Responding to the Indo-Pakistani Crisis

Report Asia

Responding to the Indo-Pakistani Crisis

June 20, 2002 18 min read

Authors: James Phillips , Jack Spencer, Dexter Ingram and Dana Dillon

Although tensions between India and Pakistan have subsided slightly following Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visits to both countries, the situation in South Asia remains extremely volatile. The arch-rivals, who have fought three wars since 1947 (including two over Kashmir), continue to keep their military forces on high alert. Another terrorist attack against Indian targets in Kashmir or elsewhere could trigger a major clash, which could escalate rapidly into a nuclear exchange with horrendous humanitarian consequences for the region. Even if the conflict does not involve nuclear weapons, it could seriously affect the war on terrorism, radicalizing more Muslims, boosting the al-Qaeda network's efforts to provoke a "clash of civilizations," and undercutting the Bush Administration's attempts to persuade the governments of Muslim countries to purge radical Islamist terrorism from their lands.

Any attempt by Washington to resolve the contentious feud over Kashmir before the two sides are prepared to make substantive compromises will fail. Both India and Pakistan have taken firm and irreconcilable positions on Kashmir. Neither country is prepared to back down from its claims to sovereignty over Kashmir, despite the efforts of the United Nations over the years to separate the two sides and encourage resolution.

The United States should not try to insert itself into this conflict. It can only be resolved for the long term by India and Pakistan. But the likelihood that al-Qaeda terrorists will seek to inflame the dispute to destabilize the area and breed further Islamist radicalism means that the United States cannot remain uninvolved.

Washington should encourage the United Nations to continue its work to settle this dispute peacefully and strengthen the U.N. observer force monitoring the line of control. The United States also should actively encourage the establishment of democratic civil societies instead of states based purely on sectarian grounds. And it should avoid selling technology to either side that could be used to attack the other.


Fighting in Kashmir has intensified since the 1948 U.N. resolution calling for a plebiscite in the predominantly Muslim territory to allow the people to determine whether they would be part of India or Pakistan,2 and a 1949 cease-fire negotiated by the U.N. that gave Pakistan control of one-third of Kashmir and India control of the remainder.3 The plebiscite has never been held, and both India and Pakistan are adamant that the issue must be settled through bilateral negotiations. Meanwhile, India's army has clashed repeatedly with Pakistan-supported separatist insurgents in its sector. The last U.N. resolution demanding a cease-fire was passed on December 21, 1971.4

Pakistan's sponsorship of insurgency in Kashmir has evolved from moral support for an indigenous uprising into military and logistical aid for Islamic terrorists and the al-Qaeda network. Originally, the Pakistani strategy was to keep the Kashmir issue alive by assisting Kashmiri "freedom fighters" to resist the often-brutal occupation of Kashmir by the Indian army. But its ambitions grew following the success in 1989 of the indigenous mujahideen (holy warriors) in neighboring Afghanistan, who with Pakistani, U.S., and other foreign support forced the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops. Islamabad sought to duplicate that military success on its western border by ratcheting up military support for the Kashmir insurgency on its eastern border.

The current uprising began in 1989 and has gotten steadily bloodier. Even though some Kashmiris grew tired of the struggle or resisted Pakistani control, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which coordinated Islamabad's support for the insurgents, began recruiting foreign Islamic extremists to bolster the insurgency. Today, anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of the terrorists who infiltrate into India from Pakistan are not from Kashmir; they are motivated not by Kashmiri nationalism but rather by the spirit of jihad (Islamic holy war).

Before the fall of the ultra-radical Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Muslim extremists from Kashmir and elsewhere were trained in camps inside Afghanistan and then moved across Pakistan to Kashmir to join the jihad. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network played an important role in financing, training, equipping, and coordinating the movements of the foreign volunteers.5 Al-Qaeda also is believed to have played a role in the December 13, 2001, terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament that killed nine people and set the stage for the current confrontation.

Following the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001, Washington pressured Islamabad into withdrawing its support for the Taliban regime and to cooperate in breaking up bin Laden's terrorist network. However, Pakistan continued supporting the jihad in Kashmir. The Indian government, which saw the Islamic extremist threats in Afghanistan and Kashmir as two sides of the same coin, undoubtedly was encouraged by the U.S. military victory in Afghanistan. Some Indian security officials have indicated that they believe Washington's relations with Islamabad will inevitably deteriorate.6 This mindset may lead New Delhi to miscalculate how much Washington would back Indian military action against Pakistan.

