June issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

It is the first time in the history of India-Pakistan relations that the possibility of a conflict appears to threaten peace and stability in the subcontinent almost completely. The fear that an eruption of conflict might actually lead to a nuclear exchange is a chilling possibility. However, such apprehensions seem to have had little impact on the leaders of India and Pakistan, both of whom have continued their belligerent rhetoric.

One of the explanations for this behaviour may be found in the divergent views on both sides of the border as to how the tension or conflict will play out. While India thinks that Pakistan will never be able to muster the will to push the nuclear button, Pakistan’s policymakers are of the view that New Delhi would not have the nerve to start even a limited conventional conflict for the fear of Pakistan’s reaction. In fact, the differing perceptions are where the actual problem lies. Or in other words, this is where the threat of the failure of nuclear deterrence would lie.

The use of nuclear deterrence in South Asia dates back to the early 1980s when India and Pakistan had not even announced their capabilities and had not finished with most of the development work on their respective nuclear programmes. In 1964, when rumours of India planning to destroy Kahuta were rife, New Delhi was told of Islamabad’s intention to respond by destroying India’s nuclear facility at Trombey. Again, in 1990, when tensions were high, one heard of Pakistan preparing some of its nuclear devices for delivery in case of further escalation of conflict. The key driving concept at that time was ‘ambiguity.’ It was believed that as long as the adversary had some notion about capability that fell short of complete knowledge, it would deter it from taking any risky military actions.

On one level, this ambiguity naturally dissipated when the two countries conducted their nuclear tests in 1998. At this point, one expected the rules of the game to change with both parties carrying out calculations as to the required level of deterrence. However, all of this was overtaken by Kargil where India and Pakistan got an opportunity to display their still unfinished and unprepared deterrence plans. In fact, Kargil demonstrated the basic problem of deterrence — the dearth of calculations as to the moves that the adversary was likely to make in a nuclear environment. The basic understanding in Islamabad at the time was that given the nuclear umbrella, Pakistan could push its political agenda in Indian-administered Kashmir without invoking a response from India like it did in 1965. That was the year that Pakistan’s army had launched the infamous ‘Operation Gibraltar,’ leading to an all out war between the two countries. In 1999, the understanding was not that Islamabad could force an immediate solution of the Kashmir issue, but that it could up the ante in a manner that India would be forced to negotiate a settlement of the Kashmir issue. Purely from a military standpoint, Islamabad had hoped to acquire a bit of the disputed territory that could then be used in support of the freedom struggle in the valley. This approach is popularly known as ‘salami slicing’ in the nuclear deterrence literature.

During Kargil, Pakistan’s army was completely dependent on the ambiguity factor. The related assumption was that as long as the Indians had limited knowledge of Pakistan’s capabilities and response, New Delhi would not escalate tension. What the GHQ at Rawalpindi did not cater for was Indian calculations of deterrence. According to the Indians, it was precisely the presence of nuclear weapons and Pakistan’s inability to match India’s conventional military capability that would allow New Delhi to force Pakistan down the escalation ladder.

This assumption proved correct because with India’s escalatory tactics, Pakistan was forced to withdraw from Kargil. Although the withdrawal was effected due to international pressure, it was Pakistan’s inability to match Indian military capability that had contributed towards de-escalation as well. The international community’s concern was that any further escalation might result in a nuclear encounter.

Kargil taught India certain lessons. The fundamental conclusion drawn from that event was that the international community could be convinced to force Islamabad to back off from its stance. This appears to be New Delhi’s calculation at this juncture. However, what Indian analysts have not comprehended is that it was easier building a case against Pakistan in front of the world during Kargil because it was an operation that involved Pakistani army regulars. It was this direct involvement that presented Pakistan as an aggressor, and international opinion would turn against anyone who was seen needlessly upping the ante. This is different from a situation where cross-border activity does not involve a military directly. Since it is difficult to prove guilt in such a scenario, it is equally difficult to muster support for direct military action against Pakistan. If India understood the difference between the two situations, it might not have, at this present juncture, escalated tension to this degree. New Delhi, nonetheless, has continued its mobilisation on the assumption that it can do another ‘Kargil’ on Pakistan. It is believed that the international community, for fear of war, would force Islamabad to withdraw all support to the militants that still seem to be operating across the LoC. This assumption is based on another calculation — that Pakistan would never be able to push the button even if Indian forces crossed the LoC or the international boundary.

This, despite the famous interview by Lt. General Kidwai, head of the Strategic Plans Directorate. According to the Pakistani general, Islamabad would use its nuclear option in four situations: (a) India takes Pakistan’s territory, (b) destroys a large part of its land or air force (c) tries to impose a naval blockade or (d) tries to politically destabilise Pakistan and creates internal subversion. General Musharraf had expressed similar views in his interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel . It is important to note that while making the aforementioned calculations, it is not that the Indians are underestimating Pakistan’s national pride or sense of survival, but they are actually basing their assessment on Islamabad’s sense of survival during a conflict. In fact, New Delhi’s assumption is that Pakistani generals are fairly rational and will prefer changing their stance or retreating rather than exacerbating the conflict to a point that nuclear weapons would have to be used. Or even if the conflict escalates, Pakistan would be confronted with the dilemma of choosing between negotiating peace with India or total annihilation. According to India’s calculations, derived from the east/west conflict, the generals would go for the former.

The question that immediately comes to mind then is, why hasn’t New Delhi attacked yet if it is so sure about Pakistan’s possible reaction. There are three reasons for this. First, by escalating tension, New Delhi appears to have launched a psychological onslaught that would tire Pakistan or the international community which would then force Islamabad’s hand and compel it to withdraw support from the militants. Second, the Indian establishment has not completely war-gamed the scenario; hence, there is some fear of an adverse reaction. Third, with the element of surprise, an immediate attack across the LoC would bear minimal dividends. In fact, it would create more embarrassment for New Delhi than Islamabad.

However, one cannot completely rule out the threat of a nuclear exchange. What if a missile armed with a nuclear warhead was to be fired in the heat of the moment? What if during tension escalation there was a breakdown in communication between the headquarters and a strategic unit and the commander in charge miscalculated the situation and ordered the firing of a missile under his command? The first shot would inevitably provoke a response from the other side and lead to unimaginable levels of devastation in the two countries. According to a recent report, an all out nuclear war in the region would kill about seven million people and injure five million more. This estimate does not include the millions, many as yet unborn, who will perish slowly, agonisingly in the course of the next 50 years or more from radiation-related illness.

A glance at India’s favourite target list demontrates that a nuclear attack would also destroy Pakistan’s water system. Indian and Pakistani policymakers need to visit peace museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to learn that there is greater worth in peace than in war in a nuclear South Asia. Perhaps what is even more important than a false national ego is the ability to survive. If only policymakers understood this on both sides of the border, they might not have been dragging their countries into the abyss of war and destruction.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter