Opinion & Analysis
Deterrence or a Deadly Game? Nuclear Propaganda and Reality in South Asia
By Achin Vanaik
Introduction: A Triad of Views
In early July this year, shortly after India and Pakistan, largely under American goading, had yet again pulled back from the brink of war, the Indian public was witness to an extremely revealing though unintentional display of contrasting perspectives from three senior figures. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the rightwing and Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that the outcome of the crisis showed that India had, in effect, successfully called Pakistan's nuclear bluff. Faced with India's determination and willingness to teach it a military lesson, Vajpayee argued, Pakistan, despite its nuclear weapons, had backed down and promised to implement steps to curb terrorism, hence 'resolving' the crisis on Indian terms.
Around the same time, Dr. Abdul Kalam, emerging as the frontrunner to become the next Indian President, had a somewhat different message for the media. Dr. Kalam - now appointed President - is the former head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and is popularly known as the 'father' of the Pokharan II nuclear tests of May 1998 which emerged from the joint work of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the DRDO. Dr. Kalam declared that the importance of the bomb had been exhibited during the recent India-Pakistan crisis because it was these weapons that had averted any kind of war. This was somewhat embarrassing to the BJP-led government, which had secured Dr. Kalam's candidacy for President, as this was exactly the line being peddled by the Pakistan government of General Pervez Musharraf.
To complete the triad of views, a former Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, General V.P. Malik, went on record to say that though nuclear weapons were eminently desirable, they were largely irrelevant to conventional warfare and could not be expected to deter conventional strikes or war now or in the future. Indeed, according to Malik, they played no deterrent role during the Kargil conflict of 1999, nor in the recent crisis and face-off. While the likelihood of some kind of conventional war between India and Pakistan in the future was real and considerable, however, the General reasoned that nuclear weapons would prevent any nuclear exchange.
Rarely can the illusions within the highest echelons of the Indian strategic community about the presumed virtues of nuclear weapons have been so neatly captured. All three figures believe in the value of nuclear weapons and, therefore, in their deterrent power. The only trouble is, they cannot agree on what this power is or does, and even contradict each other on its role and function. The only constant is to be found not in the supporting or confirming arguments for the claimed efficacy of deterrence, but merely in the regular and repeated assertion of this efficacy.
In order to paper over these embarrassing cracks, believers in the importance of security-enhancement through nuclear weapons have to keep on finding 'virtues' and 'vindications', however sparse or unexamined the evidence for their grand claims may be. Thus, if the brinkmanship practiced by India and Pakistan undoubtedly created great alarm in some circles - at home and abroad, and among both pro-and anti-nuclear advocates - it also found its supporters and admirers, translating such brinkmanship as the rational, hard-headed pursuit of so-called national interests. This is particularly worrisome not just because it legitimises and promotes similar behaviour in the future, but because it also reduces options for genuine, sustainable security-enhancement.
Response and Counter-Response
As an example of futile 'strongarm' tactics, take the Indian response to the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. New Delhi carried out the most massive and prolonged mobilisation of its troops on the border in its peacetime history. This brinkmanship did not stop another terrorist attack taking place in the state of Jammu and Kashmir on May 14, 2002. The Indian government then ratcheted up the tension a few more notches, very close to breaking point. That terrorists are operating from support bases in Pakistan is a given. It is also true that the Musharraf government has not done enough to eliminate their internal support systems. But it is another thing altogether to hold his government directly responsible for those attacks and to threaten official military retribution, i.e. a 'limited' conventional strike on Pakistan. This is the unacceptable 'logic' of American behaviour in Afghanistan threatening to come home to roost in another, altogether more dangerous, context.
Were such a strike to be inflicted, Pakistan would come under immense pressure to retaliate, according to the 'logic' of military escalation at the end of which lies the threat of a nuclear exchange.
Though neither country has declared the open deployment of its nuclear arsenal, it is widely, and almost certainly correctly, presumed that both countries have covertly deployed gravity bombs on aircraft. Both countries may also have advanced considerably towards 'mating' some types of warheads with short- and, perhaps, medium-range missiles. At any rate, the American government took the matter sufficiently seriously enough to warn of a possible war/nuclear war scenario. It even warned its nationals to consider leaving the region, and certainly not to visit it, and withdrew (at considerable expense) much of its diplomatic staff from both countries.
