What restrains India, Pakistan from nuclear war

Their ‘surgical’ retaliatory strikes on each other after a terrorist attack reveal a constraint driven by a firmer embrace of rules for protecting innocent life.

A worker walks after painting a Red Cross sign on the rooftop of a hospital in Indian-controlled Srinagar Feb.27.

One lesson of modern war is this: Watch your tongue. It might escalate a conflict. India and Pakistan appear to have absorbed this lesson as seen so far during their latest military flare-up.

In retaliatory strikes following a Feb. 14 terrorist attack in disputed Kashmir, each has used an important word to describe their strikes on each other: “surgical.” Translation: We know better than to kill civilians on purpose. Targets must only include fighting forces.

This is a hint at how well the longtime rivals have learned the rules of war, known as the Geneva Conventions, that include protection of innocents in a conflict. Honoring the lives of civilians on both sides, in fact, may be one of the big constraints that currently keeps the nuclear-armed neighbors from full-fledged war.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, acknowledged as much on Wednesday. “I ask India: With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?” he said. “It is imperative that we use our heads and act with wisdom.” He suggested the two sides talk out their differences, which are mainly focused on control of a Muslim majority in Kashmir by largely Hindu India.

India was also careful in how it spoke and acted. Its air attacks were aimed only at the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack despite India’s claim that Pakistan supports the group. Officials called the strikes a “nonmilitary pre-emptive action.”

Since their independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have gone to war four times (three times over Kashmir) with thousands of civilian casualties. Since the two became fully nuclearized in the late 1990s, they have had to calculate the possible risk of millions of civilian deaths. A new mental constraint has slowly set in, along with frequent pressure from outside powers to restrain military action and their own increasing willingness to abide by international norms.

Despite that, India still must learn how to avoid civilian deaths in its suppression of dissent in Kashmir. And Pakistan’s powerful military should adopt a “no first use” doctrine, meaning it would not be the first to escalate a conventional war into a nuclear war. It must also recognize that support of terrorist groups for any strategic purpose is a dangerous move when both nations have nuclear weapons.

In recent years, the Pakistani people have been rightly outraged whenever American armed drones killed civilians in attacks on terrorist groups like the Taliban in Pakistan. Those sentiments are shared by Indians who decry Pakistan’s support for terrorist attacks on civilians in India.

Together, the two countries might find peace by agreeing that the protection of innocence is a virtue that unites them. Issues like Kashmir would be easier to solve by focusing on such a shared value.

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