Swabbing the Bleakness of Sub-Continental Nuclear Instability

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website)

Nuclear Stability: Where does it Begin?

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, it dawned upon President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev how catastrophically close to nuclear war they had blundered due to a misshapen military-led nuclear policy and a ludicrous nuclear doctrine that believed that a nuclear war could be fought, controlled and won. Both leaders sought a change to the nuclear status-quo. As Khrushchev described it, “The two most powerful nations had been squared off against each other, each with its finger on the button.” Kennedy shared this distress, remarking at a White House meeting, “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” He called for an end to the Cold War. “If we cannot end our differences,” he said, “at least we can help make the world a safe place for diversity.” In a series of private letters, Khrushchev and Kennedy opened a dialogue on banning nuclear testing. Thus began a progression of political moves and agreements that sought to dampen the risk of a nuclear war, contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, do away with tactical nuclear weapons, limit strategic arms, cut arsenal size and indeed, bring stability to nuclear relations. If at all there is a historical lesson to be learned then it is that nuclear risk reduction and stability begins with serious dialogue between leadership.

The Sub-Continental Nightmare

If one were to hypothesise what form a nuclear nightmare may take, then it is a hair-trigger, opaque, nuclear arsenal that has embraced tactical use under decentralised military control, steered by a doctrine seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that carouses and finds unity with non-state actors. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertion to declare that this nightmare is upon the Sub-Continent. The need to bring about an awakening to the dangers of a nuclear conflagration is therefore pressing. The effect of an enfeebled civilian leadership in Pakistan that is incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger; the active attendance and involvement of jihadists in swaying strategy; technology intrusions brought in by covert means; absence or at best ambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings that make Pakistan’s nuclear posture indecipherable, and the alarming reality of ‘intention-to-use’, all, in aggregate, make the status-quo untenable. The need for change in the manner in which we transact nuclear business is urgent.

Strategic restraint predicated on failsafe controls, verification in a transparent environment, providing logic to size and nature of the arsenal, and putting the brakes on the slide to nuclear capriciousness become imperatives to stabilizing deterrent relationship on the Sub-Continent. But the catch is, how does one begin a meaningful nuclear dialogue with a weakened Pakistan civilian establishment that does not control a military which, in turn, finds no reason to come to terms with a subordinate role? And as Cohen so succinctly put it “Pakistan will continue to be a state in possession of a uniformed bureaucracy even when civilian governments are perched on the seat of power. Regardless of what may be desirable, the army will continue to set the limits on what is possible in Pakistan.” [1]

The Tri-Polar Tangle

A singular feature of the deterrent relationship in the region is its tri-polar character. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship which created and sustains its nuclear weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there exists doctrinal links between the two which permits a duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared No-First-Use can readily fall back on Pakistan’s developing First-Use capability, as far as India is concerned. Such links have made China blind to the dangers of nuclear proliferation as exemplified by the AQ Khan affair. No scrutiny, of any consequence, of the regional nuclear situation can avoid looking at the internals of Pakistan. The country today represents a condition that has been brought about by the precarious recipe that the establishment has brewed in nurturing fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their military strategy. The extent to which their security establishment has been infiltrated is suggested by the attacks on PNS Mehran, Kamra air base, Karachi naval harbour and the assassination of the Punjab Governor; while the recent murderous assault on the Army School in Peshawar and the every day terror killings are more symptomatic of the free run that these elements enjoy across the length and breadth of the country. Such a state of affairs does not inspire any confidence in the likelihood of the nuclear nightmare fading away or the robustness of their nuclear command and control structures to keep it in check.

Failure of the US Af-Pak Policy

As early as 2003, the USA set out two major policy goals towards Pakistan, firstly holding it as an indispensable ally in its war in Afghanistan and secondly ending the proliferation of nuclear weapons in and from the region. However, over a decade later, both goals have failed dismally. There are confirmed reports that the Pakistan military has persistently deceived the US forces while elements within the former either lack the will to combat the insurgency or are actively involved with the jihadists. On the nuclear front, the rapid setting up of the unsafeguarded Khushab series (II, III an IV) nuclear reactors with Chinese collaboration, having no other purpose than production of weapon grade Plutonium, development of tactical nuclear weapons, and the uninhibited growth of their arsenal, do not in anyway enthuse belief in US ability to exercise any stewardship over Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. The inexplicable disappearance of key nuclear scientists who had recorded liaisons with the Al Qaeda remain alarming episodes that must cause anxieties. With US involvement in the Af-Pak greatly diminished and their focus on nuclear proliferation much sharper, the time is ripe for the US to clamp down on the maverick Pak nuclear posture.

Orientation of Sino-Pak Nuclear Collusion

The key to GHQ Rawalpindi’s compliance with rational norms of nuclear behaviour lies in Beijing. And the direction, in which Sino-Pak collusion is headed will, to a large extent, influence nuclear stability in the region. If the alliance was intended (as it now appears) to nurture a first use capability in order to keep sub-continental nuclear stability on the boil then the scope for achieving lasting stability is that much weakened. However, the current political situation in Pakistan, presents a frightening possibility which is not in China’s interest to promote, more so, since Islamic terrorist elements have sworn to obtain nuclear weapons and the politico-ethnic situation in western China remains fragile. This in turn provides an opportunity to Indian leadership to bring about change in the current ‘tri-polar tangle’.

A Blue Print for Regional Nuclear Stability

Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; coherence and transparency are its basis. These remain the foundational principles that a nuclear weapon state must adhere to. However, given the politics of the region, historical animosities and the persisting dominance of the military in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear malefeseance to military perfidy is more than just a possibility. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of not only reinforcing assured retaliation to nuclear violence, but at the same time for India to bring about a consensus among both China and the USA to compel Pakistan to harmonize with foundational rules of nuclear conduct. India’s current strategic relations with USA and Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to China provide a timely opportunity to bring an end to the nightmare by swabbing the bleakness of subcontinental nuclear instability.

Endnotes

[1] Stephen Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, The Brookings Institution: Washington DC, 2004, p. 97

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