Nuclear ostriches all?

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

The smugness displayed by Indian and Pakistani policy-makers and strategic "experts" about a possible nuclear conflagration bodes ill for South Asia.

WITH something like a half-thaw in India-Pakistan relations after the visits of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Defence Secretary Donald Rums- feld, there is a great deal of self-congratulation in New Delhi. Some commentators have unleashed a campaign of triumphalism, claiming that a combination of "wisdom" and "strategic shrewdness" based on a "calibrated" armed threat enabled India to get the better of Pakistan and secure a solemn commitment from General Pervez Musharraf to end "permanently" cross-border infiltration of jehadi militants into Kashmir. There are exhortations that India should now press its advantage and make further demands upon Musharraf, while making it clear that it is in no hurry to discuss the Kashmir issue with Pakistan - at least not till the elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly are held.

New Delhi's insistence that it will not demobilise troops concentrated along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir till the Assembly elections due in October - and that troop withdrawal from the international border be made strictly conditional upon verifiable and irreversible progress in dismantling the "infrastructure" behind cross-border infiltration - is being presented not just as a sign of caution, but as a significant step related to the main objective in India's evolving Kashmir policy.

Indian policy-makers are being urged not only to isolate "pro-Pakistani elements" in Kashmir, but take a "firm" stand against any dialogue with the Hurriyat Conference ahead of the Assembly elections. ("Kashmir policy in place, finally", The Hindustan Times, June 11). Thus, the government "is expected to open up channels for reconciliation and accommodation after the installation of a new government in the State. This could include discussions on greater autonomy and greater decentralisation."

The apparent hardening of the official stand on Kashmir is reflected in the detention of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and earlier, of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Yasin Malik, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The message being sent out is that the terms of political contestation in Kashmir have changed in India's favour and that all concerned must acknowledge this.

It needs no great wisdom to see the folly of such a hardline policy precisely at a time when many political currents are opening up to the idea of participating in the Kashmir elections, and Abdul Gani Lone's assassination has produced some sympathy for moderate views which do not reject reconciliation and dialogue with the Indian state. New Delhi may squander this opportunity if it takes a "tough" approach.

Underlying this approach is triumphalism over India's successful "coercive diplomacy" vis-a-vis Pakistan, backed by a ratcheted-up threat of war, with 700,000 soldiers massed along the border. India, it is claimed, rightly defied global appeals for "restraint" and determinately stared down Pakistan. That is why Musharraf agreed to end cross-border infiltration. A related proposition is that India made a "well-thought-out attempt" to get Pakistan's - and Washington's - attention. This attempt was "to make threats that are utterly believable. To be convincing to others (the strategy) had to be so real that even we believe that we are heading for war."

This view is dangerously mistaken. It is not New Delhi, but Washington, that made Islamabad blink. Pakistan was not frightened by the demonstration of India's military prowess, but realised it was isolated and could not withstand American pressure to concede the demand of withdrawing support to jehadi militants. Washington intervened rapidly because towards the end of May the threat of an India-Pakistan military confrontation seemed real; this would have a high potential for escalation to the nuclear level.

It does India little credit that it had to depend on Washington's mediation - and worse, on irresponsible nuclear brinkmanship - to achieve this goal. Truth to tell, what we have been witnessing is nothing short of mediation, with America playing the go-between or peace-maker between the two governments - with its high officials talking to Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf turn by turn, shuttling between their capitals, and sending emissaries carrying proposals.

Although U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been at pains to use the term "facilitation" instead of "mediation", this is a hair-splitting distinction. The U.S. role vis-a-vis India and Pakistan falls fully and firmly within the dictionary meaning of the term "mediate" - form connecting link between; be the medium for bringing about (results); or "intervene (between two persons) for purpose of reconciling them."

India's policy-makers bristle at the term "mediation" because they are still burdened with a hangover from their formally stated past position against any "internationalisation of the Kashmir issue" which, they continue to insist, must be resolved under the Shimla agreement through a bilateral dialogue. Never mind the fact that there has been no substantive discussion of the issue with Pakistan in the 30 years since that agreement was signed. And never mind too that it is this very government which four years ago internationalised Kashmir by linking it with nuclearisation and warning Pakistan that it should understand that the "geostrategic situation" had decisively changed with India's nuclear tests on May 11 and 13.

If L.K. Advani reckoned then (on May 18, 1998, to be precise) that Pakistan probably did not have the Bomb, today Vajpayee himself is guilty of minimising the nuclear danger. Thus, there has been so much irresponsible talk of "calling Pakistan's nuclear bluff". That is why the official Indian response to Pakistan's barely concealed threat to use nuclear weapons was merely that it was "loose talk". This when Pakistan's U.N. representative Munir Akram said: "India should not have the licence to kill with conventional weapons while Pakistan's hands are tied."

