An ominous stand-off

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Recent developments suggest India and Pakistan are rapidly moving towards the deployment of nuclear weapons - with potentially disastrous consequences.

AS India and Pakistan carry their eyeball-to-eyeball military confrontation into its third month, can their citizens, and the larger world, feel reassured that the stand-off will not get out of control, by accident, overreaction or miscalculation? Is there real clarity on India's aims behind mobilising 700,000 troops and putting them on full alert, or on the conditions under which de-escalation can begin? Does India hope to secure the release of all 20 terrorists in its list, which curiously excludes Omar Sheikh? Or will it settle for some or all of the 14 Indian citizens? Does Pakistan understand those conditions? Are the two countries' political and military leaders reading the signals right? The honest answer to these questions must be 'no'. This is worrisome evidence that New Delhi and Islamabad continue to misread each other's intentions and plans, to think largely in worst-case-scenario terms, and to trade accusations and counter-charges.

Take General Pervez Musharraf's astonishing February 13 statement at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars in Washington, obliquely suggesting that India may have carried out a nuclear test, in addition to the January 25 test-flight of a new, improved short-range version of the Agni missile. To quote Musharraf verbatim: "The missile test carried out by India, and some information, some news even, of maybe a possibility of a nuclear test, is most untimely and may I also say, provocative." Indian officials promptly, vociferously, denied this. And some unnamed U.S. officials were quoted as saying "we don't have any information that would suggest anything like that having occurred". It is far from clear if, as claimed, Musharraf shared "this information" (which he admits is not "conclusive evidence"), with the U.S. Many Indian newspapers poured scorn upon Musharraf's charge that India might be preparing to conduct some kind of nuclear tests. Some attributed his charge to paranoia.

There is another way of looking at the issue - on the frank assumption that we do not know the truth about India's testing plans, including sub-critical tests, as well as test explosions; our secretive government is extremely unlikely to reveal the truth. That hypothesises that either New Delhi was dissembling, or Musharraf was indulging in wild, paranoid, speculation about India's actions and intentions: there was no Indian test, nor preparation for one.

Neither hypothesis is very reassuring. The second, in particular, implies a serious misreading of India's capabilities and intentions. This is part of a dangerous pattern replicated by both sides for at least two decades. The pattern involves making boastful claims about one's nuclear and missile prowess, and running down the adversary's capabilities - on the dubious assumption that the technologies in question are "advanced".

Thus, Indian leaders, misled by the nuclear scientocracy, repeatedly ignored until 1998 signs of progress in Pakistan's nuclear programme right since 1987 - when A.Q. Khan granted an interview to Kuldip Nayar, declaring "we have" the Bomb. Indeed, until Pakistan's first test of May 28, 1998, many influential figures in the Indian establishment refused to believe that Islamabad had the Bomb. Home Minister L.K. Advani's speech of May 18, threatening a "pro-active", aggressive Kashmir policy in the changed "geo-strategic" circumstances, was based on that hopelessly mistaken assumption.

This gives the South Asian nuclear standoff a particularly nasty, perhaps uniquely ominous, aspect. Put simply, two important pre-conditions for the feasibility of any kind of deterrent equation - however unstable and degenerative it may be - do not obtain here. These are, one, that adversaries have fairly reliable, accurate, knowledge of their ability to inflict "unacceptable damage" upon each other through nuclear weapons. And, two, they will adopt an extremely cautious approach as regards military confrontation.

Thus, ever since the USSR acquired nuclear weapons in 1949, there never was any doubt about its ability to inflict "unacceptable damage" upon the U.S., and vice versa. By the 1960s, both sides had the capacity to raze numerous mainland cities. By the 1970s, they had enough firepower to destroy the entire globe many times over - by the mid-1980s, some 50 times over. Both were clear they could not countenance tens of thousands civilian deaths in a nuclear attack.

Thus, Eisenhower in the late 1940s turned down proposals for a "preventive war" against the USSR. "How could you have one?" he asked, "if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, several cities where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled?" There has been little ambiguity for decades about the world's first five nuclear states' (N-5) ability to wreak devastation upon one another (although with its 20 or so long-range missiles, China's second-strike capability vis-a-vis the U.S. might be in doubt). That is one reason why the N-5 have not traded nuclear threats against one another in a cavalier fashion, especially since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

As for the reluctance to start a conventional conflict, the U.S. and the USSR never fired a single shot at each other although they fought terrible proxy wars in the Third World. The sole exception to the absence of conventional war among the N-5 was the limited and sporadic Ussuri river conflict between the USSR and China. The assumption always was that a nuclear war was far too catastrophic to risk. There must be no conventional war either, with its potential for nuclear escalation.

By contrast, India and Pakistan fought an intense, prolonged medium- or large-scale conventional war, at Kargil, within a year of going nuclear. Now, they again confront each other with almost a million men at the border - their biggest-ever mobilisation, and one of the greatest anywhere since the Second World War. Their political and military leaders have widely varying definitions of "unacceptable damage". Some may think sacrificing 200,000 Indians or a million Pakistanis is not unacceptable. Farooq Abdullah even said it would be worthwhile to risk a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan: "We all have to die one day." To complete the picture, Defence Minister George Fernandes two years ago propounded an outlandish strategic doctrine: nuclear weapons only deter nuclear weapons, not conventional arms; nuclear powers can safely fight - and win - limited conventional wars against each other!

