Could India and Pakistan Go to War?

By Michael Kugelman

A shooting war is unlikely, but covert activities are a strong possibility.


On the morning of September 18, four men identified by India as members of the Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) stormed an Indian Army base in the town of Uri in India-administered Kashmir and killed 18 troops.

Just a few hours later, a video surfaced on social media that quickly went viral in India.

In the video, an Indian soldier, standing in a bus and surrounded by other troops, energetically recites a violently anti-Pakistan poem. He warns that Pakistan will pay for its attempts to hurt India, and he identifies the names of Pakistani cities that could be destroyed. His fellow troops join him in belting out the poem’s main refrain: “Pakistan, hear this loud and clear: If… war breaks out you will be obliterated. Kashmir will exist but Pakistan won’t.”

Many Indians were singing a similarly bellicose tune in the hours immediately following the Uri attack. Some members of India’s notoriously hawkish media corps openly called for war on Pakistan. A top television news anchor, Arnab Goswami, implored India to “cripple” Pakistan and “bring them down to their knees”. Prominent print journalist Minhaz Merchant declared, “Let guns now talk with Pakistan.” The Indian government got in on this jingoistic act as well. “For one tooth, the complete jaw. So-called days of strategic restraint are over”, a top official with the ruling BJP party, Ram Madhav, posted on Facebook.

Pakistan, meanwhile, responded with its own flurry of angry rhetoric. In a corps commanders conference on September 19, Army Chief Raheel Sharif declared that his country was “fully prepared to respond to the entire spectrum of direct and indirect threats” from India. Pakistan, he vowed, “will thwart any sinister design against [the] integrity and sovereignty of the country”. He was even more direct on September 23, vowing that the Army will defend “each and every inch” of the country “no matter what the cost”.

The good news is that the terrifying prospect of an India-Pakistan shooting war – two nuclear-armed nemeses locked in conflict – is highly unlikely. The bad news is that a more shadowy war, marked by covert activities, is quite possible, if not inevitable.

The Uri attack came at a time of deep crisis in India-Pakistan relations. India is still smarting from an earlier attack on a military base in India, in the town of Pathankot in Punjab state in January, which it also blamed on JeM – a group with close ties to Pakistani intelligence. In March, Pakistan claimed to have arrested an Indian spy in the insurgency-riven province of Balochistan. Meanwhile, India has responded to recent uprisings in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Indian state claimed by Pakistan, with characteristically brutal shows of force that have contributed to nearly 90 deaths in the unrest, outraging Pakistanis.

In the days leading up to the Uri assault, India and Pakistan were waging a nasty war of words, with Islamabad excoriating India for its abusive acts in Kashmir and accusing it of committing terrorism in Pakistan, and New Delhi lambasting Pakistan for its brutal tactics in Balochistan. On the very night before the Uri attack, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif threatened in a television interview to use nuclear weapons against India if Pakistan’s “defence and survival” were endangered.

All this saber-rattling prompts a troubling question: Could the two countries go to war?

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About the Author

kugelman-webMichael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.