The coup and the Indian nuclear theology

Print edition : November 06, 1999

Who controlled the nuclear button in Pakistan as the coup was under way? An assessment of the implications of the coup vis-a-vis nuclear weaponisation.

THE interest that the international media have evinced in the coup in Pakistan is undoubtedly in part owing to the fact that it involved the spectacle of a military takeover in an era when such political transitions have become somewhat passe. In the post-Cold War years, the ruling classes in most other nations have discovered far more effective and superficially democratic means to contain dissent or manage internal crises. But the other major reason for the interest undoubtedly stem from the serious concern that is generated by political instability in any state which has nuclear-weapons capability. Who controls the nuclear button at a time when the normal chain of political and military authority of a state is actively disrupted is a question of more than passing interest to most governments and international public opinion.

But, curiously, in India the question of the nuclear dimensions of the coup in Pakistan has not yet triggered a debate on the dangers posed by nuclear weaponisation when there is endemic political instability in at least one of the nuclear-armed states of South Asia. The Indian media have been flooded with self-congratulatory commentary on the swearing-in of a democratically elected government in India at the same time that the coup got under way in Pakistan; little attention has been paid to the coup's implications for the nuclear issue and the evolution of an Indian nuclear doctrine.

The fact that India's leading nuclear theologians have maintained a studied silence on this issue should, however, be entirely unsurprising to those who have read the recently released draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine (dIND). The crux of the matter is that events such as the coup in Pakistan deal a body blow to some of the fundamental assumptions of the nuclear doctrine enunciated by the high priests of Indian nuclear weaponisation.

As is evident from even a cursory analysis of the dIND, India's nuclear weaponisation programme is Pakistan- and China-specific. In this context, a key assumption of the dIND is that peace and security in South Asia can be ensured by the possession of nuclear weapons that act as a deterrent. In other words, it is the balance of terror between India and Pakistan, when both nations are nuclear-weaponised, that will guarantee peace and stability. The dIND says as much, with its entirely unoriginal invocation of the basic principles of deterrence theory. To be sure, the document does not refer to Pakistan directly but the implications vis-a-vis that nation are obvious. The question that is important for any objective analysis is whether the assumptions of deterrence theory will hold when there is deep political instability in one of the states that is a player in the game.

The Achilles heel of deterrence theory, the hyperrationality of which often makes it beguilingly acceptable to many, is the fact that it presupposes that one's opponent will read one's actions and events in the realm of nuclear weapons in the manner that one intends the opponent to. The second problem is that the actual operationalisation of deterrence, when nuclear weapons are really deployed, leads inevitably to situations where the command and control of nuclear weapons is compromised and the dangers of accidental or unauthorised launch become very high. Deterrence theory presupposes perfect command and control since its stated aim is to prevent a nuclear exchange. But the danger of deterrence is that such a level of command and control is never achieved in practice - as the experience of even the most advanced nuclear weapons powers has always shown.

WHO controlled the nuclear button in Pakistan while the coup was under way? Who had the authority to launch nuclear weapons when Nawaz Sharif was attempting to prevent Gen. Pervez Musharraf from returning to Pakistan? Would it have been the orders of the Prime Minister or the orders of the Chief of the Army Staff that would have prevailed with the individuals who physically controlled the arming, the launching and the delivery of nuclear weapons? What are the political inclinations of these individuals, and would they have been susceptible to the enticements of fringe extremist political elements in a short period of extreme instability during a forced political transition? Obviously, India's nuclear hawks have no clear answers to these questions. But in a nuclear-armed environment, the security - indeed, the very lives - of millions of Indians hangs on precise answers to these questions, now and in the future.

Undoubtedly, the nuclear theologians will attempt to dismiss these questions as unduly alarmist in the current context. It certainly appears that currently in Pakistan it is the Army that has physical control of the weapons. But according to reports in the Pakistani media, quoted by The Times of India (August 22, 1999) for instance, the political authority to launch nuclear weapons was to rest with the Prime Minister, while the Chief of the Army Staff was to be the strategic commander. In the event of a conflict between the political authority and the military, whose will would prevail and how would that affect the control of nuclear weapons? Did Pakistan have a mechanism in place whereby the strategic commander could not override the political authority or vice versa? Hardly likely, considering the technical difficulties involved in Pakistan acquiring such a capability and given the internal political constraints. It is also true that the armed forces were solidly behind Gen. Musharraf in the current coup and were hardly disposed to listen to Nawaz Sharif. Gen. Musharraf also moved rather rapidly to assure the world that his regime would exercise nuclear restraint. But is it guaranteed that such a situation would always obtain even in the future?

It is obvious that command and control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons will always be a chancy affair. The compromising of command and control will always be a possibility that cannot be excluded. Indeed, in more extreme crises, a split in the Army would render the situation even more dangerous. If, as was the case with even the current coup, part of the internal conflict was precisely on the question of how to deal with Pakistan's disputes with India, who controls the weapons becomes a matter of great concern. Can an endemically politically unstable state, as Pakistan has been for the last few decades, endure the pressures of a crisis of the proportions of the Cuban missile crisis, scaled down no doubt to subcontinental dimensions, without its command and control giving way? The inescapable conclusion is that the lives of millions of Indians are only as secure as the weakest link in the Pakistani chain of command for its nuclear weapons. Only in the fevered imagination of India's Strangeloves, dedicated to the pursuit of nuclear weapons, could this be construed as security.

THE oft-repeated claim that India's command and control will be more secure because of the civilian control of nuclear weapons cannot also be taken at face value, even if it soothes various representatives of Track II diplomacy from the United States. Apart from being an insult to India's armed forces, this argument suppresses the fact that the most vociferous and hawkish pressures in favour of India's nuclear weaponisation have always come from its civilian sector. The blithe disregard of strategic realities in South Asia by the pro-weaponisation lobby, whether in government or outside, is undoubtedly partly due to the virtual exclusion of the Indian armed forces from both the final decision-making loop as well as the long internal debate that led to the nuclear tests and the handling of the aftermath. And even if ultimate political authority rests with the Prime Minister, it makes command and control no more secure if the physical control of nuclear weapons lay with men in civilian clothing rather than those in the varied uniforms of the defence forces.

But even more disturbing considerations emerge if one tries to analyse more carefully the business-as-usual attitude of the nuclear hawks in India towards the implications of the coup in Pakistan. This attitude in fact has its genesis in the manner in which the Kargil conflict, a classic case of the damage done to India's security by Pokhran-II, was ultimately brought to an end. In Kargil, India's chestnuts were pulled out of the fire partly by the intervention of the U.S. As Pakistan, hoping for international intervention, prolonged the conflict beyond the time period that intelligent political and strategic considerations would have indicated, it was the pressure brought to bear by the U.S. that eventually led to a Pakistani withdrawal. This happened at a time when clearly the Indian government foresaw a long-drawn-out conflict, with high losses in terms of men and material, to regain final control of the territory occupied by the Pakistani intruders. Clearly it was also international pressure that prevented Pakistan from explicitly bringing the nuclear factor into play even though threatening noises did emerge from some quarters.

It is the self-deluding and mistaken reading of these events as a triumph of Indian diplomacy and strategy, in utilising the U.S. to contain Pakistan in the Kargil conflict and force its withdrawal, that has partly emboldened the nuclear hawks in India to produce the aggressive dIND, unmindful of its destabilising effects in the subcontinent. One of the key underlying assumptions of the doctrine is that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P-5) would automatically intervene if Pakistan attempts to raise the nuclear threat in the subcontinent. The gamble is that deterrence will work partly because the international community will not countenance any destabilisation of deterrence by Pakistan. And this is also the reason why the nuclear hawks view the coup with relative unconcern, depending on the U.S. to intervene to ensure that Pakistan continued to exercise nuclear restraint. What if the intervention of the P-5 does not work or that they are unable to intervene decisively on some occasion in the future. These are, of course, questions that only 'naive' anti-nuclear weapons campaigners would ask.

It is clearly this view that finds its echo in an editorial in The Times of India (October 21) calling upon the "international community, and particularly the U.S.", to "emphasise to the Pakistani military what the consequences of any nuclear adventurism are likely to be." The editorial smugly concludes: "It is to cover contingencies of this type that the Indian nuclear doctrine authored by the National Security Advisory Board talks of 'punitive unacceptable retaliation' in case of a nuclear first strike on India." Undoubtedly P-5 intervention against the offender and an Indian second strike would bring considerable cheer to the ghosts of those Indians who would have been vapourised by a first strike.

The fact that this strategy, even in the short term, would require the offering of substantial quid pro quo measures to the U.S., or that it opens the door to worrisome possibilities such as international intervention on the Kashmir question, has been lost sight of in the blind pursuit of nuclear weaponisation. That this attitude is at least partly official is evident from the alacrity with which the newly-elected government has resumed its dialogue with the U.S. on a broad range of issues that have been left somewhat unspecified but appear definitely to include India-Pakistan relations. Indeed, it is National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra who is the first representative to visit Washington.

It certainly appears unlikely that the serious problems that beset India-Pakistan relations can be settled in the short term. There is a huge gap that divides the two nations that it seems will be difficult to bridge without considerable patience and intense and prolonged effort. And undoubtedly the continued instability of democracy in Pakistan complicates the picture. But introducing nuclear weapons into the subcontinent or the production of aggressive nuclear doctrines based on the false assumptions of nuclear deterrence theory seems hardly the way to go about securing peace. The correct first Indian response to its troubled neighbour, post-Pokhran and post-Chagai, remains the acceptance of Pakistan's oft-repeated offer to consider the non-deployment of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent.

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