AS someone who has studied India-Pakistan crisis behaviour for years, I have been dissecting the Pulwama episode. I have argued that the crisis was far more dangerous than most believe. Never since 1971 have we seen such liberal use of both air forces. And perhaps never since Pakistan’s ill-fated Kargil incursion in Kargil have we witnessed as major a miscalculation as India’s in terms of anticipating Pakistan’s response to its air strikes.
Yet, there is one striking aspect: the word ‘nuclear’ hardly ever came up. Apart from one meeting of the National Command Authority, Pakistan’s apex body responsible for deciding on the use of nuclear weapons, nothing remotely close to the nuclear realm featured during the crisis.
This is worth noting. First, this is a change from past crises. During the first decade after the 1998 nuclear tests, India and Pakistan consciously and regularly reminded each other and the world of their nuclear capabilities and their resolve to use them in any eventuality, even though none of the major crises during this period — Kargil; the 2001-02 stand-off; and Mumbai — ever came close to a nuclear exchange.
At Kargil, Pakistan was relatively more aggressive in making statements about its nuclear deterrent even though, as Gen Musharraf later revealed, it had not even fully operationalised its capability at the time. Pakistan and India shared the honours in 2001-02, with both regularly indulging in nuclear signalling. The Mumbai crisis didn’t see nearly as much but the angle wasn’t absent. There has been a downward trend since. Uri in 2016, like Pulwama, was silent on the nuclear dimension.
The word ‘nuclear’ hardly ever came up during the Pulwama crisis.
Second, nuclear modernisation is moving full speed ahead in South Asia. And peacetime talk of these developments has continued. Unlike the first decade of nuclearisation, Pakistan now boasts a tactical nuclear weapon, developed to deter any Indian intention to launch a limited conventional war. In as much as nuclear threats are meant to remind adversaries of the costs of any misadventure, one would expect a country in Pakistan’s position to remind India of the tactical capability even in a limited-crisis scenario.
Similarly, for India, the antidote lies in pointing to its own nuclear doctrine that calls for decimating Pakistan in response to any Pakistani nuclear use, no matter how tactical and limited. For years, India has been trying desperately to establish that it can fight a limited conventional war against Pakistan despite the nuclear overhang. Logic: it’ll be suicidal for Pakistan to consider nuclear use in a limited-war situation; doing so would invite a massive Indian nuclear response. Interestingly, as India has modernised its nuclear forces, this reminder has come through periodic statements and Indian writings during peacetime but never in crisis time since Mumbai.
Third, there has always been an important third-party angle to the nuclear brinkmanship in crises. The fear of nuclear war is the reason the world has been so interested in preventing a Pakistan-India conflict since the 1998 tests. Both countries know that. Earlier, when they brandished their nuclear capabilities during crises, it had partly meant to unnerve third parties and force them to make concessions. This strategy worked in past major crises, suitably scaring the world and forcing them to show greater intent to de-escalate tensions immediately.
Why the absence of nuclear signalling in Pulwama despite the escalation in tensions? It reflects a confidence in both countries that existential deterrence — the idea that the mere presence of nuclear weapons ensures that both sides will tread cautiously, especially in crises — now holds. They do not feel they need to go out of their way to prove to each other or the world that they have a workable capability and the resolve to use it if needed.
This is good news as aggressive nuclear signalling can create misunderstanding and panic.
The challenge now is to translate this confidence into protocols and agreements that’ll put formal processes in place to make it difficult to consider nuclear use during crises. This requires more than just the absence of nuclear signals. Perhaps the best thing both sides can do for now is to agree not to actively deploy their weapons, instead keeping them in their current state where they need days to ready them even if they want to use them. At least, this should be codified for peacetime.
Key third-party states also have a role to play in keeping things stable. If they internalise the lack of nuclear signalling in South Asia as a cue to relax their role as mediators, as some suspect may have happened during Pulwama, it will create a perverse incentive to re-engage in active nuclear signaling to focus their attention on these episodes. Instead, they need to continue signalling their seriousness about ensuring the absence of major war in South Asia.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2019