Indian brinkmanship was, in effect, making the prospect of war between the two countries hostage to the actions of a small group of terrorists not fully controllable by the actions of either the Indian or Pakistani governments. Moreover, brinkmanship begets brinkmanship. A Musharraf government already under great pressure from the US presence in the country, and uncertain whether the Indian government would respond positively to American mediation efforts, deliberately invoked the threat of a possible nuclear escalation - making clear that all means available would be used to defend the country - to force an Indian rethink and, no doubt, to increase American pressure on New Delhi. It is in the nature of belligerent posturing of this kind that the governments involved each decry the 'irresponsibility' of the other while claiming positive results from the 'wisdom' of their own forms of 'coercive diplomacy'.
It was no different this time. The dominant representative view of most of the Indian strategic community is that Vajpayee's post-May 14 brinkmanship worked. The US, the West and Russia came out strongly in their declarations against terrorism emanating from Pakistan, publicly putting pressure on Musharraf to act more decisively. The US, in particular, appeared to have tilted more strongly than ever before towards an India with which it is already in the process of cementing deeper ties at the political, military and economic levels.
Of course, the dominant view of the strategic community from across the border is that Pakistan's 'coercive diplomacy' was the victor. Seen through these rose-tinted spectacles, the US and the West were so deeply alarmed by developments that they put inordinate pressure on India. Ultimately, India did not carry out any kind of conventional military incursion as it was threatening to do. Furthermore, it finally settled for a reiteration of promises by Musharraf of a kind that he had already made after the attack on the Indian Parliament, even though New Delhi had been insisting that this time it would not settle for verbal reassurances but would first have to see concrete action on the ground.
The truth of the matter is that it was possible for each side to claim a diplomatic-political victory because, unlike during the Kargil conflict, this time there was no clear or obvious proof of success or failure. If anything, the coercive diplomacy that really worked was neither India's nor Pakistan's but that of the US! But the widely held perception that brinkmanship worked - even when held by only one side, let alone both - is itself deeply disturbing, setting higher and more dangerous levels of 'acceptable' or 'responsible' or 'desirable' political-diplomatic behaviour in the future. And each time a crisis situation gets temporarily 'resolved' without recourse to armed hostilities, the outcome can also be interpreted as testimony to the 'successful' practice of hard-headed, coercive diplomacy.
In congratulating itself in this manner, however, India in particular is painting itself into somewhat of a corner. What alternative to war does the Vajpayee government leave itself - with all the potential for cataclysmic escalation involved - if terrorist attacks on India do not stop, despite all efforts by the Musharraf government and the US? And how realistic is it to expect all such attacks to stop? Already, on July 13, another ghastly incident took place in Jammu and Kashmir, leaving 27 civilians dead.
The opposition is naturally seeking to embarrass the government by pointing to such glaring failures to protect Indian citizens, and by generally seeking to adopt a 'more militant than thou' posture. Many of the BJP's own members are clamouring for some revenge action against Pakistan. But in the face of US opposition to any fresh escalation of tensions, and in view of the current US commitment to preserving the Musharraf government, Vajpayee has adopted an uncharacteristically low profile, far more reluctant than after either December 13 or May 14, 2002 to up the diplomatic-political ante.
But how long can this restraint last if New Delhi continues to hold, in its declared policy statements, the prospects of war between India and Pakistan - or at least the right to 'officially' sanction military attacks on Pakistan - hostage to such terrorist attacks? Either it loses 'unacceptable' face given its current endorsement of the validity and efficacy of brinkmanship politics, or it quietly (if it can, in face of opposition baying and internal dissent) abandons such posturing. Of the latter course, there is no sign. It is necessary to understand why any such policy shift is unlikely in the near future.
Roadblocks to Change
It is likely that Pakistan may see some value in maintaining a situation of low-intensity insurgency in Kashmir. The American presence in Pakistan is both a source of stability and instability for General Musharraf. No government in Islamabad can survive if it abandons political support for the 'freedom struggle' in Kashmir. Musharraf has, thus, an unenviable task. He has to encourage American/international involvement in Kashmir, in keeping with the official Pakistan view that the future of the disputed territory constitutes 'unfinished business' left over from partition in 1947. Even if he has to abandon, in part or whole, logistical-military support for insurgent groups operating in Kashmir but based in Pakistan, he needs to keep the issue on the boil. At the same time, he is fighting his own life-and-death domestic battle against Islamic fundamentalist forces, which have their own three-part agenda, namely: a) to destroy the Musharraf regime, b) to attack and undermine the American presence, and c) to provoke a major conflict between India and Pakistan so as to cash in on nationalist frenzy and jingoism. Given this drastic backdrop, Musharraf has no real interest today, or in the foreseeable future, in provoking a war or even a major escalation of armed hostilities between Pakistan and India. This is the major difference between the Kargil conflict in 1999, and the radically altered, and rapidly evolving, circumstances in the region post-9/11.
India, however, has more reason to provoke a major conflict, viewing the post-9/11 regional environment as offering an unexpected and fortuitous opportunity to achieve long-standing objectives, through force if necessary. If, according to the Bush Doctrine, the US now makes no distinction between groups which carry out terrorist attacks and the government of the country that harbours them - and, indeed, if in the name of a "war against global terrorism" the US is prepared to militarily attack such states - then Washington may be pushed to endorse a similar policy stance adopted by India vis-à-vis Pakistan. Moreover, aggressive action against external terrorism can be used by the Indian government as the excuse to cover up its own political failures, and indeed its own problems with internal terrorism, whether in Kashmir or Gujarat, where a recent anti-Muslim pogrom - carried out, according to reports causing deep shock throughout the nation and beyond, with the apparent involvement of the ruling state BJP - left at least 2,000 dead and as many as 140,000 homeless. Indeed, there is a widespread perception that the central BJP government, particularly Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister L.K. Advani, are using the Gujurat pogrom - while strongly denying any involvement or complicity on the part of the state party or its cohort organisations - to advance its own hardline Hindu nationalist agenda. The basic ideology of the BJP and its allies links communal Hindu action against Muslims to Indian militaristic belligerence against Pakistan. To make India strong - the basic credo and incessant refrain of the BJP - requires the unity of Hindus; a unity founded on collective suspicion and hatred of the 'Other', the Muslim community, which is simultaneously portrayed as a fifth column for Pakistan.
Even though the opposition parties do not subscribe to this view of Indian Muslims, they can be easily derailed by anti-Pakistan jingoism. The BJP and its cohorts, therefore, like their fundamentalist Islamic counterparts in Pakistan, may hope to kill a number of birds through the single stone of an aggressive militaristic nationalism against an external enemy.
The US Presence
If India-Pakistan hostility is not set to recede, what role does the US presence in the region play? A double-edged one, it seems. The US is an important pacifier against the eruption of such enduring hostility into open warfare, with all its frightening consequences and possibilities, even if it cannot offer any guarantees against such an outbreak. But its presence and actions also makes the likelihood of a serious détente or eventual reconciliation between the two countries more remote.
This becomes clearer once one recognises the crucial preconditions for establishing a lasting peace between India and Pakistan. Such a peace would require four conditions to be fulfilled in the longer term. First, Pakistan must move in a more secular and democratic direction, with a decisive defeat of its internal fundamentalist Islamic forces. If Musharraf can be said to have taken hesitant, partial and contradictory steps in this direction, there is no guarantee that he can, or even intends, to fully succeed.
Second, India too must move in a more secular and democratic direction. India is today faced with the greatest ever challenge to its post-independence existence as a secular and democratic polity and society. For the last fifteen years, since the emergence and rise of the BJP as a national force, we have been witnessing nothing less than a battle for the soul of Indian nationalism.