In view of the unrelenting and pernicious nature of the terrorist attacks against India, public opinion in India strongly favors military action against Pakistan.7 Another significant terrorist attack against India could provoke New Delhi to take military action despite international pressure against it. Although Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has pledged to halt the infiltration of Muslim extremists across the border, an estimated 2,500 militants already lurk in Indian-controlled Kashmir and could launch further attacks that could provoke a massive Indian military response.8 The strategy of the Islamic extremists in Kashmir is to undermine Indian control, radicalize the Muslim population, and provoke a "clash of civilizations" between India and Pakistan. They also want to engineer the downfall of President Musharraf, who has acted against them, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.

Over the past 50 years, many foreign governments, political figures, and the United Nations have offered to help resolve the Kashmir impasse. All efforts have been stymied because New Delhi strongly resists third-party negotiations. Its position is that Kashmir is a bilateral problem between Pakistan and India and that third parties would not contribute to the resolution of the problem.

Islamabad and New Delhi both view Kashmir as an integral part of their respective countries. India, which is over 80 percent Hindu, nevertheless has over 100 million Muslims--the third largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. For India, as a multiethnic, multi-religious country, Kashmir is no more alien to its secular federal system than any other ethnic group or religion. Nevertheless, India's ruling party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), is unapologetically Hindu nationalistic, and often is pressured by party extremists to support Hindu causes at the expense of the country's Muslims. In the western state of Gujarat, Hindu and Muslim mobs massacre each other over Hindu extremist attempts to build a temple on the site of a destroyed mosque and show strength against Kashmir nationalism, and the firebombing of a train by a group of Muslims in February that killed almost 60 Hindus.

The BJP's hardline positions have weakened the standing of the governing coalition among the more secular general population. Consequently, the coalition has little political capital to resist calls for military action against Pakistan.9

New Delhi clearly believes that it can fight and win a limited war in Kashmir, despite Musharraf's May 27, 2002, warning that Pakistan would use its "full might" (i.e., nuclear weapons) in a war. Musharraf subsequently softened his rhetoric and promised to crack down on Muslim militants. But if Musharraf fails to follow through on this pledge with a sustained effort to halt cross-border attacks by Muslim militants, then war probably is inevitable. Pulling the plug on the militants is very unpopular among Pakistani Islamists, nationalists, and the army. It could cost Musharraf his job and possibly his life.

A war with India would limit Pakistan's ability to root out the remnants of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces believed to have taken shelter with Pakistani supporters in the unruly tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier province. It would divert Pakistani troops from the western border with Afghanistan to the eastern border with India, which would severely affect the U.S. war on terrorism. Pakistan would be out-gunned by the much larger Indian army, air force, and navy, which could tempt Islamabad to use its nuclear weapons to avoid a military defeat. A military defeat or Pakistani back-down, meanwhile, could lead to the overthrow of the Musharraf government and the establishment of a government more supportive of the radical Islamic movements in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Washington must continue to pressure Musharraf to end all Pakistani support for terrorism and to purge the ISI of officers sympathetic to Islamic extremism who could resist his order to halt support for Kashmir insurgents. Steps like this will demonstrate that Islamabad has learned that, after September 11, supporting terrorism is a losing strategy for which it would pay a heavy price.

The United Nations placed truce observers on the ground in Kashmir in January 1949. Since 1971, the United Nations Military Observer Group has attempted to monitor the cease-fire line between India and Pakistan. While New Delhi maintains that the mandate for this group lapsed following the 1972 India-Pakistan Simla Agreement, Pakistan disagrees. The group now consists of 44 military observers from nine countries and 64 civilian support personnel who monitor the 460-mile long line of control. This force could and should be strengthened without requiring a U.S. presence.


The capabilities of the Indian and Pakistani armed forces are significant enough to raise grave concerns in the international community.

