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Atoms for instability: India, Pakistan, and the threat of nuclear war over Kashmir

By Zahid Hussain

“The Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor.” – Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (1989)

War is not a novel phenomenon in international relations. It has been used by the states (the use of the expression ‘states’ here is generic and also includes kingdoms, principalities, city-states, etc.) to dominate, decimate or to annex the enemy states. However, war has never been seen as a threat to the existence itself until the advent of the nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have stood off from other weapons as they have the capability to destroy and wipe out the entire population and hence have been seen as a threat to existence. The logic behind having such weapons is called ‘deterrence’ – a set of theories that argue that the threat of using these weapons deters other states from using their arsenal of nuclear weapons with an assurance of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In this scenario, in the words of Winston Churchill, “Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” This theory continues to have its hold in international relations and is widely discussed by the academia. This essay, however, raises some questions that point towards some flaws in the universality of the theory of deterrence. The conundrum of Kashmir between India and Pakistan would be used to substantiate the point and bring home the conclusion that nuclear weapons have in fact been a source of instability rather than bringing any peace as the deterrence theorists would have it.

The theorists of deterrence place a high amount of trust on the human rationality that can be encapsulated in a maxim, “it is not the gun, but the man behind the gun that matters.” The theory does attach importance to the nuclear technology, but it does nevertheless pin high hopes on the human agency that shapes, directs, and moulds the policies regarding the issuing of threats, or the use and non-use of these weapons. However, the theory misses out on an important aspect that is one of the chief characteristics of humankind – its irrational and unpredictable behaviour. As Bertrand Russel writes, “it has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.” Setting aside the philosophical debate about rationality/irrationality, the least we could agree upon is that there are no logical patterns that humans follow in their thought processes. The consequences that can follow with the mere possibility of irrationality in handling, management, or deployment of such lethal weapons which could wreak havoc over human race itself is self-explanatory.

When we consider the working of deterrence in the regional context of India and Pakistan, the universality of the theory of deterrence does hold ground. In 1947 when India and Pakistan embarked on their independent journeys, the Kashmir conflict started in the tussle between these states for the legal possession of this piece of geo-strategically important Muslim majority land. With the then hereditary ruler signing an instrument of accession in favour of India, the legality of which has been challenged by Pakistan and the dates on which it is supposed to be signed has been a matter of contention in the academia, Kashmir was annexed by India as one of its states, albeit with a special status (that, of course, has been taken away with the passage of time). Pakistan has never reconciled with the fact that the geographically contiguous and religiously Muslim state would be a part of Hindu majority and geographically non-contiguous India. In addition to the international legal battle in the United Nations, several full-scale wars as well as the limited ones have been fought over this territory.

Following the logic of deterrence, both India and Pakistan, in a bid to deter each other from any large-scale attack, tested their nuclear weapons in 1998. Hope was pinned on these lethal weapons for shepherding both the states for a long-term and sustainable peace. However, it did not take long enough for such hopes to be dashed – Kargil War happened in 1999 just one year after both the states went nuclear. Although some commentators have branded this war as a battle or a small-scale skirmish, the sheer scale of casualties makes it a distinctly full-scale war. Both the states have since then lived in an environment of fear and constantly looming threat of nuclear war. There have always been exchange of threats of nuclear war and if statements of the Army generals are to be believed, both states have a real and unflinching desire to wipe out the other. The Trump administration of the United States also made it clear in its first foreign policy that “the prospect of an Indo-Pakistani military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange remains a key concern . . . ” That deterrence has not worked in the case of India and Pakistan is not a hard guess to make. None of the parties in this case has been deterred.

It can be said of India and Pakistan that the logic over which the theory of deterrence works has been made to do a head-stand, that is, it has been turned upside down. Here, the nuclear technologies have been a driving force behind the military and nuclear policies rather than the other way around. The fact that India’s Cold Start Doctrine, although conventional in nature, seeks to challenge the conventionally weak but nuclear Pakistan with huge retaliatory conventional attacks is quite destabilizing and has a potential to kickstart a possible nuclear war. In fact, the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) had its origins in the Indian establishment’s consternation at the failure of the logic of nuclear deterrence after it went nuclear. The events of 1999 Kargil War and the 2001 attack on Indian parliament had a demonstrative effect on the Indian policymakers who realized that nuclearization did not stabilize the region. On the contrary, it had merely aggravated the race for domination in the region. In its bid to counter India’s Doctrine, Pakistan was developing short range ballistic missiles like NASR (Tactical Nuclear Weapon) to mend the gap and compensate for the conventional asymmetry. Pakistan had taken some cues from Russia’s approach by using short range tactical nuclear weapons to ward off the conventional attack – ‘escalating to de-escalate’. In addition, Pakistani establishment was continuously trying to shore up its nuclear as well as conventional capabilities.