The attitude of the US in this context, it is worth noting, is revealing. Washington is driven by the need for stable and pliable regimes or allies. What kind of domestic arrangements are required to ensure this stability is a secondary issue. In Pakistan, the US is on the side of further secularisation and democratisation. Regarding India, however, Washington is delighted with a government ideologically opposed to key aspects - particularly religious tolerance enshrined in law - of secular democracy.
Third, India and Pakistan must try and move towards each other independently of the United States, rather than try and play the US against each other, a 'game' in which the US holds the best cards and benefits most from its position at the apex of this triangle. As things stand, while each country seeks today to become the most 'allied ally' of the US in the region, the US has no intention of sacrificing the one to the other. While India is important as a major emerging market, a crucial Indian Ocean littoral state, and the single strongest power in the region, Pakistan's post-9/11 significance is also considerable. Most immediately, Washington needs Islamabad to help it detect and destroy al Qaeda cells and contain and identify similar threats. More broadly, Pakistan can be seen as a US staging-post to Central Asia, a region vital not only because of the politics of oil and gas but also as a sphere of interest for three countries - Russia, China, and Iran - recognised by the American establishment as major potential challengers and even opponents. In addition, Pakistan is useful for its close connection to Saudi Arabia, one of the three legs, together with Israel and Egypt, of the US tripod of key Middle East allies.
Historically, Pakistan has long been a fairly reliable client regime of the US, crucial in the Cold War as a base for countering the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Having fallen out of favour in the 1990s - in part, ironically enough, because of its close relationship with the Taliban and its determined pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles - the combination of the al Qaeda threat and the country's emergence as the world's only Islamic nuclear power makes it an indispensable 'friend' of the world's hyperpower.
If the US need for stable, amenable regimes in India and Pakistan means it cannot afford to back one side against the other in the Kashmir dispute, this does not mean it cannot offend both by pursuing its own objectives. It may decide, for example, to back some kind of protectorate-like status for Kashmir, similar to that now established in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This brings us to the fourth, and perhaps major, precondition for peace: achieving a just and permanent resolution of the Kashmir problem. Hitherto, two main actors, India and Pakistan, have sought to monopolise the political discourse on Kashmir and manipulate its trajectory, whether by seeking to bring in a third country or countries (the Pakistan effort), or by trying to keep others out (the Indian effort). Neither country, however, has been willing to allow a genuinely independent and participatory role for the authentic representative bodies of the Kashmiri people on both sides of the border. Yet without such involvement it is truly debatable whether there can a resolution, or even peaceful containment, of the dispute.
If a third party has now entered the terrain of discourse, albeit tentatively for the moment, it is the US. Even India now calls Washington a welcome "facilitator" in the Kashmir imbroglio, notwithstanding the occasional complications likely to result from America's new role. Visiting the region in late July, for example, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to Islamabad's pleasure and New Delhi's dismay, described Kashmir as an issue firmly on the international agenda and called for India to accept international monitoring of the forthcoming provincial assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Such comments and interventions may well mark the thin end of a new wedge, promising to expand the range of possible outcomes to the Kashmir dispute. Even if such a process took root, however, it would hardly constitute an assurance that the wishes and concerns of the Kashmiri people would be listened to or taken more seriously than hitherto.
A Dramatic Deterioration
Just how dramatically matters have deteriorated since the nuclear tests of May 1998 can perhaps be best illustrated by recounting the predictions made by numerous Indian strategic 'experts' at the time, supporting the Indian tests as the beginning of a brave new world of stable deterrence. Six main claims were trumpeted:
1. India and Pakistan will benefit by becoming open, self-declared nuclear powers, as this will lead to greater regional peace and stability.
Relations today between India and Pakistan are at their worst in decades, with at least three major crises, and a state of permanent military alert, since May 1998.
2. The chances of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan will become even more remote.
A nuclear exchange is not inevitable; neither, however, are the chances of such a catastrophe negligible. Nuclear exchange is not merely a worst-case outcome; it is a real-case scenario.
3. A conventional war will be deterred between India and Pakistan.
There was Kargil conflict in 1999, and two near-misses - probably averted by external influences rather than deterrent logic - in early- and mid-2002. Few would deny that the chances of a future military conflict are significant.
