India and Pakistan, the two nuclear arch-rivals, have remained embroiled in multi-faceted conflict since independence, posing an incessant risk of inadvertent escalation. Strategic impasses with respect to both states imply perennial-cum-unresolved state of conflicts and tensions, begetting periodic hostilities and perpetual instability. Such deadlocks characterized by territorial disputes such as Kashmir, water issue, limited conventional war, inadvertent and accidental escalation under nuclear threshold serve to be the key point of confliction that entail colossal potential to catalyze and exacerbate the conflict between both states.

Kashmir has remained a source of discord between India and Pakistan since 1947 and both states have fought three wars over it in 1947-1949, 1965, and 1999. Although it is sometimes regarded as ‘frozen conflict’, however, continual skirmishes along LOC and India’s coercive military response or surgical strikes after allegedly blaming Pakistan for sponsoring terrorist attacks in Indian occupied Kashmir (such as in case of Uri and Pulwama attacks), recurrently flicker conflict after brief hiatus. 2024 Annual Threat Assessment report by US intelligence community has regarded Kashmir as Potential flashpoint whereby heightened tensions could potentially cause direct conflict between India and Pakistan. It reinforces that camouflaged-cum-confused spectrum in Kashmir under punitive Hindutva ideology has upped the ante.

At the heart of Kashmir issue is burgeoning water insecurity of Pakistan and India further aggravated by population explosion. “Fierce competition over fresh water may well become a source of conflicts and war in future’ as stated by Kofi Annan in 2001 underlies the possibility of water resources becoming a conflict trigger between both adversaries. Water serves to be pernicious fault line between India and Pakistan since division of Indus Basin System made India an upper riparian and Pakistan as low riparian. Although 1960 Indus Water Treaty has continued to survive hostilities and wars, various loopholes such as lack of quantitative measure concerning water distribution and non-regulation on number of dams’ construction by India have emboldened it to over-exploit treaty. India has been throttling water supply of Pakistan by building dams over Western rivers. Kishenganga Dam on River Neelum will reduce its average flow towards Pakistan by 21%, whereas, Baglihar hydropower project on River Chenab would allow India to inhibit 7000-8000 cusecs of water on daily basis. Currently, India has constructed 14 run-of-river projects on river Chenab and more such projects are underway that could impede Chenab’s water for 20-25 days. Dam building spree of India manifested from current hydropower projects in Indian occupied Kashmir alongside plan to build 93 dams worth Rs 230 billion would provide India to exercise domineer on Western rivers, thereby blatantly violating Indus water treaty. The fierce competition over scarce water sources buttressed by the horrendous ramifications of climate change on Indus Basin could trigger a ‘water war’ between both states.

The risk of conventional attacks under the nuclear threshold implies another potential flashpoint between India and Pakistan. This coincides with India’s limited war strategy (under the framework of Cold Start Doctrine) in order to materialize key political ends through leveraging strategic space below nuclear threshold that is assuredly precarious given the inherent risk of escalation. Resultantly, this strategy of India has horrendous potential to beget uncertainty and instability in region. In case of potential crisis between Pakistan and India, compounding factors such as inability to gauge intentions of nemesis, erroneous evaluation of political goals, inadequate intelligence regarding adversary’s combat strength, and surprise conventional attack could become genesis of conflict escalation.

Another phenomenon in nuclear lexicon which signifies potential cause of instability can be analyzed through Glyn Snyder espoused ‘Stability-Instability Paradox’ whereby nuclear weapons bring stability at strategic level but simultaneously it paradoxically encourages lower level conflicts such as covert operations, proxies, indirect conflicts, and other altercations. Interminable skirmishes and low-level provocations alongside LOC, a defacto boundary separating Indian occupied and Pakistan administered Kashmir area, implies the quintessential actualization of stability-instability paradox. Various incidents such as Kargil conflict (1999) coupled with comparatively recent Uri attack (2016) and Pulwama attack (2019) are pertinent in this regard. Most notable is the Pulwama conundrum as it involved India’s co-called surgical strike at Balakot that marked major violation of Pakistan’s national sovereignty thus necessitating a retaliatory response. Pakistan’s operation ‘Swift Retort’ was a successful response to India’s aggression. Such instances offer valuable insight with regards to occurrence of low-intensity conflicts under nuclear threshold.

Another probability of conflict arises from India’s ill-conceived misadventure and false-flag operations against Pakistan. One of the key examples can be taken of Brahmos Missile Crisis occurred on 9 March, 2022 which although didn’t bring about casualties but underlie the accidental launch of lethal technologies that substantially augments the risk of escalation. The dual-capable cruise missile that made ingress into Pakistan airspace and crashed proximal to Mian Channu raises serious doubts regarding technical safeguard mechanism and security protocols against unauthorized and accidental missile’s launch in a highly volatile nuclearized environment. Such incidents exemplify the circumstances that may lead to inadvertent escalation between India and Pakistan with horrendous repercussions.

Inadvertence or escalation dynamics between India-Pakistan conflict poses three key strategic risks: a) wrong estimate of adversary intensions as well as material capabilities that in turn can cause perilous actions and counteractions; b) Amalgamation of emerging technologies and accurate missile systems is facilitating cross-domain deterrence which provides opportunity for venturing greater risks during crisis situation; and c) Nuclear weapon conventionalisation or ‘Nuclear entanglement’ which inevitably increase the chances of strategic blunders that may turn into accidentals wars, as such entanglements may blur the respective doctrines of both states and invite lethal response by either state given lack of information whether the incoming missile is carrying conventional or nuclear attack.

Pakistan policy responsive must remain holistic-cum-pragmatic that on one hand should deter the adversary while on the other hand reduce the risk of escalation of conflict. At diplomatic level, hotline/ Direct Line of Communication between concerned military and civilian leadership can play an instrumental role, thereby diminishing the risk of miscalculation and mistrust. At national level, Pakistan should cater both traditional and non-traditional sources of conflict. With regards to non-traditional security threat of water crisis, Pakistan needs to invest in water infrastructure and emphasize water management. For curbing traditional sources that may trigger war, Pakistan should amplify its defensive military capabilities in two ways: firstly, Pakistan should increase conventional military capabilities by reinforcing strategic partnership with key allies such as China and Turkey while concurrently focus on indigenous military industrial complex; and secondly Pakistan shall move towards second strike capability for deterring India.


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