A major conflict between Pakistan and India should be avoided at all costs.
India and Pakistan have shared a complex rivalry that has been marred by hostility and suspicion since the violent partition of British India in 1947. Today, however, A series of full-scale wars and an incessant string of border skirmishes have left tensions at an all-time high and a single question on the region’s lips: Who would win in an all-out armed conflict?
The very prospect is terrifying. A 2012 study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War suggested that a nuclear conflict between the two powers could result in a global famine, culminating in more than two billion deaths, havoc in the ozone layer, and a decisive crash in crop yields. The report went on to say that it could be the “end of human civilization as we know it”: A statement that sounds absurd. Surely mutually assured destruction is deterrent enough?
Yet, the shadow of an armed conflict war looms over political, social, and economic dialogue between the two regional powers. The hypothetical of a fifth India-Pakistan war must be considered in two parts: The conflict and its aftermath. For the sake of argument, we will postpone the discussion on nuclear capabilities to the end of the article.
The war itself would only occur in the event that India adheres to its ‘No First Use’ policy: That the nation will only use its nuclear arsenal as retaliation rather than aggression. Moreover, Pakistan would have to decide against utilization of their own stockpile, which is unlikely in light of their stated “low nuclear threshold”. Regardless, in the event this occurs, the war would begin in earnest with India’s initiation of ‘Operation Cold Start’: A military doctrine that involves the mobilization of 500,000 troops in under 72 hours and the invasion of military objectives all while remaining under the Pakistani nuclear threshold.
After this point, irrespective of Cold Start’s success, the heavy strategic imbalance would come into play. In absolute terms, India outweighs Pakistan in terms of manpower (while estimates differ by varying degrees, most arrive at this conclusion). Pakistan would also lack the sheer numbers and the technology to cope with the volume of opposing troops, as well as the Indian logistical support
Moreover, India would be able to employ geographical advantages to tip the scales in its favor. With a comparatively frail economic system that is still dominated by agriculture, Pakistan’s economy would be particularly susceptible to asymmetric shocks. During the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, India utilized aircraft carrier INS Vikrant (R11) to impose a naval blockade on what is present day Bangladesh. A conflict today could see the use of a similar strategy, wherein water bodies (that occupy a crucial role in Pakistani primary sector industries) such as the Indus River could be leveraged to apply economic pressures (aside from the inevitable sanctions and embargoes from other states).
That being said, when considering political and social controversy, both nations are similarly disadvantaged. The growing religious divide between the Hindu and Muslim populations of India (the same divide that is fueling calls for armed aggression) has been augmented by frequent mob violence. In Pakistan, the fluctuations in the power center between the civilian government and the military command have resulted in an environment where a lack of ‘aggression’ on the government’s part would result in the loss of political capital. Pakistan also expends a sizeable proportion of its GDP in curbing the influence of tribal militias and local terror outfits.
However, when anticipating foreign involvement, the hypothetical becomes cloudy. First, in order for armed conflict to have broken out, Pacific UN recourse by way of Chapter 6 has (inevitably) failed. Subsequently, the adverse impact on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (in terms of trade disruptions and other occurrences) will result in a worsening of already tense Indo-China relations. Predicting Western responses to a South Asian conflict is also complex. In 1971, during the last India-Pakistan War, the United States and the then-Soviet Union sided with the East Pakistanis (and by extension, India) and Pakistan respectively. While it is possible that geopolitical alignment could result the same way today, the changing political landscape in the US makes the issue difficult to model.
The largest factor in deciding the outcome of this contrived conflict is undoubtedly nuclear weapons (and Weapons of Mass Destruction in general). Pakistan is estimated to possess between 120 and 130 warheads, while India may have between 110 and 120. Furthermore, a recent increase in fissile material production on Pakistan’s part is worrisome, especially when viewed in the context of their ‘low nuclear threshold’. Regardless of first-use policies, however, a nuclear conflict between the two powers would have devastating repercussions for the world in general (as outlined earlier in this article). The environmental and political damage caused would be irreversible, and it would set a dangerous precedent for future wars to come. In truth, the only real outcome of such a scenario is a result in which there is no true winner: A pyrrhic victory.