4. There will be no competitive nuclear arms race between the two countries.
Both India and Pakistan are today accumulating stocks of fissile materials; both are busy weaponising and mating warheads to missiles; both are enhancing the range and accuracy of their missiles; both are putting in place ambitious command-and-control systems; both are developing elaborate and extensive nuclear doctrines and policies.
5. India will establish a "minimum credible deterrent".
So far, it has not proved possible for the government or strategic community to arrive at a consensual estimate of how much is enough. How, indeed, is such an assessment possible, dependent as it must be on the quality and quantity of weaponry held by perceived rivals? In India's case, the rivals include China, which can be expected to enhance its offensive capabilities now that the US is embarking - with fawning and myopic Indian endorsement - on its fateful national missile defence (NMD) adventure.
6. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, by increasing their respective bargaining power in the world arena, will actually promote the prospects of global nuclear disarmament.
The less said about this absurd argument the better; except to note how disturbingly it echoes the arguments of other nuclear-weapon states, and what an excellent rationale it provides for other would-be proliferators seeking strategic balance and influence, e.g. Iraq vis-à-vis Israel.
Conclusion: A Road to Greater Sanity
There is, however, a road to greater sanity. Even if resolution of the Kashmir issue is possible only in the long term, one can promptly put in place two firebreaks. The first is between cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and war between India and Pakistan. Since 1948, when the cease-fire line now known as the Line of Control (LoC) was established, a United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) has been on location, authorised to investigate complaints over cease-fire violations. In 1972, India declared that it considered UNMOGIP's work to be at an end, while still allowing the Group to function. The Group, with a mere 43 observers, is not currently mandated to report on armed movements across the LoC. But there is no reason why its strength cannot be greatly enhanced, perhaps to around 4,000, and its mandate revised to allow reporting of violations of 'other security commitments' made by the two countries.
Since Pakistan has given assurances that it will not allow its territory to be used as a base for cross-border armed activity, such a strengthened UNMOGIP would constitute an international buffer force, not controlled by the US, capable of checking on the claims of either country and thus help prevent deliberate or tragic miscalculations. The appropriate model here is the work done by the United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), which is mandated to "assist in ensuring the observance of the security commitments agreed by the parties." Despite the opposition of Pakistan, and particularly India, to such a buffer force, a concerted international effort along these lines should be seriously considered.
A second firebreak is required between any conventional war and its possible escalation to the nuclear level. Here, the only adequate remedy is de-nuclearisation, distant as such a prospect may currently seem. Again, the principal roadblock remains India. On five occasions since assuming power in August 1999, General Musharraf has offered to move toward regional denuclearisation with India. In making this offer, he is going against the views held by a large section of the Pakistan establishment that it needs nuclear weapons to balance India's conventional military superiority. He is also, it should be said, going against some of his own official statements about the security value of nuclear weapons to Pakistan. Yet the offer also reflects another view, widespread within Pakistan, that since India is its principal security problem, mutual de-nuclearisation is acceptable and preferable to the continuation of nuclear rivalry, with its disproportionate burden on Pakistan's economy and polity. India's long-standing counter-
proposal is that Pakistan adopt, as New Delhi has, a no-first-use commitment. Ideally, of course, both would be desirable: a Pakistan commitment to no-first-use as a transitional measure while both countries move towards regional de-nuclearisation within a stipulated time-frame.
Unfortunately, there is little short-term prospect chance of either proposal being accepted. But it
remains the only sensible alternative to accepting the current state of affairs and acquiescing in its unfolding and uncertain dynamic. In the most optimistic of cases, this would be a complacent and dangerous stance. In the most pessimistic of cases, it could be disastrous.
Achin Vanaik is a writer and journalist on nuclear issues, and a Fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Among his many publications, he was joint author with Praful Bidwai of 'New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Disarmament' (Interlink Books, US, and Oxford University Press, UK, 2000). In October 2000, Achin Vanaik and Praful Bidwai were awarded the International Peace Bureau's annual MacBride Prize for their outstanding contribution to the South Asian anti-nuclear movement.
© 2002 The Acronym Institute.