While Iran and North Korea dominate Western headlines, tensions between Pakistan and India—two nuclear states that have grown unpredictable—are at the highest levels in over a decade, threatening a potential catastrophic outcome, says Moeed Yusuf. He explains why India and Pakistan depend upon the United States, China, and other powers to work in concert to de-escalate the long running Kashmir conflict. However, the resurgence of great power competition has left Pakistan and India to solve the crisis on their own.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Complete Transcript

Host: The world is paying a lot of attention to the nuclear programs in Iran, with whom the United States has recently withdrawn from a treaty, and North Korea, with whom the United States will be having some talks soon, we think, maybe perhaps not. Also, however, there is a situation in India and Pakistan that is a cause for concern. 

Host: Violence between India and Pakistan on the line of control in Kashmir has been the highest in fifteen years. With these two nuclear armed neighbors and rivals, that could be trouble. To talk about that, we're joined by Moeed Yusuf, assistant vice president for the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace. Moeed Tweets @USIP.

Host: Good morning, Moeed. Thank you for joining us.

Moeed Yusuf: Oh, thank you for having me.

Host: How tense is this situation between India and Pakistan? We've heard about it in the past, but it hasn't really gotten quite as much attention lately with all the attention on North Korea and Iran.

Moeed Yusuf: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. As you said, violence is the highest in over a decade. The two militaries are in a low level confrontation, civilians have been killed in it. One level you could argue that they're pretty good and used to managing this line of control in this sort of ugly fashion. On the other hand, I think that the length of time that this has gone on, it's been a year now that this has been constant...also Pakistan in an election year, the Indian government probably the most [inaudible 00:01:59] on Pakistan in the past two decades. The combination of these factors does not bode well for the region. 

Moeed Yusuf: And then of course, remember two decades ago, then-President Bill Clinton called Kashmir the most dangerous place in the world for a reason. I mean, it could easily be a conversation about two nuclear powers in a major crisis. At the very least, I think we should be paying attention, because one of the things that I've argued is that the U.S. in the past has been central to de-escalating tensions, but at this point we're so distracted, India and Pakistan may not even be sure that we'll be interested.

Host: Right, there's been very little talk about it, at least by comparison. What U.S. interests are at stake here? India, of course the world's largest democracy, and Pakistan in a very crucial place in the world.

Moeed Yusuf: Yeah, look. I mean, the one thing I'd say, when you're talking of a nuclear environment, the first goal and the first interest, quite frankly, is to avoid nuclear war, because the idea that you could have two nuclear powers go at each other and the world's leader sort of sit back and not worry about it, I think is a complete misnomer. 

Moeed Yusuf: At the end of the day, if any nuclear incident happens anywhere in the world, not to say that India and Pakistan are necessarily on the verge of that, I think it's gonna affect everybody short-term and long-term. So I think the first thing we have to keep in mind is this is not a normal, conventional kind of environment. We're talking nuclear weapons here. Other than that of course, the partnership with India, India being a vital part in the Asia Pacific strategy of the U.S. now, and for all the problems with Pakistan, there is still no solution in Afghanistan without the U.S. and Pakistan working together there. 

Moeed Yusuf: So, at the end of the day, I think the region remains crucial. It's China's back yard, but I would still stress, I think the nuclear part just makes it necessary for the world to pay attention.

Host: Talking with Moeed Yusuf from the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. How do India and Pakistan differ from the United States and Russia with our nuclear rivalry going there? Obviously India and Pakistan are a lot closer to each other physically.

Moeed Yusuf: Yeah, that's a good question. So, I've just finished a book that I've been working on for a while, looking at India/Pakistan crises, but specifically the difference between this rivalry and the Cold War super powers. One of the key elements that I find is that the world is very different. When you talked about the super powers, there weren't any stronger third parties that could influence their behavior. In the Indian and Pakistani context, if you start from two decades ago when they tested nuclear weapons, each and every crisis they've had, they've had the U.S., China, other major players come in and de-escalate tensions in crises. So they've almost sort of contracted out or transferred the burden of crisis management to outsiders.