Ballistic Missiles

According to the unclassified Executive Summary of the 1998 report of the bipartisan Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, chaired by current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, India is developing its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the means to deliver them. It has

a number of ballistic missiles from short range to those with ICBM class capabilities, along with a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and a short range, surface ship-launched system.... It is aggressively seeking technology from other states, particularly Russia. While it develops its long-range ballistic missiles, India's space-launched vehicles provide an option for an interim ICBM capability.10

India's nuclear-capable missile tests in April and June 2000, January 2001, and January 2002 underscore its determination to become a missile and nuclear power. In 1999, it unveiled a proposed nuclear doctrine, stating that the Prime Minister is authorized to use nuclear force in retaliation for an attack by a nuclear state.11

Today, India has well over 100 ballistic missiles. Its first test of a missile occurred in 1972 when it fired the two-stage Rohini-560. Since then, India has constructed a number of rocket systems, from short-range ballistic missiles to space launch vehicles (SLV). These systems rely on domestic technology as well as technology contributed by other states. India's Agni ballistic missile series is based largely on technology obtained from the United States as part of India's SLV program. India hopes that demonstrations of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities put muscle behind its foreign policy.

India also is hoping that its newly achieved nuclear power status will bring global political recognition of its importance and win it a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council as one of the world's largest democracies. But this would not be in the best interests of the United States. Adding more members to the Security Council only increases the complexity and difficulty that exist in negotiating agreements. Moreover, India historically has sided with the United States less than 22 percent of the time in votes in the U.N. General Assembly.12 By contrast, Russia has sided with the United States 46 percent of the time.13 Finally, rewarding India for becoming a nuclear power would undermine longstanding U.S. positions against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles, encouraging other countries to seek nuclear capabilities.

Islamabad has made developing a potent ballistic missile force a top priority of its military modernization program. The Rumsfeld Commission reports that:

Pakistan's ballistic missile infrastructure... will support development of a missile of 2,500-km range.... [which] will give Pakistan the technical base for developing a much longer-range missile system. Through foreign acquisition, and beginning without an extensive domestic science and technology base, Pakistan has acquired these missile capabilities quite rapidly.14

Pakistan began its domestic missile program in the early 1980s and, within a decade, had tested two missiles (HATF 1 and HATF 2) that it claimed were produced domestically. Since then, Pakistan has established a relatively advanced production capacity in a relatively short period of time vis-à-vis other developing countries. Much of Pakistan's success stems from its cooperation with other countries. For example, China and North Korea provided Pakistan with missile systems, technology, and production facilities. Pakistan's Ghauri series of missiles is a copy of North Korea's Nodong missile.

Pakistan probably has the ability to produce solid-fuel rocket engines and multi-stage boosters. According to the Rumsfeld Commission report, Pakistan's production capabilities are more advanced than North Korea's. On April 6, 1998, Pakistan tested the Ghauri-1 missile; the next month it conducted nuclear tests. In May 2002, Pakistan held three ballistic missile tests over three days, sending clear political signals to its rival.

Nuclear Scenarios

Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons and the capability to deploy them.15 A computer model simulation of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan shows that, even in the simplest scenario, the initial blast alone would kill thousands instantly and radioactive fallout would affect hundreds of thousands.

Heritage analysts employed the U.S. Department of Defense's Consequences Assessment Tool Set (CATS) software to analyze such scenarios. Factoring in weather conditions, the size of the nuclear missile, the population of the target area in 1998, and the delivery method, the analysis provided detailed tallies of the likely casualties.16

The first scenario involves conventional ground forces from India invading possible Pakistan terrorist training camps, such as the one Indian intelligence says is in Muzaffarabad. In an effort to fight off the attacking Indian troops in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan explodes a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb. The model shows more than 3,400 civilian deaths in Pakistan and approximately 5,000 Indian military deaths. The radiation fallout would affect about 29,000 residents of Kashmir. Due to the easterly winds in the area, much of the fallout would continue into India, affecting tens of thousands more people.

The second scenario shows India and Pakistan escalating their conflict to a nuclear exchange against border cities. A single 12-kiloton strike by India on Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, would result in about 122,000 immediate deaths across the 1.75-mile initial blast zone, with an additional 150,000 to 300,000 people exposed to high levels of lethal radiation outside of that zone. A 10-kiloton retaliatory strike against Amritsar, a leading city in the Indian border province of Punjab, would result in about 112,000 deaths with almost twice that number affected by lethal fallout.

The final scenario examines a nuclear exchange against each of the capital cities. In Islamabad, with a population of more than 900,000, a 12 kiloton fission bomb would immediately kill 115,000 civilians, with another 195,000 deaths attributed to the fallout. Similarly, a 12 kiloton fission bomb in New Delhi, India's capital, would have an immediate death toll of 125,000 and an estimated 365,000 civilian deaths from the fallout.

