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Will India and Pakistan’s Conflict Go Nuclear?

Two nuclear powers have been at war for decades over disputed territory. Can they find common ground?

After 70 years, the conflict between India and Pakistan shows no sign of stopping.

The root of the crisis is a dispute over Kashmir, a region that both nations claim as their own. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars (and one minor one) over the territory. Today, rival armies patrol a heavily militarized Line of Control, while terrorist attacks periodically shatter the peace.

And both sides have nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan have an estimated 130 nuclear weapons each, as well as the planes, missiles, and ships they need to deliver them. As a result, the region is dangerously close to a war that could turn nuclear. If that line were crossed, the consequences would devastate the region and could have disastrous effects on the entire world.

A guard with a shouldered rifle stands between two barbed wired fences, watching a row of armed soldiers walk by.

Troopers from India’s Border Security Force patrol near the Line of Control in December 2001. The Line of Control divides India and Pakistan in the Kashmir region.

Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

A history of violence

In 1947, Great Britain pulled out of South Asia, splitting its Indian colony along religious lines: Pakistan was designed as a land for Muslims in South Asia, while Hindu-majority India became a secular state. Pakistan consisted of an eastern part and a western part, separated by 1,200 miles of Indian land. But Muslims and Hindus were not living along geographically clear-cut lines. Many people found themselves on what was now the wrong side of the border.

One million people died in the horrific sectarian violence that followed the partition.

A massive wave of migration followed the partition, displacing more than 10 million people. Muslims in India flooded into Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan fled to India. Many others chose to stay where they were despite the growing divisions. One million people died in the horrific sectarian violence that followed the partition.

The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was not originally part of either country. After the partition, the state’s Hindu leader wanted to stay independent, but Pakistan and India rejected the idea. Before long, Pakistani forces invaded the region, and the leader chose to join India, even though around 70% of Jammu and Kashmir’s population was Muslim. Indian troops were called in, and war broke out. When the dust settled, two-thirds of the region was in Indian hands, and the two sides were separated by a militarized border known as the Line of Control.

But Pakistan still believes that it’s the rightful owner of Kashmir. It fought two major wars with India in 1965 and 1971, and a smaller one in Kargil in 1999.

A man in thick-rim glasses stares down the sights of a rocket-propelled grenade. A crowd of men look on.

July 22, 1999: Indian defense minister George Fernandes aims a grenade launcher confiscated from Pakistani supporters in Kargil. 

Arko Datta/AFP/Getty Images

A tale of two programs

India began its nuclear program soon after gaining independence. In 1974, India detonated a bomb codenamed "Smiling Buddha" in what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosion." Since then, it’s reported to have produced around 120-130 nuclear bombs. In 2015, India completed what’s known as the “nuclear triad:” the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the air, land, and sea.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program started in 1971. That year, Pakistan fought a war with India that ended in a sound defeat and the loss of East Pakistan—now Bangladesh. Though it’s not clear when Pakistan built its first bomb, it likely had one by the mid-1980s. The country performed its first nuclear tests in 1998, after similar tests by India. Today, Pakistan probably has the same number of warheads as its rival, and a similar ability to deliver them by air, land, and sea.

Near-nuclear conflicts

During the 1999 Kargil conflict, foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad warned that Pakistan was prepared to use “any weapon” in its arsenal. Then came reports that Pakistan had alerted its nuclear forces. International pressure on Pakistan managed to de-escalate the situation, and the war ended without nuclear conflict.

But in 2001, nuclear weapons were back on the table. Terrorists based in Pakistan had attacked the Indian parliament, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, fearing Indian retribution against Pakistan, considered a preemptive nuclear strike. Luckily, the standoff did not escalate into an armed conflict.

The purpose of developing weapons becomes meaningless if they are not used when they are needed.

Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan’s Senate Leader, May 31, 1999

The two sides reached a ceasefire in 2003, but from time to time violence still breaks out along the border. And things seem to be getting worse. The two nations broke off talks in 2014 and have yet to return to the table. Unless they can somehow resolve their differences, more violence is likely. The looming threat of another war—potentially a nuclear one—is always there.

Flashpoint terrorism

India-controlled Kashmir is home to an ongoing separatist insurgency that seeks to either gain total independence or become part of Pakistan. Separatists engage in protests, riots, guerrilla warfare, and occasional terrorist attacks—all of which raise tensions between the two countries.

