February 28, 2020
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Bomb That Bombed

Post-Kargil, the theory of nuclear deterrence has to be qualified

Bomb That Bombed
"Islamabad should realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world, roll back its anti-India policy, especially with regard to Kashmir...any other course will be futile and costly for Pakistan".
L.K. Advani on May 18, '98

Brave words those. A year later the statement stands rubbished, exposed for what it was-an empty threat by the home minister of an openly declared nuclearised country. The "futile and costly" exercise launched by Pakistan is actually turning out to be quite costly for India in human and material terms. So, what happened to the nuclear bomb that was supposed to act as a deterrent? Wasn't that the threat held out by Advani: that a nuclear India could put Pakistan in its place? And foreclose the chance of hostilities erupting?

If anything, going openly nuclear has perhaps restricted India's choice in escalating the Kargil situation into a full-scale war. India has a clearly articulated no first use (nfu) policy. But Pakistan, which is inferior in terms of conventional arms, has rejected the nfu proposal since it will take away the parity gained by them. For them, nuclear arms are weapons of use. This really worries the world, while actually restricting the options for India. Says Savita Pande of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses: "Islamabad may have believed that because of nuclear parity, the conflict may not escalate into a full-fledged nuclear war."

Former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit too argues that because of nuclear parity, Islamabad is emboldened to "feel it can indulge in broad territorial adventure without provoking an Indian reaction across the international border. Secondly, in their calculations even if due to some compulsions India proceeds to give a strong reaction, Islamabad can argue that since New Delhi is taking drastic measures, it can be compelled to use nuclear weapons, thus activating the big powers or the UN Security Council".

The thinking in the Indian government is that the nuclear deterrent is "truly irrelevant to the Kashmir situation", though it is admitted that Advani had erroneously linked it to Kashmir last year. But there are some who feel that in the event of escalation to a full-scale war or to a point where Pakistan faces defeat, it might actually use its nuclear weapons.

The American South Asia specialist, Stephen Cohen, writing a few days ago, has noted that "Kargil represents the first major crisis in an environment of declared nuclear capability...Kargil operations are certainly carried out in a nuclear shadow". According to him, Kargil is the third "big" crisis in this region since '87. The Brasstacks crisis that year was the last time, he says, that India and Pakistan could have fought a conventional war without going nuclear. This led to the speeding up of the Pakistan nuclear programme and perhaps for the Indian decision to prepare for tests. The '90 crisis, Cohen asserts, was probably the first nuclear crisis as both countries might have been able to assemble one or more nuclear weapons. "It was more so a nuclear crisis in that some Pakistanis concluded that the Indians were deterred from attacking the training camps on the Pakistani side by the threat of a nuclear war. " Nearly 19 years ago, Cohen had recorded that in the view of many Pakistanis, N-capability would neutralise an assumed Indian nuclear force and would provide the umbrella under which Pakistan would reopen the Kashmir issue. And what a deadly way to have reopened it now.

But Indian experts say nuclear arsenals do not act as deterrent in situations like Kargil. "It's foolhardy to believe a situation like Kargil wouldn't have arisen had Pakistan not acquired N-parity," says Savita Pande. "Nuclear weapons aren't weapons of use, though they're made use of for deterrence," she adds. Agrees Brahma Chellaney, member of the National Security Council advisory board: "Nuclear weapons can protect India from direct aggression and not indirect aggression such as a proxy or a clandestine war."

But to ask if nuclear deterrence is working leads to a related question: how did the N-tests change the ground reality last year? It didn't, Chellaney argues: "India and Pakistan went nuclear before '98. What happened last year was that the existing nuclear capability of the two countries came overground. The tests didn't change military equations or strategic calculations."

Obviously, Pakistan does not fear a nuclear India. Why else would Kargil happen? Chellaney has a different take on the issue. To hold that Pakistan has been emboldened to launch this operation because of N-parity, he says, is to assume the covert war began only after '98. "It began in the early '80s, long before Pakistan claimed it'd gone nuclear (when we had conventional superiority). The proxy war began long before Islamabad became confident of deterring us with N-arms," he says. But even this analysis has to be broadened. Kargil, if anything, represents a new phase in such operations. Qualitatively different from earlier 'clandestine' operations in that it seems to blend military and terrorist tactics and raw material, it cries out for a strategic reappraisal by India.

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