The Pentagon has estimated that an all-out nuclear exchange by both countries would result in a death toll of 12 million people, with millions more falling victim to major health problems resulting from the radioactive fallout and contaminated food and water supplies.17


Before tragedy or terrorism can strike again, the United States should continue to use its diplomatic good offices to encourage both sides to reduce the tensions. However, the United States government must avoid trying to act as the mediator between these two intractable foes. Past history shows that U.N. resolutions are ineffective unless the governments of India and Pakistan choose to abide by them, implement their mandates, and cease fighting.

Nevertheless, the United States has a strong interest in making sure that they do so. The intensity of the conflict provides fertile ground for the radical Islamist terrorists who seek to bring down any government that is not in line with their extreme fundamentalism. They are a threat not just to peace and stability in South Asia, but to every region in the world.

To help India and Pakistan settle the dispute before it escalates into a nuclear conflict, the United States should offer the continuing use of its diplomatic good offices and:

  • Encourage the U.N. to strengthen its observer force on the line of control (the United States must not provide that force). The United States also should actively encourage the establishment of democratic civil societies instead of states based purely on sectarian grounds.
  • Restrict the selling of technologies to either side to those that further peace. For example, selling India or Pakistan monitoring technology that detects breaches of the line of control is good policy. But selling long-range surveillance equipment that would permit either side to more effectively or accurately attack each other is bad policy.
  • Resist India's calls to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Such a step would hinder effective negotiations within the council and reward India for policies the United States opposes, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by becoming a nuclear state.


India and Pakistan have the capacity to settle this dispute over Kashmir themselves and to quell the terrorist activities that seek to inflame it. Both countries have shown themselves to be intractable. Mired in a territorial dispute that has been exacerbated by religious and ethnic tensions, they have gravely intensified the dispute by pursuing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

Although the United States should continue to encourage India and Pakistan to settle this dispute themselves, it should not attempt to insert itself as the mediator or provide troops for a new U.N. military observer force. A bilateral agreement reached freely by India and Pakistan is the best means to allow the people of Kashmir to live a future in peace. In the long run, the people of Kashmir, India, and Pakistan would be far better off in resolving the crisis this way than in risking a dangerous slide into stubborn brinkmanship, which could trigger a nuclear war.

James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs and Jack Spencer is Defense and National Security Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, Dexter Ingram is Database Editor in the Center for Media and Public Policy, and Dana Robert Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. The authors would like to thank Carrie Donovan, production coordinator in Heritage's Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, for her contributions to this report.

2. U.N. Resolution No. 47, April 21, 1948. Kashmir is a territory of 86,000 square miles. Its population of about 12 million is 80 percent Muslim.

3. U.N. Resolution No. 80, March 14, 1950.

4. U.N. Resolution No. 307, December 21, 1971.

5. See James Phillips, "Defusing Terrorism at Ground Zero: Why a New U.S. Policy Is Needed for Afghanistan," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1383, July 12, 2000.

6. Bharat Verma, "Pakistan the Next Battlefield," Indian Defense Review (New Delhi), June 2002, p. 2.

7. Claudia Kolker, "India's Citizens Worry Little About Armageddon," Houston Chronicle, June 9, 2002.

8. Nicholas Kristof, "August 1914 in Pakistan," The New York Times, June 14, 2002, p. A35.

9. Sadanand Dhume, "Tough Mission," Far Eastern Economic Review, June 13, 2002, p. 21.

10. "Executive Summary," Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, Published Pursuant to Public Law No. 201, 104th Cong., July 15, 1998, p. 15.

11. See Pamela Constable, "India Drafts Doctrine on Nuclear Arms," The Washington Post, August 18, 1999,p. A1.

12. Larry M. Wortzel and Dana R. Dillon, "Improving Relations with India Without Compromising U.S. Security," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1402, December 11, 2000, pp. 4-5.

13. Paolo Pasicolan, ed., U.S. and Asia Statistical Handbook, 2001-2002 (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2001), pp. 110.

14. "Executive Summary," Rumsfeld Commission Report, p. 16.

15. The 1998 nuclear tests conducted by both India and Pakistan produced yields in the 12 kiloton range.

16. Heritage analysis based on hazard prediction models in the SAIC Consequences Assessment Tool Set. Population modeling based on world population numbers. Weather patterns depict historic trends for that region.

17. Thom Shanker, "12 Million Could Die at Once in an India-Pakistan Nuclear War," The New York Times, May 27, 2002, p. 5.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom

Dexter Ingram

Senior Policy Analyst

Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst