ISSN 2330-717X

Indo-Pak Nuclear Lexicon: A Pakistani Perspective on Credible Minimum Deterrence


By Sadia Tasleem

Uncovering the nature of the challenge

Credible Minimum Deterrence is a highly loaded term, often used to suggest a state’s intentions with regard to its nuclear posture. Combined, the three words, ‘Credible’, ‘Minimum’ and ‘Deterrence’ present a complex paradox. Credibility, for instance, is an essential prerequisite for deterrence. Why then use the word ‘credible’ as a prefix to Deterrence or Minimum Deterrence?

Yet, another challenge arises from the apparently convoluted nature of messages that ‘credible’ and ‘minimum’ convey. While ‘minimum’ suggests “the least required to deter the adversary;” adding ‘credible’ to it blurs the whole idea. Since credibility largely depends upon the adversary’s perception of our capabilities and intentions, there is always the possibility of incorrectly assessing our credibility in the adversary’s calculations. Caution in such circumstances may necessitate preparation for the worst possible scenario, thus raising the ‘minimum’ bar. As a result what would appear credible might not be ‘minimum’.

Why do then states opt to use terms that send across obscure signals? What shapes their particular choice of terms? And what do they actually mean by these terms? These are important questions to be addressed while we strive to untangle the complexities of a common lexicon. This paper attempts to explain possible causes behind the idea of prefixing both ‘minimum’ and ‘credible’ to deterrence. (Identifying the right causes for a state might also help us clearly define what a state means by minimum and credible).

Why ‘minimum’?
i. To set a ceiling out of sheer sense of moral responsibility
ii. A genuine commitment to keep the arsenal low (either because it is cost- effective or because a state cannot afford anything more than that)
iii. Imitation/Emulation
iv. Satisfying the international community and pacifying their concern regarding proliferation

Why ‘credible’?
i. Psychological comfort
ii. Adds ambiguity
i. Provides leverage to move towards arms build-up
ii. Imitation

CMD as Pakistani nuclear policy: Tracing its history and identifying the causes

While deterrence has been an integral part of Pakistan’s nuclear policy since its inception, ‘minimum’ and ‘credible’ entered Pakistan’s nuclear lexicon a little later. These two terms were endorsed in February 1999 in the then prepared (publicly unannounced) Nuclear Doctrine of Pakistan. (Author’s interview with Brigadier (Retd.) Naeem Salik, 28 January 2011). The initial enthusiasm for minimum deterrence was essentially a consequence of Pakistan’s economic condition with a well-pronounced conviction to keep the arsenal low in numbers.

The question remains, why was there a need to add an additional qualifier (i.e. credible) to ‘Minimum Deterrence’? Brig (Retd.) Naeem Salik stated that this was done in order to have the psychological comfort of knowing that Pakistan was not dependent on a bare minimum that poses the challenge of having to lower the nuclear threshold.

Interestingly, one finds a number of occasions where ‘minimum’ or ‘credible’ were either replaced with some alternative ‘qualifier’ (e.g. defensive) or taken out altogether from public speeches made by the country’s top leadership.

If anything, it illustrates that the issue of understanding Pakistan’s nuclear lexicon is complex. It also suggests that quite often we might attribute too much to the rather less thought out choice of terms. These terms are used as disguises or are intentionally misleading, more because hardly any attention has been paid to the idea of developing nuclear jargon. There is no evidence that suggests open sessions of discussions and deliberations purely dealing with the question of a lexicon. Few would, for instance, have an answer to why we opted for the word ‘credible’ or why President Musharraf’s idea of ‘defensive’ deterrence did not receive a huge following.

Pakistani Perspective of CMD

It has been reiterated time and again that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are meant to deter security threats posed by India. It is clear that threats to the very survival of the state would invoke the need to use nuclear weapons. Ambiguity nonetheless remains on what exactly would be the nature of ‘other’ threats that could compel Pakistan to use nuclear weapons. Red lines, defined by General Kidwai in one of his interviews, have been quoted and misquoted repeatedly. These lines leave many more confused than clear. It seems that there is a conscious effort to maintain existing ambiguity. Policy-makers in Pakistan feel convinced that this ambiguity serves deterrence well. Therefore, at this point in time, it is hard to move further on this question.

Next is the issue of prefixes. ‘Minimum’ Deterrence in Pakistan is largely seen as a dynamic concept. The then Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, while speaking at a seminar in November 1999 at ISSI, Islamabad, elaborated, “Minimum cannot be quantified in static numbers. The Indian build up would necessitate review and reassessment….but we shall not engage in any nuclear competition or arms race.” Some however find mere ‘minimum’ a little disturbing. They suggest that ‘minimum’ may not fully serve the purpose at times of an adversary’s nuclear build-up. It might send the wrong signal and develop within the enemy over-confidence and a temptation to opt for aggression. Credible would in such circumstances help keep a psychological check on the adversary. Also, it would provide the protagonist an additional cushion of comfort. [Interview: Brig (Retd.) Salik]

A natural question that follows is how then is the Pakistani idea of CMD different from India’s CMD? Brig (Retd.) Salik asserted that the objective of Pakistan’s CMD posture is very clear and specific, i.e. vis-à-vis India. Therefore it inherently has a limitation. On the contrary, India’s CMD is an open-ended concept!

The point to note is that given these perceptions, would CMD, even in theory, remain a part of India-Pakistan nuclear policies over a long period of time or would it get washed away in the currents of mistrust, antagonism and sometimes over-emphasis on the technical details of deterrence? Recently, a marked departure has been noted in a public pronouncement of Pakistani nuclear policy, from ‘Credible Minimum Deterrence’ to ‘Credible Deterrence’ (NCA Statement, 14 December 2010). The question was raised in two different forums and the speakers held contradictory positions. One speaker argued that it appears to reflect a shift in Pakistan’s policy based on its current threat assessment. A senior government official, on the contrary, suggested that it was used in a given context and should be understood with reference to the complete statement issued by NCA. The emphasis on the word ‘credible’ was meant to reinforce the importance of credibility. It does not suggest a shift from Minimum Deterrence.

It has yet to be seen if the word ‘minimum’ was unintentionally left out or was meant to indicate a real shift in Pakistan’s policy position.

Sadia Tasleem
Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad
email: [email protected]



IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.