Nuclear miscalculations

Published January 26, 2023

IF the claim of former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, that Pakistan and India came close to a nuclear exchange following the Balakot misadventure of Feb 2019, is true, then both Islamabad and New Delhi need to review the protocols in place to ensure such misunderstandings do not recur. Mr Pompeo makes the claim in a newly launched memoir, adding that if it weren’t for America’s intervention, South Asia would have witnessed a catastrophe. According to him, in the aftermath of India’s Balakot air strikes, he received a call from his Indian counterpart, who feared Pakistan was planning to mobilise its nuclear weapons against India, and that New Delhi was preparing “its own escalation”. Mr Pompeo says he told the Indians to “do nothing and give us a minute to sort things out”. Thereafter, he asserts he contacted the then army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, “the actual leader of Pakistan”, and reportedly, the COAS told him he believed the Indians were preparing to deploy their nukes.

Perhaps Pakistani and Indian officials can shed more light on this exchange. However, the possibility of both sides preparing to deploy their nuclear assets after mistakenly believing the other would strike first is a terrifying thought. It is such fluid situations that can serve as a prelude to disaster. Maturity is needed where nuclear weapons are involved, and both states must jointly work towards preventing misunderstandings in the future, instead of waiting for third countries to defuse the situation. Perhaps the best route to prevent misunderstandings is to use the hotline between the DGMOs, especially when ties are tense. Direct contact between senior generals from the two armies can serve to defuse crises, and prevent misconceptions from deteriorating into conflict. Additionally, the public must be reassured that the hotline is active and that both militaries are working to disengage from hostile positions.

While the DGMOs’ hotline is one measure to contain conflict, other channels must also be employed to prevent any situations like the one described by the ex-US secretary of state from recurring. Right now, bilateral ties are in a decidedly low phase, with no high commissioner present in either capital, and no real desire, particularly on the Indian side, to carry the peace process forward. It is in times like these, when contact is minimal to non-existent, that crises can transform into conflict. For example, last year’s BrahMos missile that landed in Pakistan — which the Indians claimed was “accidental firing” — could have easily spiralled into something much worse had Pakistan not handled the incident with restraint. A nuclear exchange between both states should be unthinkable, which is why both capitals need to keep talking and to manage any situation maturely.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2023

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