Deterrence Did Someone Say

Indian Express, June 10, 2002

India and Pakistan have toned down the rhetoric of nuclear war in the last few days but the threat of conflict between these traditional rivals continues to loom. Deterrence ? the notion that the prospect of nuclear annihilation creates a ??balance of terror?? that in turn forces protagonists to talk instead of fighting ? has already failed in part between India and Pakistan since their nuclear tests. The 1999 clash in Kargil is evidence that war remains possible. Since December last year, almost one million troops from both sides are massed along the border. Such shooting wars or eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations have never occurred with such frequency between the world?s other nuclear powers since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

It is time to ask whether deterrence can be sustained between India and Pakistan in the same way it worked between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war. India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons but do not have in place any of the other elements of deterrence. They do not have clearly identified ??red lines??, the crossing of which would result in a nuclear strike. There are no arms control talks, no detailed nuclear doctrines and no hotlines to guard against triggering misperceived or accidental nuclear clashes.

Hawks in India think they can manage a limited war with Pakistan without either side resorting to nuclear arms. Pakistani hardliners believe that demonstrating the will to use nuclear weapons is important in containing an Indian threat. If the hawks on both sides carry out their threats, India could start a limited conventional war and Pakistan could take it to the nuclear stage.

Historically, nuclear-armed nations have always maintained communications with each other, to avoid escalation of conflict that can result from lack of communication. The total absence of dialogue between India and Pakistan creates a situation potentially more dangerous than that between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. There appears to be considerable ignorance in South Asia about the implications of nuclear weapons. Indians and Pakistanis, including several decision-makers, seem to think of nukes as just bigger and more powerful bombs. There is little awareness of factors such as radiation and fallout. Is it not strange that neither country has ever considered building nuclear fallout shelters for its citizens while rushing to develop, and test, nuclear weapons?

Some Indians are frustrated that they can?t ??teach Pakistan a lesson?? as a result of ??nuclear blackmail??. But US diplomatic warnings, rather than Indian threats of war, are the better means of ensuring that Pakistan clamps down effectively against militant Islamists responsible for terrorist attacks in Kashmir. US diplomacy in the form of a shuttle mission by Secretary of State Colin Powell helped avert an India-Pakistan war in December.

With each new attack and subsequent warning of a ??decisive battle??, India?s rhetoric loses credibility. General Musharraf?s balancing act of promising to stop infiltration across the LoC while refusing to condemn Kashmiri militancy is already finding few takers around the world. Soon, India may be constrained to go beyond rhetoric to restore the credibility of its threats. General Musharraf?s hand could also be forced by circumstances, especially if he feels that alliance with the United States is bringing more pressure than benefits.

The situation in South Asia has received less attention in Washington than it deserves, partly because the Bush administration considers the war against the Al Qaeda its top priority. But the latest twist in the 54-year old rivalry between India and Pakistan is directly linked with America?s war against terrorism. In the last few months, the terrorists have intensified their attacks in Kashmir and India. There have also been attacks in Pakistan, to protest its recent support for the United States. Both India and Pakistan seem to be ignoring the possibility that the militants? latest attacks are planned to provoke them into war.

Prime Minister Vajpayee refuses to talk directly to General Musharraf until the end of ??all cross-border terrorism??. But the outlook of militant Islamists has changed considerably since September 11. The presence of militant groups over which Pakistan has no influence makes India?s condition impossible to meet.

Pakistan is now believed to be acting against the militants, albeit slowly. But the presence of large numbers of Indian troops on the border also discourages Musharraf from moving faster. The militants? supporters argue that they would serve as an important fifth column for Pakistani soldiers, sabotaging the much larger and better-equipped Indian army, in case of war. Withdrawal of the Indian threat of war would help Musharraf fulfil his promises of clamping down on militants operating from Pakistan.

To overcome Indian mistrust, the U.S. could provide the mechanism for verifying Pakistan?s compliance with its commitments. Proposals for multinational or joint India-Pakistan monitoring of the Line of Control to stop infiltration of militants ostensibly acting on their own, must also be seriously considered.

A war between India and Pakistan will only result in the realization of the extremist Jihadi groups? vision of extensive violence, leading to fulfillment of their version of apocalypse. Pakistan?s status as a country under military rule makes its position precarious. While supporting General Musharraf in his efforts against Islamic extremists, the US also needs to ensure that Pakistan moves towards democratic rule. Musharraf should be encouraged to initiate a dialogue with Pakistan?s major politicians, currently living in exile.

In the past, India and Pakistan have managed to avoid military confrontation whenever civilians were in power in Islamabad, and a civilian democratic government in Pakistan would be less dependent on the military and the Islamic militants for support. Washington?s visible support for democracy will strengthen support in Pakistan for its efforts against terrorism. It will also ensure that Pakistani support against Al Qaeda continues even after a change of regime.

Defusing the current crisis is only half the battle. If the world is to stop living in fear of a nuclear clash, the root causes of violence between India and Pakistan must also be addressed. In addition to using its influence with Pakistan to force action against Islamic extremists, America should also persuade India to get serious about resolving the Kashmir dispute.