It has been a surreal week. As tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated, it has been necessary to contemplate the frightening possibility that the previously unthinkable prospect of nuclear war between the two countries might just come to pass. The confusion generated by the contradictory narratives being propagated by both sides has only been amplified by the spread of rumour and falsehood on social media, and matters have certainly not been helped by the role played by an embarrassingly uncritical and nationalistic Indian media that has shrilly and unceasingly worked to inflame public opinion and instigate yet more conflict. At the same time, academics, policy wonks, and other experts have been drawing on theory and history to try and make sense of what is going on; terms like ‘deterrence’, ‘ladder of escalation’, and ‘nuclear threshold’ are bandied about while game theory is involved to try and predict what India and Pakistan are likely to do next. These dry debates, with all their jargon and models, seem strangely disconnected from the possibility of tens of millions being consumed by nuclear fireballs blossoming across the subcontinent. Any rational person should balk at the prospect of such an outcome, but it is a testament to the insanity of the times we live in that it is precisely these kinds of eventualities that are being coolly assessed by those at the helm of affairs.

At the time of writing this column, Wing Commander Abhinandan, the Indian pilot captured by Pakistan earlier this week, had just been returned to India in what Prime Minister Imran Khan termed a gesture of peace. Yet, it is still unclear if this move will yield a de-escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan; just minutes after Abhinandan crossed the border at Waqah, reports emerged of heavy clashes along the Line of Control with numerous civilian casualties on both sides. While many would agree that Pakistan’s repeated offers of dialogue with India represent a mature approach to resolving this current crisis, India’s refusal to engage thus far is also not entirely unexpected; even independently of the electoral imperatives that might be driving Narendra Modi and his BJP to fan the flames of war, as well as the exhortations of a complicit media that continues to feed the Indian public a glorified and sanitized vision of what war in South Asia would look like, hawks in India now appear to be coalescing around the idea that ‘pre-emptive strikes’ and incursions across the border represent a viable means through which to counter the threat posed by Pakistan-based militants without breaching the threshold of conventional conflict that would lead to nuclear retaliation. Following their logic, sustained clashes of the sort seen this past week are acceptable if they manage to achieve India’s longer-term strategic objectives while stopping short of triggering all-out war.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it places a tremendous amount of faith in the ability of decision-makers on both sides to correctly read the signals they send each other and avoid the kinds of inevitable miscalculations that transform minor conflicts into more massive conflagrations. Perhaps more importantly, the ‘stability/instability paradox’ highlighted by scholars working on nuclear deterrence indicates how the presence of nuclear weapons ironically emboldens states to take greater conventional risks when confronting each other; while fear of nuclear war may preclude all-out confrontation – the ‘stability’ side of the equation – it also leads states to continually pursue military options below the imagined nuclear threshold confident that matters will de-escalate before they get out of hand. Other than the fact that the exact location of the so-called nuclear threshold will always be a matter of speculation and calculation that can only be definitively resolved when these weapons are used, it is worth asking if being in a state of constant conflict and insecurity is really the new normal Pakistan and India wish to experience in the years to come.

There is much that needs to be done if peace is to be secured in the subcontinent, and the first step must be a categorical rejection of the idea that there can be a military settlement of the conflict between India and Pakistan; at best, it would only lead to the kind of destructive back-and-forth seen this past week and at worst, it would reduce both countries to radioactive wastelands. Moving forward, India would do well to reflect on its failed Kashmir policy – which has arguably triggered this latest round of hostilities – as well as the creeping fascism that has enabled a fanatical political leadership and its supporters to hijack the political discourse and smother all talk of peace and reconciliation. In Pakistan, now more than ever it is imperative that the powers-that-be pause to reflect on how the policies of the past continue to undermine the country’s prospects for a better tomorrow. As Imran Khan himself has repeatedly pointed out, few countries have lost as much to terrorism as Pakistan, with a cost in blood and treasure that continues to be paid. Yet, it must be understood that much of this has been self-inflicted; the patronage extended by the state to Islamist proxies in order to pursue broader strategic objectives in the region has come with a terrible domestic price in terms of the spread of religious intolerance and bigotry, the rise of sectarian conflict, and the perpetration of acts of terror targeting soldiers and civilians alike these past two decades. Lest it be forgotten, the groups that coalesced together to form the TTP and their ilk across the country did not suddenly emerge overnight; they were offshoots of the same entities that the state had previously worked with in Afghanistan and elsewhere and were produced by the same infrastructure from which other militant proxies have historically emerged.

In the past week the closure of Pakistani airspace and the more general instability in the region have undoubtedly exacted a toll on the country’s economy. Internationally, few countries have been willing to offer their full support for Pakistan’s stance on the conflict and the unfortunate reality is that there appears to be a much more receptive audience for the Indian argument that Pakistan is sponsoring terror on its soil. Therefore, at a time when the FATF remains poised to blacklist Pakistan for its failure to comply with international norms regarding controls on terror financing, it is frankly incomprehensible to see the country’s foreign minister appear on TV to defend people like Maulana Masood Azhar, a man that the world almost unanimously agrees has been involved in terrorism. Regardless of whether Pakistan was involved in what happened at Pulwama, the continued impunity with which Masood Azhar and organizations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad operate in the country is clearly problematic and must be addressed as soon as possible. One must ask what it will take to finally lead the powers-that-be to act; if billions in lost resources, diplomatic isolation, and the prospect of nuclear war are not enough, what is? Are these individuals and organizations so valuable that they merit risking the lives and livelihoods of millions of Pakistanis who seek nothing more than to live and work in peace? It would be a mistake to capitulate before Indian aggression and arrogance but again, dealing with Masood Azhar and his ilk is not something that Pakistan should do because of any external pressure; it is something that needs to be done because it is in the best interests of Pakistan itself.