear deterrence holds that one state can prevent another from taking an undesirable action by threatening to destroy it or its ability to retaliate. Would fear of a nuclear strike put an end to war as a means of resolving the India-Pakistan conflict? Or would the next confrontation see the destruction of India, Pakistan, or perhaps both? With the outbreak of war within a year of the nuclear tests, these questions ceased to be purely academic.
In December 1998, the Pakistani Army’s 10th Corps and Northern Light Infantry penetrated the Line of Control (LOC) in Kargil, Batalik, Turtuk, and Dras. Reaching heights of 18,000 feet above sea level, this mountainous region was deemed uninhabitable during the winter months. For twenty-seven years, both armies had abandoned their positions for the winter and returned in the spring. General Pervez Musharraf, commander of Pakistan’s Northern Forces, exploited weak Indian intelligence in the region to conceal the Pakistani incursion. Musharraf relied upon troops and supplies readily available to undertake the operation, summoning reinforcements only after achieving substantial territorial gains. By the end of April, over 800 Pakistani soldiers had occupied abandoned Indian positions on India’s side of the LOC.1
India first learned of the incursion from local informants between 2 and 5 May, a full four months after the initial breach of the LOC. Another week passed before the Indian military comprehended the full scale of the Pakistani operation. By that time, Pakistan’s Army controlled an area of Indian territory eleven kilometers deep and two-hundred kilometers wide. From this strategic vantage, Pakistani forces stood poised to disrupt traffic on India’s Highway 1A, the only supply route to India’s forces in the contested Siachen Glacier region.
For the government of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Pakistani control of Kargil was intolerable. Indian infantry and artillery assaulted the Pakistani positions in an offensive to retake the lost territory. The Indian Air Force conducted air strikes against the infiltrators’ positions, marking the first use of air power in Kashmir by either side since the 1971 war. Despite the intensity of the combat, fighting remained localized to the immediate area of dispute. Pakistan did not breach other points of the LOC, and Indian forces did not invade Pakistani territory.2
As the war raged, it became increasingly evident just how dangerous Kargil had become. U.S. intelligence possessed “disturbing evidence that the Pakistanis were preparing their nuclear arsenals for possible deployment.”3 U.S. satellites also detected a massive mobilization of Indian “tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment” in what appeared to be preparation for a cross-border invasion.4
In response to threat of continued escalation, the United States took an active role in ending the conflict. The administration of President Bill Clinton demanded that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif withdraw entirely from the Indian side of the LOC. Prime Minister Sharif and General Musharraf had hoped that the specter of nuclear war would lead the U.S. to ratify Pakistan’s territorial gains and defuse the crisis. The uncompromising U.S. position was both unanticipated and unwelcome in Islamabad. In an effort to win U.S. support, Sharif invited himself to Washington on the 4th of July and met Clinton in the Blair House, the White House’s guest residence.
In tense discussions lasting several hours, Clinton convinced Sharif to withdraw all Pakistani units from India’s territory. The administration was keen to avoid the appearance of giving in to nuclear blackmail, but Clinton promised to take a “personal interest” in supporting India-Pakistan dialogue after the fighting ended.5 Despite strong domestic opposition, Sharif fulfilled his promise to rein in the Army, and the war was over by the end of July. General Musharraf deposed Sharif in a military coup three months later.
The two months of the Kargil War had seen the heaviest fighting between India and Pakistan since the 1971 war. Estimates of casualties vary widely. Pakistan claims that 690 of its soldiers died in combat, and India says it lost 417 of its own. Many sources believe the actual number of casualties to be closer to 1,000 dead on both sides.6
The lessons of the Kargil War are by no means clear. Kargil was a conventional war, though limited, between two nuclear-armed states that did not escalate to a nuclear exchange. Had fear of nuclear destruction deterred both sides from escalating? Or had overconfidence in the deterrent effect of its nuclear arsenal emboldened the Pakistani Army to undertake the incursion in the first place?
These questions illustrate Glenn Snyder’s “stability-instability” paradox of nuclear deterrence.7 Snyder’s paradox is two-pronged. First, war between states with nuclear weapons is less likely to occur, as states fear the apocalyptic consequences of nuclear escalation. Second, and conversely, war is more likely to occur, precisely because the low risk of escalation makes waging war “safer.” Seizing exclusively upon the fist hypothesis, some analysts have concluded that the nuclearization of South Asia has made the region safer.
This conclusion is misguided and dangerous. Since independence, India and Pakistan have fought four major wars and experienced as many crises. The dispute over the status of Jammu and Kashmir remains unresolved. It is not entirely impossible—nor is it even difficult—to imagine a future situation that would bring India and Pakistan to blows once again. The mere possession of nuclear weapons by both sides has raised the stakes of every potential conflict. Every dispute, every impasse, and every provocation now carries the threat of escalation towards a devastating nuclear exchange. In the nuclear age, the slightest risk of another conflict is reason enough to be gravely concerned by the nuclearization of South Asia.
The outlook is not entirely bleak, however, and there is some reason to be optimistic. In a 16 February 2005 meeting of foreign ministers, India and Pakistan agreed to renew a bus service in the divided territory of Kashmir. If begun on 7 April as scheduled, this would mark the first opening of the route since the 1947 division. India and Pakistan also pledged to cooperate on gas and oil pipelines that would enter India via Pakistan, one from Turkmenistan and another from Iran.8 Additionally, the Bush administration has taken a renewed interest in easing tensions between India and Pakistan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to New Delhi and Islamabad on 16 – 18 March signaled a renewed U.S. commitment to facilitating peace between its nuclear-armed allies.9
A failure of the peace process at this juncture, especially one that results in resumed fighting, would be extraordinarily costly to Indians, Pakistanis, and the often overlooked Kashmiris. A negotiated settlement of the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan would be a significant step towards peace in the region. After all, one lesson of the Cold War years still holds after Kargil: states that are not enemies do not destroy each other.
Baya Harrison (’06) is a third year student at Brandeis University majoring in Politics and Economics.
1 Strobe Talbott, Engaging India (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004) 159.
2 Sumit Ganguly, Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions since 1947 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001) 117.
3 Bruce O. Riedel, “American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House,” Policy Paper Series 2002 (Philadelphia: Center for the Advanced Study of India, 2002) 8.
4 John Lancaster, “Kashmir Crisis Was Defused on Brink of War: As U.S. Reviews Showdown, Nuclear Danger Looms Large,” The Washington Post, 26 July 1999, A01.
5 Riedel, 13.
6 Victoria Schofield, Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2003) 219.
7 Glenn H. Snyder, “The Balance of Power and the Balance of Terror,” in The Balance of Power, ed. Paul Seabury (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965) 184-201.
8 “All Aboard?” The Economist, 19 February 2005, 39-40.
9 “Rice to Make First Asia Trip as Secretary of State,” Reuters, 9 March 2005.