By Ali Ahmed
In his probe as to why the two states, India and Pakistan, do not pursue Nuclear Confidence Building Measures (NCBMs) with a degree of urgency, D Suba Chandran (Indo-Pak Nuclear CBMs: The Road to Nowhere, http://www.ipcs.org/article/india/indo-pak-nuclear-cbms-the-road-to-nowhere-3571.html) brings out that this may perhaps owe to a belief that, ‘… the threat of a nuclear showdown is primarily an invention of the West, especially the US. Though Pakistan threatens to use the nuclear weapons and has convinced the rest of the world that its nuclear threshold is low, there is a larger understanding between the two countries that the threat is only a posture and not an actual position.’ Is such a belief warranted?
Chandran refers to precedence of the nuclear posture in the Kargil War and the Op Parakram episode to suggest that the belief owes to the two states in not having leveraged the nuclear capability then, do not expect to do so in future. In effect, mutual deterrence will hold. Besides the two states are engaged elsewhere and would find a military tryst trifle inconvenient: with Pakistan tackling internal terror and India on an upward economic trajectory. They have also resumed talking to each other, indicating that even terror incidents of the order of 26/11 can at best dent the relationship, not set it back irretrievably. They have conventional CBMs and CBMs over Kashmir in place, so NCBMs can wait.
All this is not altogether bad news. It suggests that nuclear overhang is not quite a Damocles sword. Nevertheless, since NCBMs are not unwelcome in themselves, there appears to be a need for ‘selling’ the idea. Here scaremongering is resorted to, to convey that not emplacing NCBMs while the going’s good, may prove to be time lost, when and if push were to come to shove.
The Kargil and Op Parakram episodes are a useful precedent of nuclear disutility, but dangerous in case they spell complacence. The fact is that India, believing that Pakistan exploited the nuclearisation of May 1998 more proactively, has drawn a page from Pakistan’s book. At the conventional level, imitating Pakistan’s observation of space for conventional operations below the nuclear threshold, it has gone in for a proactive and offensive conventional doctrine. At the nuclear level, it has attempted to increase this space by assuring ‘massive’ punitive retaliation in case of Pakistani first use, even if provoked by India’s conventional pincers.
Pakistan for its part has reportedly firmed up its conventional counter. It is apparently termed ‘early strategic offensive’. Even though its troops are involved in counter insurgency on the western front, it intends to beat India’s integrated battle groups to the draw. Given that it is a military run state, it does not have democratic and bureaucratic encumbrances. It would need to use the time profitably while India debates whether and to what degree the Pakistani state is complicit and whether to go in for firepower-centric, air force led reprisals or go for Cold Start.
Secondly, it has an irregular army that could well serve as more than a force multiplier for an Iraq style imbroglio. Its current foes in FATA have already promised to join the fray on the military’s side in case India provides them a common enemy. Lastly, it has unveiled tactical nuclear weapons. Even if a deterrence-gimmick for the moment, when the balloon goes up, it would be hazardous to be dismissive of their presence as the situation would then be qualitatively different.
Given this as ‘dry tinder’ piled up high, all that is needed is the proverbial spark. This is not unlikely, given the onrush of the magic year, 2014. Imagine a situation of a departing West, a triumphalist Taliban and a shaky Pakistan. Add to this, a rightward tilt to Indian polity in election mode. It bears recall that the parliament attack and 26/11 both were in some measure a spill over of the turn of events in ‘Af-Pak’. Since the end game there is set to culminate in 2014, and if Leon Panetta is to be believed, may even be advanced to 2013, the spark could well be round the corner.
A spark may not be unwelcome since it would give the two states an opportunity to let off steam, with calming effects for society and polity. This can only be so if the nuclear overhang were not come to fore, dramatically and unspeakably. This can be best ensured by getting NCBMs in place.
This is self-evidently in India’s interests since it has made arrangements over the past decade to leverage its conventional military advantage. Superficially, this may not be in Pakistan’s interest since its nuclear deterrence is also meant to cover the conventional level. However, a closer look suggests that Pakistan’s Establishment would not want the extremist fringe gaining center-stage, more than a happenstance in case an India-Pak crisis turns into conflict.
In effect, what needs setting up is an across-the-spectrum strategic dialogue mechanism. Because it would be in continuous session, it can also serve if the need beas an ‘NCBM plus’, an NRRC by the backdoor.
Research Fellow, IDSA
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