IN an opinion piece last year, Henry Kissinger observed that over the next couple of decades a nuclear war was likely to take place between India and Pakistan. The nuclear factor was in play in four major and one minor India-Pakistan crises: in 1987, 1990, 1998, 1999 and 2002.
In 1987, when an Indian army chief launched the Brasstacks military exercises along Pakistan’s exposed desert borders, Pakistan responded by deploying its forces in the north where India was vulnerable. Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s agreement to a mutual stand-down no doubt also took into account the informal threat from Islamabad to bomb India’s nuclear reactors in case Pakistan was attacked. (After the crisis ended, the Pakistan-India agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities was jointly formulated in one day.)
In January 1990, when the anti-Indian insurgency erupted in Kashmir and India threatened Pakistan, a conflict was forestalled by US intervention. The US acted when it learnt that Pakistan had begun to arm its nuclear-capable aircraft.
The operation of mutual deterrence between India and Pakistan is being eroded.
During the night of 26-27 May 1998 — the night before Pakistan conducted its nuclear explosions in response to India’s tests — Pakistani radar detected unidentified aircraft flying towards its territory. Islamabad issued warnings of instant retaliation to India and relayed these to the US and Israel. This may have been a false alarm; but it illustrates the danger of accidental conflict in the absence of real-time communications.
During the 1999 Kargil war, the nuclear dimension was implicit, given that the crisis occurred a year after the India-Pakistan nuclear tests.
During the 2002 general mobilisation by India and Pakistan, the director general of the Pakistan Armed Forces Special Plans Division enunciated its nuclear ‘doctrine’ in a news interview. The ‘doctrine’ envisaged that Pakistan would use nuclear weapons if: it was being militarily overwhelmed; its nuclear or strategic weapons or facilities were attacked; and it was subjected to an enemy blockade.
The projection of this doctrine, including at a UN news conference by this writer in July 2002, sparked a fall in the Indian Stock Exchange, the evacuation of foreign personnel and embassy families from New Delhi and a demarche by Indian business leaders to prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and reportedly led to the Indian agreement for a mutual drawback of forces.
The operation of mutual deterrence displayed in 2002, however, is being eroded by several developments.
One, the conventional military balance is becoming progressively unfavourable to Pakistan. India is engaged in a major arms build-up. It is the world’s largest arms importer today. It is deploying advanced and offensive land, air and sea weapons systems. Pakistan’s conventional capabilities may not prove sufficient to deter or halt an Indian attack.
Two, India has adopted the Cold Start doctrine envisaging a rapid strike against Pakistan. This would prevent Pakistan from mobilising its conventional defence and thus lower the threshold at which Pakistan may have to rely on nuclear deterrence.
Three, Pakistan has had to deploy over 150,000 troops on the western border due to its involvement in the cross-border counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, reducing its conventional defence capacity against India.
Four, the acquisition of foreign nuclear plants and fuel, made possible by the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, will enable India to enlarge its nuclear weapons stockpile significantly. To maintain nuclear balance, Pakistan has accelerated production of fissile materials. Both nuclear arsenals are now large and growing.
Five, given its growing conventional disadvantage, and India’s pre-emptive war fighting doctrine, Pakistan has been obliged to deploy a larger number of nuclear-capable missiles, including so-called ‘theatre’ or tactical nuclear-capable missiles. The nuclear ‘threshold’ is now much lower.
Six, the Kashmir dispute — once described by former US president Bill Clinton as a nuclear flashpoint — continues to fester. Another insurgency is likely to erupt, certainly if the Bharatiya Janata Party government goes ahead with its platform promise to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian constitution (which accords special status to Jammu & Kashmir). A renewed Kashmiri insurgency will evoke Indian accusations against Pakistan and unleash another Indo-Pakistan crisis.
Seven, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has obviously decided to adopt an aggressive posture towards Pakistan, no doubt to appeal to his hard-line Hindu constituency. The recent ceasefire violations along the Line of Control are an ominous indication of such belligerency.
Eight, India is reportedly involved in supporting the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Baloch Liberation Army to destabilise Pakistan internally.
Nine, India has terminated the ‘composite dialogue’ with Pakistan. Its precondition for talks — an “absence of violence” — is impossible for Pakistan to meet.
Ten, the US and other major powers evince little interest in addressing the combustible mix of live disputes, terrorist threats, conventional arms imbalance and nuclear weapons in South Asia.
During the parallel dialogue initiated by the US with Pakistan and India following their 1998 nuclear explosions, Pakistan proposed a ‘strategic restraint regime’ with India which would include mechanisms to resolve disputes, including Kashmir; preserve a conventional arms balance and promote mutual nuclear and missile restraint.
India rejected the concept of a mutual restraint regime.
The US at first agreed to consider Pakistan’s proposal. However, as their talks with India transitioned from restricting India’s nuclear programme to building a “strategic partnership” (against China), the Americans de-hyphenated policy towards Pakistan and India, opened the doors to building India’s conventional and nuclear capabilities and disavowed any interest in the Kashmir dispute. Currently, Indian belligerence is bolstered by US pressure on Pakistan to halt fissile material production and reverse the deployment of theatre nuclear-capable missiles.
If a South Asian Armageddon is to be prevented, it is essential to build a structure of stable deterrence between India and Pakistan and find ways to deal with Kashmir and other outstanding disputes. Reviving consideration of a strategic restraint regime would be a good place to start.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2014