International Meeting

World Conference against A and H Bombs

Praful Bidwai
National Coordination Committee member, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP)

Lessons from South Asia's Nuclearlisation

A little over four years after they crossed the nuclear threshold, India and Pakistan are again perched precariously at the brink of war. Conditions along their common border have been frightfully tense for seven months. And yet, they have not begun to de-escalate the military build-up, said to be the world's biggest mobilisation of troops since World War II.

India and Pakistan have become less, not more, secure thanks to their nuclear weapons. In recent months, they twice came close to a bloody confrontation, during which even a "limited" conventional conflict was
liable to escalate to the nuclear plane. On both occasions, at the end of January and in late June, it is external intervention alone that prevented armed hostilies from breaking out.

Neither state has learnt any lessons from their major conflict three years ago at Kargil, at the Line of Control in Kashmir. This was the world's greatest-ever conventional war between two nuclear weapons-states, involving 40,000 Indian troops and hundreds of air sorties, besides top-of-the-line
armaments in both countries. More than 1,000 men died in the seven-week-long undeclared war.

The danger of another, probably much more destructive, war has not passed. The spectre of a nuclear catastrophe will continue to haunt South Asia until India and Pakistan demobilise their troops and launch a process of dialogue and mutual reconciliation.

The context for this seven months-long eyeball-to eyeball confrontation was set by September 11 and the armed attack of December 13 on India's Parliament by militants, claimed to be Pakistanis. This inspired the Vajpayee government's post-December 13 strategy of brinkmanship, best seen as an  attempt to capitalise on the "anti-terrorist" climate created by September 11 and its aftermath, in order to isolate Pakistan and move closer to the US.

India has maintained its huge military mobilisation at an enormous cost, but without clarity about its larger political purpose. Soon after December 13, it handed over a  list of 20 wanted "terrorists" in  imperious American fashion to Islamabad.  But this was sloppily prepared. New Delhi then sent out contradictory signals about the "bottom-line" for de-escalation: "action" on the 20, or a serious commitment by Pervez Musharraf to effectively prevent the transit of jehadi militants across the LoC.

Thus, if Musharraf has not conducted himself honourably or with exemplary honesty in the past few months, nor has the Vajpayee government. Nerw Delhi has failed to reciprocate Islamabad's  move of early July promising to end "cross-border infiltration" of militants into Kashmir verifiably and "permanently". It has only taken paltry and token measures, thus allowing tensions to run high.

Above all, it has refused a dialogue on Kashmir with Pakistan.

Even more questionable than this response is the original strategy of brinkmanship itself, fraught with the grave risk of a large-scale confrontation, whether by accident or through passive acceptance of the logic of retaliation. Once troops are on hair-trigger alert, even a minor untoward incident can precipitate a snowballing crisis.

Two such events actually happened in the recent past. First, a corps commander moved his troops next to the border, suggesting imminent strikes.  And then, an Air Marshal unauthorisedly flew a transport aircraft into Pakistani airspace, absorbed a hit, and returned to the home side. Either of these events could have been seen as grave provocation and invited a retaliatory response, which might have triggered off major hostilities. That is how wars often start.

What gives such a confrontation a particularly dangerous character is that both states have nuclear weapons. They are planning to induct them into their armed forces, by raising special squadrons and missile groups, and by creating dedicated command structures. (Pakistan is reportedly more advanced in such preparations than India).

Nuclear weapons will necessarily act as a vastly complicating factor in any subcontinental military conflict, however limited or extended. Their shadow will always hang over the peoples of India and Pakistan, indeed all South Asia. The danger is not imaginary.

The CIA's "Global Threat 2015" report says that of all the world's regions, the risk of nuclear war is the
highest in South Asia, and will remain "serious".

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 7 and the Senate Arms Services Committee on March 20, CIA director George Tenet said the chances of a sub-continental war "now are the highest since 1971". He also testified: "if India were to conduct large-scale offensive operations into Pakistani Kashmir, Pakistan might retaliate with strikes of its own in the belief that its nuclear deterrent would limit the scope of an Indian nuclear counter-attack".

