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India and Pakistan are currently embroiled in their most serious crisis in several decades. While a nuclear exchange between the two sides is highly unlikely, the possibility nevertheless remains, says Michael Kugelman.
For years, it’s been a bedrock principle of international security: Possessing nuclear weapons deters nations from using them in warfare. Indeed, since 1945, no country has used one. However, there’s an important caveat to this: Nuclear weapons may forestall nuclear exchanges, but they don’t deter nuclear states from using military force against each other.
This means that the potential for escalation to nuclear conflict, while remote, is still quite real. There’s no better illustration of this than the India-Pakistan relationship, which is currently embroiled in its most serious crisis in several decades. India and Pakistan fought three major wars before they became nuclear weapons states. But since they achieved formal nuclear status in 1999, they have continued to use limited military force.
They frequently engage in cross-border firing along their disputed frontier, known as the Line of Control. In the 2000s, India staged several limited cross-border raids. In 2016, New Delhi executed what it described as a “surgical strike” — an operation that hit Pakistani terrorist launch pads along the border.
And then came India’s move earlier this week. After a Pakistan-based terror group with deep links to the country’s security establishment carried out an attack in India-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian security personnel, New Delhi retaliated with arguably its most audacious use of force in Pakistan since a brutal war back in 1971.
Indian aircraft, according to New Delhi’s official statements, flew over the airspace of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, crossed into the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and carried out air strikes on Pakistani terrorist targets. Not since the US raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound — admittedly, a much more sophisticated and riskier operation than the one staged by India this week — has such a dramatic military incursion been made on to Pakistani soil.