Four years after Pokhran

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

On the fourth anniversary of the Pokhran-Chagai tests, India and Pakistan are at each other's throats, ready to strike, at the risk of a nuclear conflagration.

FOUR years after they crossed the nuclear threshold, and three years after they fought the Kargil conflict, India and Pakistan again seem ready to go to war. Conditions along their common border, which has been frightfully tense for four and a half months, had further deteriorated even before the terrible massacre of May 14 near Jammu. India cranked up its war machine in the preceding fortnight, reportedly moving the armoured units and artillery of its 2 Corps strike force close to the border. This was said to be part of an exercise codenamed either "Operation Parakram II" and/or "Operation Brahmashava", to be backed up by Indian Air force warplanes (The Telegraph, Kolkatta, May 14).

The alarm bells were sounded in early May when the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Ehsan-ul-Haq warned of a military breakout. Since then, there have been discussions in New Delhi on how to deal with Pakistan's refusal to blink despite the unprecedented border build-up, with over 700,000 Indian troops.

Some mainstream security and foreign policy analysts - hardly known for radical pacifism - had begun calling for an "exit" strategy and an "honourable way out" of the build-up which, they argued, had turned counterproductive.

Then came the Jammu massacre. Whoever was responsible for this, it has occasioned the declaration that "we will not suffer further pain" (Ministry of External Affairs), the loud proclamation that "it... calls for punishment; what... punishment... needs to be deliberated" (George Fernandes), and the promise of pratikar (Atal Behari Vajpayee). That word means "counter", at minimum, and "retaliation", "revenge" or "reprisal", in the wider, more usual, sense. The government has been at pains to interpret it as "counter" or "answer". But a shrewd politician like Vajpayee could not have chosen the word over the simpler Hindi words of uttar or jawab ("reply") without deliberation.

The government is under intense pressure to treat the Jammu massacre as a casus belli and launch "limited" strikes or other offensive measures against Pakistan. Apparently, the options being considered include artillery shelling of targets inside Pakistani territory, "limited" air-strikes, narrowly-targeted commando operations to destroy communication routes close to the Line of Control (LoC), and not least, covert terrorist operations to kill Pakistani civilians. (Shockingly, Union Minister Arun Shourie advocated this last option on television on May 15.)

The only other response being considered (at the time of writing) is further harsh diplomatic measures against Pakistan - although there is no convincing evidence that Islamabad sponsored the Jammu massacre. This too is a misguided approach.

The Jammu killing was ghastly. But it makes little political sense to assume that the Pervez Musharraf regime was behind it. In all likelihood, the culprits were pro-Taliban/Al Qaeda militants frustrated over the U.S.-Pakistan operations against them. At any rate, any rational discussion of New Delhi's response must be located in a context that is far larger than the Jammu carnage.

That context is the Vajpayee government's post-December 13 strategy of brinkmanship, discussed at length in this Column (Frontline, January 18, February 1 and March 15). This is New Delhi's attempt to capitalise on the "anti-terrorist" climate created by September 11 and its aftermath, in order to isolate Pakistan and move closer to the U.S.

India has maintained its huge military mobilisation at an enormous cost, but without clarity about its larger political purpose. The list of 20 "terrorists" handed over in imperious American fashion to Islamabad was not thoughtfully prepared. For instance, it excluded Omar Sheikh (since accused of killing the American journalist Daniel Pearl). Only a quarter of those named are connected with recent violent episodes. Some, like Khalistani militants and Dawood Ibrahim, are accused in cases going back to the 1980s.

NEW DELHI has also sent out contradictory signals about the "bottom-line" for de-escalation. It recently suggested through media leaks that it would be satisfied with a serious commitment by Musharraf to prevent effectively the transit of jehadi militants across the LoC - even if there was no "action" on the 20 persons in the list. Alternatively, if a few of the 20 are arrested, India could lower the level of alert, and de-escalate.

Thus, if Musharraf has not conducted himself honourably or with exemplary honesty in the past few months, nor has the Vajpayee government. It indulges in all manner of devious calculation. For instance, the main rationale for "limited" military operations on the border is to deliver the message that America's Taliban/Al Qaeda operation "cannot afford to dispense with Indian cooperation". India's military manoeuvres will force Pakistan into making "matching deployments" and throw into disarray Islamabad's participation in the U.S.' "war on terrorism".

However, even more questionable than this parochial agenda is the original strategy of brinkmanship itself, fraught with the grave risk of a large-scale confrontation, whether by accident or through passive acceptance of the logic of retaliation. Once troops are on hair-trigger alert, even a minor untoward incident can precipitate a snowballing crisis.

Two such events, albeit far from minor, actually happened in the recent past. First, Lt.-Gen. N.C. Vij moved his 2 Corps troops next to the border, suggesting imminent strikes - an irresponsible move for which he was transferred. And in February, Air Marshal Vinod K. Bhatia unauthorisedly flew a transport aircraft into Pakistani airspace, absorbed a hit, and returned to the home side. (He too has been transferred.)

Either of these events could have been seen as grave provocation and invited a retaliatory response, which might have triggered major hostilities. That is how wars often start.

A terrorist attack killing, say, 10 people would count as an even great trigger in a situation of heightened confrontation. Indeed, it would be part of any nightmare scenario for scholars of strategic studies. The terrible thing about this scenario is its basic unpredictability and lack of causal link with either of the states confronting each other. Any group of militants, whether or not connected with Kashmir, leave alone the ISI, could easily cause such a nightmare event.