Moeed Yusuf: Now, in an environment where you had the U.S. leading this crisis management effort, others working with the U.S., it worked out very well. In a world where you've got great power competition resurging, where you've got tensions between all the major powers now, with the U.S., to bank on the external third party access to come in and de-escalate a nuclear crisis, I think is risking a lot, and that's India and Pakistan's problem in some ways. They haven't developed very good direct mechanisms to de-escalate tensions like the Cold War rivals had. At the same time, I would bet that in today's world, you could have a coherent third party, if you will, U.S., China, Russia, and others, teaming up to come in and de-escalate tension. So that's sort of an additional risk that we never saw during the Cold War.

Host: Yeah, so they don't really have the red phone, so to speak, that the U.S. and Russia have.

Moeed Yusuf: Well, they have some color of a phone, but it's never used when it's crunch time. So the problem is their mechanisms are not predictable. They don't trust them themselves, and because they don't trust them, they're always looking for third parties, and quite frankly, the U.S. has been very eager to come in and mediate given the nuclear environment.

Moeed Yusuf: You could also argue that if you look at the other nuclear environments, North Korea, Iran, and by the way, just to put in a plug, we have an event at USIP next week looking at these as comparisons. One of the things you again find, is that as much as we've talked about Iran, there are no nuclear weapons at this point. As much as we've talked about North Korea, we've moved on from...well, we think from the toughest part of that crisis in 2017. India and Pakistan tensions are rising and they continue to rise. And so I think to say that they haven't been in the headlines [inaudible 00:07:17] there may be something they can do. No, the empirical evidence suggests that third parties have been crucial and the U.S. role is gonna remain crucial in future crises.

Host: In addition to mediating whatever talks might be going on, what else could the United States do to help these two countries keep things cool?

Moeed Yusuf: That's a million dollar question. You know the crisis management [inaudible 00:07:42] talking about is entirely tactical. You have a crisis, the U.S. shows up, crisis de-escalates, and so far it's worked. But when you talk about dispute resolution, when you talk about sustainable normalization of India/Pakistan relations, the U.S. has been an actor during the Cold War, but it's completely pulled out of that space. And now the policy for a number of years is India and Pakistan need to manage this bilaterally, largely because India does not like dead bodies to come in and mediate their disputes, especially with Pakistan. I have made the argument constantly that the U.S. needs to be more engaged, precisely because the India/Pakistan tension affects the U.S. in the nuclear realm, but also Afghanistan. I mean, Afghanistan is a proxy ground for India and Pakistan to play out their competition, and that of course directly affects the U.S. ability to execute the war there.

Moeed Yusuf: I would say that the consensus in Washington, and this is across the board, is that the U.S. should not get involved in India/Pakistan dispute resolution space because of the aversion that the Indians have to it.

Host: You mentioned Afghanistan and Pakistan of course, they're right in Iran's neighborhood. Are India and Pakistan keeping a close eye on how the United States deals with Iran's nuclear program, and for that matter North Korea's?

Moeed Yusuf: Yes, but not for the reason that this could do something to their nuclear program. I think the idea of denuclearization on the Indian subcontinent is out. The best case scenario is to ensure that we can mainstream India and Pakistan as normal nuclear states. Where they are keeping an eye on Iran, quite frankly, is the Iranian situation complicates things greatly for India and Pakistan. India, because India has major investments in Iran and it accelerated those investments once some of the sanctions started to disappear. And now they're gonna have a serious question because they're a U.S. partner at the same time do not want to lose Iran as their partner.

Moeed Yusuf: With Pakistan, of course, it's the border. They share a border with Iran and any escalational tensions with the U.S., let alone any sort of military option, I think will create a serious problem on the Pakistani border. Already on the Afghan border with Pakistan, they have a lot of instability. India and Pakistan of course are major rivals. So that will be the third out of the four borders that Pakistan has that will be live, so to say. So neither of them want any escalational tensions with Iran. I think secretly both of them want the U.S. to continue the nuclear deal. But at this point, I think they're watching to see what the next step may be.

Host: Certainly reason for concern. Moeed Yusuf, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Moeed Yusuf: You're welcome.

Host: Moeed Yusuf is assistant vice president for the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is holding a discussion on May 30th about the opportunities, challenges, and risk of crises in regional nuclear contexts, and policy options for U.S. diplomacy.

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