The largest militant group opposing India in the region is Hizbul Mujahideen. The group is based in Kashmir, but carries out attacks in other parts of India, too. In August 2017, the U.S. government declared it a terrorist organization.

A crowd watches as fire-fighters move to control a blaze through the facade of an intricate hotel.

On November 29, 2008, terrorists carried out multiple coordinated attacks on the city of Mumbai. Here, locals watch as the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel burns after an armed siege.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Two other prominent terrorist organizations have also carried out attacks in India: Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Based in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the 2008 attacks that killed 166 people in India’s largest city, Mumbai. Jaish-e-Mohammed is a homegrown Kashmiri terrorist organization linked to an attack on an Indian Army base in September 2016 that killed 17 soldiers. Both groups were likely involved in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament.

India claims that Pakistan supports these groups financially and militarily. Pakistan denies this, saying it only offers “moral support” to rebels fighting an illegal occupation of Kashmir. In either case, these groups can be counted on to add fuel to the fire.

The water war

Another problem is ratcheting up tensions in Kashmir: water. Several major rivers flow from India into Pakistan. Under the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, India and Pakistan agreed to share these resources. But a changing climate and growing population have put more pressure on the demand for water. Suddenly, it seems like there’s not enough.

A flowing dam is viewed between the crossing silhouettes of two mountains.

The Baglihar Hydroelectric Power Project spans the Chenab River in Jammu and Kashmir, India. Under the Indus Water Treaty, the waters of the Chenab are allocated to Pakistan.

ICIMOD Kathmandu

After militants attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir in September 2016, India declared that it planned to speed up the construction of dams in Kashmir—which would affect Pakistan’s water supply. India also announced it would stop working with the Indus Waters Commission, which was established by the Indus Water Treaty. Pakistan has warned that if India acts against the treaty, it would regard it an act of war.

Blood and water cannot flow together.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, September 26, 2016

What if the unthinkable happened?

If 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs were dropped on cities in India and Pakistan, 20 million people would die instantly from the bomb blasts and ensuing fires and radiation. Firestorms would erupt, releasing massive amounts of smoke into the upper atmosphere. This would cause a 10% reduction in global precipitation and a sudden drop in temperature. Crops would suffer as smoke blocked the sunlight and growing seasons became shorter.  The climate would be impacted for at least a decade, perhaps longer.

Their best estimate is that more than 2 billion people would be at risk of starvation.

Reports from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility estimate the effects of a limited nuclear war on the earth's climate and agriculture. The results are alarming. The physicians initially estimated that one billion people worldwide could die from starvation. However, additional research by environmental and agricultural experts from Rutgers suggests that the number may be much larger. Their best estimate is that more than 2 billion people would be at risk of starvation.

A group of school children stand on a tarmac airstrip and watch a man point towards a series of missiles that are displayed in a row.

Schoolboys look at a display of jet fighters and missiles during celebrations to mark Pakistan’s Defense Day at the Nur Khan military airbase in Islamabad. The country’s nuclear capabilities are a point of pride for many.

Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Pathways to peace

For meaningful change to happen, Pakistan needs to rid itself of the terrorist groups that call it home. But this is no simple task. Analysts and government officials claim that political foot-dragging and sympathetic supporters make it hard to stop the flow of money to terrorist groups. Some terrorist groups are even connected to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

A man walks past abandoned razor wire.

People living in the mountainous region along the Line of Control found that life began returning to normal after the 2003 ceasefire agreement—but tensions soon began to rise again.

Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

The conflict is emotional for the citizens of both countries, and, as a result, it's also highly political. Perhaps if political leaders shifted the conversation to focus more on economic and social issues, the situation could gradually cool down. But, everyone agrees it’s a long road.

Two older men wearing vests clasp hands in agreement.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif  shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at in Lahore on December 25, 2015.

Getty Images

Can the international community do anything to stop this crisis? In the past, India and Pakistan have asked the United States, China, and Russia to help with diplomacy. These countries could continue to help the two sides work towards peace. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the governments of India and Pakistan to find their solution—the global community can only support that work.

The stakes are high. If India and Pakistan don’t resolve their differences, it could end in nuclear war. And that would mean disaster not just for the citizens of these rival nations, but for everyone, everywhere.

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