There are, after all, extremist groups in the northeastern India, for example, with countless grievances against the Indian state. Indian intelligence agencies have not been able to inspire enough confidence in the public to be able to receive advance information on their plans. Such groups are capable of inflicting mind-boggling damage - leading to an India-Pakistan military stand-off.

What gives such a confrontation a particularly dangerous character is the fact that both states have nuclear weapons. They are planning to induct them into their armed forces, raising special squadrons and missile groups and creating dedicated command structures. (Pakistan is reportedly more advanced in such preparations than India.)

Nuclear weapons will necessarily act as a vastly complicating factor in any subcontinental military conflict, however limited or extended it may be. Their shadow will always hang over the peoples of India and Pakistan, indeed of all of South Asia. The danger is not imaginary. The CIA's "Global Threat 2015" report says that of all the world's regions, the risk of nuclear war is the greatest in South Asia, and this risk will remain "serious".

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 7 and the Senate Arms Services Committee on March 20, CIA Director George Tenet said the chances of a sub-continental war "now are the highest since 1971". He also stated: "If India were to conduct large-scale offensive operations into Pakistani Kashmir, Pakistan might retaliate with strikes of its own in the belief that its nuclear deterrent would limit the scope of an Indian nuclear counter-attack."

One of India's few genuine, thoughtful, strategic experts, General V.R. Raghavan, concurs. In a paper published in The Non-Proliferation Review, he argues that a conventional conflict with Pakistan is likely to escalate to the nuclear level for reasons such as the absence of a stable deterrent relationship between India and Pakistan.

We know from the history of the Cold War that there never was a stable, long-term nuclear deterrent equation between the East and the West, or the U.S. and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Deterrence was always fraught with mishaps, accidents, misperceptions, panic responses - and above all, an arms race which altered the balance of power, and hence the deterrent equation. As more than 60 Generals and Admirals said in a statement, security through deterrence is a dangerous illusion.

The India-Pakistan situation is worse. This is the only region in the world where the same two strategic rivals have fought a continuous hot-cold war for more than half a century. Any number of causes can set off a military confrontation here: routine army exercises, territorial incursions (or fear of these), long-standing disputes, extra-regional events, or purely internal developments (for example, the Babri Masjid demolition).

The rulers have learnt few lessons from the three and a half wars the two countries have fought. The large-scale conflict at Kargil occurred after the two crossed the nuclear threshold. This gave the lie to all kinds of Panglossian prophecies made by the Bomb's apologists about nuclearisation inducing "sobriety" and "maturity" in India-Pakistan relations.

Kargil - involving 40,000 Indian troops and top-of-the-line weaponry, as well as numerous air strikes and naval manoeuvres - was a much more dangerous conflict than it was made out to be, and far graver than what many people thought. It ominously confirms the truth that the chances of a nuclear outbreak are higher in a conflict/war situation rather than in peacetime. India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear threats no fewer than 13 times during the seven-week-long conflict.

THERE is more bad news. A sensational disclosure by Bruce Reidel, who was the U.S. President's Special Assistant for Northeastern and South Asia Affairs at the National Security Council in 1999, says Pakistan's Generals prepared to launch a nuclear attack on India without the knowledge of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Reidel's paper, recently published by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, contains hair-raising information. It deserves a larger discussion, but briefly put, the facts pertaining to Kargil and nuclear weapons are as follows:

* U.S. intelligence had gathered "disturbing information about Pakistan preparing its nuclear arsenal". The weapons were mobilised for actual use. Reidel and other officials feared that India and Pakistan "were heading for a deadly descent into full-scale conflict, with a danger of nuclear cataclysm". They briefed President Clinton accordingly. Clinton eventually confronted Sharif.

* Pakistan's elected Prime Minister was totally unaware of his army's nuclear preparations - just as he had been kept in the dark on the strategy of infiltrating jehadi "freedom-fighters" across the LoC. Sharif was first told the terrible nuclear truth by Clinton on July 4 in Washington.

* Pakistan's Army arrogates to itself all control over information about the country's nuclear activities - to the point of shutting out civilian leaders. Earlier, Benazir Bhutto too had to beg the CIA to brief her on Islamabad's nuclear capability. Her own Army denied her that information - although she was Prime Minister!

* When reminded by Clinton of how close the U.S. and the USSR had come to a nuclear war over Cuba in 1962, an "exhausted" Sharif recognised the "catastrophic" danger, and "said he was against [the preparations], but worried for his life back in Pakistan". Sharif agreed to end the Kargil conflict - much to Musharraf's annoyance. The October coup followed.

These disclosures are an eye-opener. It is futile to use them to highlight how irresponsible and adventurist Pakistan's military leaders are, and how their irrational calculations could start a nuclear conflict. This can only give you cold comfort. For it is India's leadership which cajoled, taunted and chided Pakistan into crossing the nuclear threshold. Sharif decided to conduct the blasts only after L.K. Advani made his May 18 speech on Kashmir, about the changed "geostrategic situation", which now gave India decisive superiority.

It is these same Hindutva adventurists, these narrow-minded, provincial, ill-informed, incompetent bigots, who might inflict on us yet another misadventure of "limited" strikes, which could escalate and turn us all into specks of radioactive dust. They must be restrained, prevented, stopped.

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