One of India's few genuine, thoughtful, strategic experts, General V.R. Raghavan, concurs. He argues that a conventional conflict with Pakistan is likely to escalate to the nuclear level because of the absence of a stable deterrent relationship between India and Pakistan.

We know from the history of the Cold War that there never was a stable, long-term nuclear deterrent equation between East and West, or the US and the USSR. Deterrence was always fraught with mishaps, accidents, misperceptions, panic responses--and above all, an arms race which altered the balance of power, and hence the deterrent equation. As more than 60 generals and admirals have said in a famous statement, security via deterrence was always a dangerous illusion.

The India-Pakistan situation is worse. Soth Asia  is the only region in the world where the same two strategic rivals have fought a continuous hot-cold war for more than half-a-century. Any number of causes can set off a military confrontation here: routine army exercises, territorial incursions (or fear of these), long-standing disputes, extra-regional events, or purely internal developments (e.g. the  demolition of the Ayodhya mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992).

Our rulers have learnt few lessons from the three and a half wars they have fought. The large-scale conflict at Kargil occurred after the two crossed the nuclear threshold. This gave the lie to all kinds of romantic prophecies made by the Bomb's apologists about nuclearisation inducing "sobriety" and "maturity" in India-Pakistan relations.

Kargil was a much more dangerous conflict than was made out, and far graver than many people thought. It ominously confirms the truth that the chances of a nuclear outbreak are higher in a conflict/war situation rather than in peacetime.

India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear threats no fewer than 13 times during that conflict.

There is more bad news. A sensational disclosure by Bruce Riedel, the US President's Special Assistant for Northeastern and South Asia Affairs at the National Security Council in 1999, says Pakistan's generals prepared to launch a nuclear attack on India without the knowledge of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Riedel's paper contains hair-raising information.

* US intelligence had gathered "disturbing information about Pakistan preparing its nuclear arsenal". The weapons were mobilised for actual use. Riedel and other officials feared India and Pakistan "were heading for a deadly descent into full-scale conflict, with a danger of nuclear cataclysm". Clinton eventually confronted Sharif.

* Pakistan's elected Prime Minister was totally unaware of his army's nuclear preparations--just as he had been kept in the dark on the strategy of infiltrating jehadi "freedom-fighters" across the LoC. Sharif was first told the terrible nuclear truth by Clinton on July 4in Washington.

* Pakistan's army arrogates to itself all control over information about the country's nuclear activities--to the point of shutting out civilian leaders. Earlier, Benazir Bhutto too had to beg the CIA to brief her on
Islamabad's nuclear capability. Her own army denied her that information--although she was Prime Minister!

* When reminded by Clinton of how close the US and the USSR had come close to nuclear war over Cuba in 1962, an "exhausted" Sharif recognised the "catastrophic" danger, and "said he was against [the preparations], but worried for his life back in Pakistan". Sharif agreed to end the Kargil conflict--much to Pervez Musharraf's annoyance. The October coup followed.

These disclosures are an eye-opener. It is futile to use them to highlight how irresponsible and adventurist Pakistan's military leaders are, and how their irrational calculations could start a nuclear conflict. This can only give the Indian public cold comfort.

For it is India's leadership which cajoled, taunted and chided Pakistan into crossing the nuclear threshold four years ago. Sharif decided to conduct the blasts only after India's hawkish home minister L.K. Advani made his May 18, 1998 speech on Kashmir, about the changed "geostrategic situation", which now gave India decisive superiority.

It is these same  adventurists, these narrow-minded, provincial, ill-informed, incompetent bigots, who might inflict on their people yet another misadventure "limited" strikes, which could escalate and turn them  all into specks of radioactive dust. They must be restrained, prevented, stopped.

Meanwhile, one lesson is clear: India and Pakistan will not gain security through nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons don't give security; they generate insecurity. This is  true of South Asia--with a vengeance. The only way in which my part of the world will become free of the danger of a nuclear Armageddon is through its complete denuclearisation. This can no longer wait. But it can only happen if the Great Powers stop mollycoddling Vajpayee and Musharraf, especially Vajpayee, for their  own narrow and parochial short-term interests.