Lahore Declaration and nuclear issues

Print edition : February 27, 1999

IN the context of India-Pakistan relations it is undoubtedly better to talk, if only to differ, rather than not talk at all. But on the core issue of eliminating the threat to peace and stability in the sub-continent from a potential India-Pakstan nuclear standoff, there is little good news for the peoples of the sub-continent from the results of the week-end exercise.

The key message of the Lahore Declaration as well as the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is that the two governments are bent on holding course towards nuclear weaponisation, whatever be the political, social and economic costs. Any move towards the non-induction and non-deployment of nuclear weapons in the sub-continent was simply not up for discussion.

History, much referred to in this exercise, will lay the blame for fritterring away this opportunity to halt moves towards a nuclear-armed South Asia primarily at India's doorstep. A matching response to Pakistan's declared willingness to discuss the non-deployment of nuclear weapons was clearly never on Vajpayee's agenda. Indications of Pakistan's readiness for such a discussion have not been lacking over the past few months. Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Sartar Aziz, had made it clear in a television interview in November last year (reported by The Hindu of November 12, 1998), that Pakistan would not deploy nuclear weapons if India took the same position. A few weeks later, on December 12, the position was reiterated by Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Shamsher Ahmed, in the background of a visit to Islamabad by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Karl Inderfurth. Ahmed noted that if India did not deploy or weaponise, Pakistan would not have any justification to do so. Notwithstanding the flood of rhetoric, Prime Minister Vajpayee had nothing to offer Nawaz Sharif on this score.

In the current scenario, it can be firmly predicted that the bilateral consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines, promised by both the Declaration and the MoU, will be of little assistance in promoting peace and stability. The nuclear defence postures of the two nations are no secret. The BJP-led Government holds to a policy of the unilateral deployment of nuclear weapons, a peace-threatening and destabilising move, even if this is accompanied by the offer of a no-first-use pact. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made it clear that Pakistan will respond in kind to India's weaponisation, welcoming this as a move to offset India's strategic superiority in the area of conventional arms. As a corollary to this, Pakistan has made it clear all along that it had little use for a mutual no-first-use agreement. The mainstream of pro-weaponisation policy-makers in India emphasise nuclear weapons primarily as a strategic and political tool, as the currency of an illusory super-power status, underplaying for now other aspects. Pakistan's rationale for weapons has a distinctly more military, war-fighting-oriented flavour. Finding any conflict-avoiding, peace-oriented common ground in these nuclear defence postures will be an exercise in reconciling positions that are fundamentally irreconcilable.

The stage is being set for a continuing arms spiral in the sub-continent with a new, distinctly nuclear, edge to it. In the Declaration and the MoU, appropriate noises have been made about nuclear risk-reduction measures. But both nations are, in practice, reconciling themselves to nuclear brinkmanship in the future. The possibility of an accidental or unauthorised nuclear launch is a key issue even with the nuclear arsenals of the advanced nuclear weapons states despite their advanced command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) systems. A nuclear stand-off in the subcontinent is unlikely to lead to a different situation.

In the initial stages, the nuclear weapons of India and Pakistan will not be on a high-alert status similar to that of the advanced nuclear weapons powers. But given the low level of national means for intelligence in the two nations, each will be substantially in the dark regarding the other's capabilities. This will lead to potentially dangerous situations in times of tension or conflict. It will also render the two countries vulnerable to misinformation from third party sources. Pervez Hoodbhoy, well-known Pakistani physicist and anti-nuclear weapons activist, has pointed out that both Pakistan and India would, most probably, opt for a dispersed deployment of nuclear weapons. In such a situation, with low-level C3I capabilities, the natural strategy would be to promote the decision-making autonomy of nuclear-armed units, multiplying the dangers of unauthorised use of nuclear weapons.

The development of C3I systems is likely to be a protracted, technically difficult, and expensive business. But, it is unclear whether there can be any C3I system which can cope with the complications posed by the geographical closeness of India and Pakistan. Nuclear-armed missiles, when developed, will have very short flight times. It is highly unlikely that any warning can be given in the event of an accidental or unauthorised launch that will enable the targeted country to take any kind of preventive action. The time taken for judging the genuineness of an alarm will also be extremely short, enhancing the danger of retaliatory action.

Essentially, the Declaration and the MoU promise that the two parties will play the deterrence game well and 'safely'. At least in large part, it appears like a promise directed at the nuclear weapons powers and the economically powerful nations, led by the United States, which have put strong diplomatic and economic pressure on India and Pakistan. There is little objective reason for the peoples of the subcontinent to take these arguments at face value.

The sole positive move has been the confirmation and indefinite extension of the moratorium on nuclear testing. But given that the one thing the two governments agree on is an eventual signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, this should hardly cause any surprise.

Hope for the future lies in the fact that, for all the hype, nuclear weaponisation in the subcontinent will proceed slowly. There is time for new political leadership in both countries to display the wisdom needed to draw the subcontinent back from the brink of nuclear weaponisation by undertaking fresh peace-oriented initiatives.

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