In the period from 2009 to 2013, in response to India’s CSD, military exercises by the Pakistani Army were conducted, code-named ‘Azm-e-Nau’, in conclusion of which ‘new concept of war fighting’ (NCWF) was adopted that lets the Inter-services to coordinate and compliment each other in a better and efficient way. The reports of Army claim that with the execution of NCWF, the Pakistan Army will be able to mobilize even faster than India. If such is the case, the raison d’etre of the CSD is bound to fall apart. A mere look at the available data infers that the NCWF is not a mere rhetoric. Since the initiation of NCWF, Pakistan has been acquiring military equipment as well as sharpening its military man-force with all the seriousness. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data indicates that between 2010 and 2016, there was a 58 percent increase in the military expenditure in Pakistan compared to the years between 2003 and 2009. The expenditure on armoured vehicles saw a 76 percent increase, the expenditure on aircrafts went up to 114 percent and missile expenditure saw an increase of 127 percent. This is a strong reason to worry about India’s security community as well as for those confiding in the working of deterrence and believing it to be an all-pervasive theory.

The argument of Bernard Brodie, the chief architect of the strategy of nuclear deterrence, that the chief feature of the militaries was to win wars, but “now, its chief purpose must be to avert them”, does not hold true in the context of India and Pakistan. The states reek of vengeance and the hard politics over the possession of Kashmir has made the states act in an emotional, rather than logical, way. The states have attached a high importance to the possession of Kashmir, so much so that the issue has become one of ego, where both states have come up with its own set of titles for it – sheh rag or jugular vein for Pakistan, and atoot angg or inseparable part for India. The dispute has led both countries to formulate and devise such nuclear as well as conventional strategies that are quite dangerous and out of sync with the theories of deterrence. The tendency among security planners in both the states has been to cancel out and undo each other thereby leading them to strategize their policies more towards war-making than war-prevention. Coupled with this is the delusion of both the establishments that nuclear weapons will make them secure. This delusion compels each state to take an aggressive posture against the other. Each state has had its history of continuously violating the ceasefire along the Line of Control (temporary border delineating India and Pakistan in the Kashmir region, arrived at in 1972). To further aggravate the issue, in response to militant attacks on Pathankot and Uri army camps, Indian army’s rhetoric of having carried out ‘surgical strikes’ carries in embryonic form an invitation to similar attacks by the Pakistan army that could trigger a conventional, and possibly a limited nuclear war. And the epicentre of the war or the battleground over which it would be fought may be Kashmir.

Kashmir is the centre stage, literally as well as figuratively, of India’s military establishment. State security forces maintain a heavy presence in the state. Although there is no official disclosure of the number of military personnel in the valley, it is widely believed to be more than half a million according to several well-meaning sources, including several INGOs as well as academia. The concentration of such huge armies in the valley itself points to the fact that India’s military build-up for maintaining a force of battle-ready standing armies in the valley and alongside the border may lead to a conventional face-off or owing to Pakistan’s counter tactics may even lead to a nuclear war. According to a report published on the website of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2018, India has “carried out more than 415 ceasefire violations along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary . . .” The Indian side also has alleged Pakistan of having violated the ceasefire agreement “as many as 351 times” in 2018 alone. Whatever maybe the reality, the fact remains that the tensions have been increasingly escalating. The nuclear weapons have seldom been able to provide any surety of deterrence for both sides, not to speak of providing any security cover for these states.

Thus, the argument of the theorists of deterrence that the nuclear weapons are a blessing as there has been no major war between the nuclear weapon states and that these weapons have been the instruments of peace and stability is quite fallacious and hinges upon a flawed logic that these weapons would and should be manned by the responsible actors. Owing to an everlasting security dilemma as well as the presence of anarchy in the international arena, no one can ensure that these weapons are used by the ‘responsible’ actors. Leaving aside the debate of who is the ‘responsible actor’, and who decides who is ‘responsible’, an argument can be made that the current nuclear weapon states have neither been responsible, nor can there be any guarantee of them acting as such in future. That there is no war must not mean there would not be any in the future. History is replete with the examples of huge tumults occurring after many decades of peace. And lastly, the deterrence theorists have underestimated and have been mistaken to not factor in human behaviour in their theories. Human behaviour is volatile and susceptible to sudden change so as to make any prediction literally impossible. And in cases of India and Pakistan, where decisions are taken in a split second and without taking care of rational procedures, nuclear weapons make them more vulnerable to any misadventure.

Photo: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 

Zahid Hussain is currently a Junior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. His works have appeared in the local dailies of Kashmir as well as on national news portals of India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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