And now, some strategic hawks are advocating that India should "send clear signals to Pakistan by publicly debating how to administer some jabs before de-escalating. Limited retributive measures would aim to inflict calibrated pain and symbolically puncture Pakistan's Kargil-rooted belief that its nuclear weapons are an effective shield against Indian retaliation."

It is in this climate, one that favours military and nuclear misadventurism, that India and Pakistan are proceeding rapidly towards filling the gap between the manufacture of nuclear weapons and missiles, and their induction into military forces. India is taking the lead. Pakistan is likely to follow, as in the past. There are several indications of this.

* The test-flight of Agni-I on January 25. This missile is both road- and rail-mobile. It is claimed to be much lighter and more accurate than the older versions - Agni, range 1,500 km, and Agni-II under development, 2,000 to 2,500 km. The new missile uses an all-solid fuel. This offers a major advantage over the liquid fuel used in the second stage of the earlier models, which is corrosive and requires prolonged filling. This takes India one step closer to full readiness.

* The Vajpayee government has authorised the armed forces to use the shorter-range Prithvi missile in the battlefield, according to The Pioneer (January 31). This is conditional: it must be the "last resort", under the "utmost restraint". But it does devolve this critical decision-making power to the Services chiefs, as distinct from the apex political leadership.

The Prithvi has a range of 150-250 km, depending on the payload. It is nuclear-capable. The authorisation comes in response to a request from India's Chiefs of Staff Committee for directions for action in the eventuality of Pakistan using its short-range Hatf missiles.

Although the authorisation is (presumably) limited to the missile's use with conventional warheads, this status can easily change. In practice, adversaries have no sure way of telling if an incoming missile carries a nuclear or conventional warhead. Missile flight-time between Indian and Pakistani cities is as little as three to eight minutes - too short to determine whether an approaching warhead is nuclear or conventional.

* The Hindustan Times reported (February 15) that Indian Air Force and Navy personnel are being sent to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to learn how to handle nuclear devices. The training courses are aimed at building "synergy" between the DAE and the operators of nuclear weapons.

Under the existing division of labour, the DAE holds the nuclear cores, while weapons and delivery systems are with the armed forces. The training is meant to "establish vital linkages" between the two. An officer is quoted as saying: "These courses are meant to ensure complete clarity in the deliverer's mind about the process and the safety measures. So far, the drill has largely been at a conceptual level."

* India is also negotiating the acquisition of two nuclear-powered submarines from Russia. The two "Bars" class multi-role submarines are likely to be leased in 2004 and deployed in the Indian Ocean to "balance" China's growing presence.

This is significant because India's own nuclear submarine development project has repeatedly failed to deliver. In 1988 too, India had leased a Soviet nuclear submarine for three years. Nuclear-powered submarines can stay under water for up to a year and hence carry a big element of surprise.

* India is trying to buy long-range Tupolev nuclear bombers from Russia. Pakistan is also scouting the market for similar equipment.

The closer India and Pakistan move towards actual deployment of nuclear weapons, the harder it will be to roll back the nuclear arms race and advance processes of nuclear restraint and disarmament.

The arms acquisition programmes are buttressed by elevated nuclear rhetoric and India's acquiescence in the new ultra-hawkish approach to proliferation in George Bush's 'State of the Union' address. Examples of the first are Army chief Gen. S. Padmanabhan's January 11 statement, and the Navy chief's January 16 pronouncement hinting that India has a second-strike capability. Gen. Padmanabhan warned that although "nuclear weapons are not meant for war fighting", India would severely punish any state that is "mad enough to use nuclear weapons against any of our assets". He said, "The perpetrator shall be so severely punished that his very existence will be in doubt. We are ready for a second strike."

However, even more far-reaching is India's passive acceptance of Bush's new counter-proliferation doctrine, which violates the half-century-long consensus, which holds that the spread of weapons of mass destruction can only be stopped by political or peaceful, not military means.

When Bush said, "I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer, the U.S. will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons", he was no longer talking about merely extending the "war on terrorism", but of launching a series of larger wars to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. He was speaking of replacing diplomacy with military force. As The New York Times commented, "the application of power and intimidation has returned to the forefront of American foreign policy."

This is an ominous development. It will legitimise the routine use of military force as the preferred instrument of state policy. It will potentially replicate the example set by Israel's act of brigandage in bombing Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 to eliminate the "proliferation danger". We now know that Bush's father too was under pressure from Republican hawks in 1994 to bomb and destroy a North Korean facility where some spent-fuel rods from a nuclear reactor were supposed to have been stored. He resisted the pressure. His son is likely to capitulate to it.

It is a matter of shame that there have been no words of caution and restraint from New Delhi on any of this. It has maintained an unconscionable silence on the U.S.' reportedly advanced plans to attack Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Nor has there been any noise from South Block on the "Axis of Evil", comprising North Korea, Iraq and Iran. The very least that the term implies is close coordination between the three. But North Korea has little contact with the other two. And these two have fought bitter wars, and continue to be rivals, although India has good relations with both.

New Delhi's genuflection before the arrogant, imperious U.S. is complete even as that Hyperpower divides the rest of the world into "vassals" and "tributaries". Where does Vajpayee's India belong?

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