CALLING anyone's nuclear bluff is an altogether absurd proposition. Nuclear threats are not a game of poker, based on mere bluff and bluster. The consequences of making a wrong call, or of one's gamble failing, are unspeakably horrendous - especially when the adversary is a known nuclear weapons-state (NWS), with a stated doctrine favouring a first or pre-emptive strike.

Ever since Musharraf said in April in an interview to the German publication Der Spiegel that Pakistan would consider using nuclear weapons "in the event of a war over Kashmir", we have had any number of warnings. For instance, former Chief of the Army Staff Mirza Aslam Beg said, "We can make a first strike, and a second strike or even a third... You can die crossing the street, or you could die in a nuclear war. You've got to die someday anyway." And former chief of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence and Musharraf's present Railway Minister Javed Ashraf Qazi was equally clear: "What is this damned nuclear option for? We will use it against India. If I am going down the ditch I might as well take the enemy with me." On May 22 he argued that if a nuclear confrontation took place, it would lead to "mutual destruction". He said, "If Indians destroy most of us, we too will annihilate parts of the adversary."

Some Indian leaders have indulged in threat-mongering. Thus, George Fernandes last December insisted that those who handle Pakistan's nuclear weapons are "sensible" people, and boasted: "Pakistan can't think of using nuclear weapons. We could take a strike, survive and then hit back. Pakistan would be finished. I do not really fear that the nuclear issue would figure in a conflict." He later said Musharraf would not use nuclear weapons because "I'm sure he doesn't want to kill all the Pakistanis."

The Indian decision-makers' complacency is truly astounding. It is based on trivialising the nuclear danger, in projecting onto Pakistan their own intentions, or on assuming that the U.S. would miraculously prevent Pakistan from using its nuclear arsenal; instead it would disable/destroy it. It is wholly irrational to hold that the adversary will behave as you do, or has the same intentions - especially when he has a different strategic doctrine. And it is utterly unrealistic to believe either that America has access to or control over Pakistan's prized nuclear weapons, or that it can locate and destroy tiny nuclear cores that can be dispersed and hidden.

Yet, some of India's strategic "experts" have confused the improbable with the impossible, and played God. The consequences of this irresponsibility will not be borne by the "experts" who have so often proved disastrously wrong - but by the public.

The potential for the actual use of nuclear weapons in an India-Pakistan conflict is even greater than the likelihood of a nuclear breakout during the Cold War. In some ways, the present standoff is graver than the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Then, Soviet and U.S. leaders were looking for a face-saving formula to defuse the tension. The "natural" propensity of the Indian and Pakistani regimes post-December 13, 2001 has been to ratchet up the war machine competitively in tit-for-tat retaliation - and take conflict to the very brink in the hope that the other side would somehow blink.

Throughout the period of the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR did not fire a single shot at each other. Nor were they contiguous neighbours. India and Pakistan have a 3,300-km-long common border, with virtually no strategic distance between them. They have already fought four wars, three of them over Kashmir, and one of them (Kargil) after overtly crossing the nuclear threshold. During Kargil, they came perilously close to the brink of the nuclear precipice.

Both India and Pakistan have a poor safety culture. Their first-generation weapons have no safeguards such as authorisation codes, tamper-proof safety locks and insensitive explosives - leave alone proper command-and-control systems. (For the frailty of any deterrence equation between them, see Chapter 8 of South Asia on a Short Fuse, Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.)

And yet, the hawks in India make the outrageous claim that India has now blasted the "mental block" imposed by nuclear deterrence. This is a call to spurn even minimal nuclear restraint and launch military action against Pakistan as if its nuclear weapons did not exist!

The time has come for some honest soul-searching and plain-speaking. The grave nuclear danger in South Asia cannot be satisfactorily reduced, leave alone eliminated, without denuclearisation of the region, to the point of dismantling nuclear weapons and fissile material stockpiles. This can be accomplished through a simultaneous rollback of the nuclear weapons programme by each state, through a bilateral agreement, or the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia, which all NWSs respect and guarantee. Progress towards such measures should not be made conditional upon global nuclear disarmament, which remains a worthy and urgent objective.

In the interim, it is vitally important that India and Pakistan immediately negotiate and implement nuclear risk-reduction measures (NRRMs), such as non-deployment, separation of warheads from delivery vehicles, advance exchange of information on each other's nuclear and missile activities, and nuclear safety technologies (for example, one-point safety for bombs). The basic purpose of NRRMs is not to legitimise nuclear weapons or make South Asia "safe" for them, but to reduce the nuclear danger with a view to eliminating it altogether. A Delhi- and Mumbai-based peace group, MIND (Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament), is about to release a document on NRRMs. The peace movement, indeed all concerned citizens, will do well to debate this.

However, NRRMs will not be enough. Ordinary citizens need to be made aware of the special nuclear danger in South Asia - through public education about the genocidal potential of nuclear weapons, about what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the history of various campaigns for disarmament and peace, and about the monstrous absurdity of nuclear war. There is simply no substitute for citizens' awareness on this life-and-death issue. That is the only way to combat complacency.

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