Issue 264 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review



The possibility of war between India and Pakistan refutes the idea that nuclear weapons act as a deterrent, as Praful Bidwai explains

When India detonated five nuclear bombs four years ago many of its leaders, especially BJP ministers, convinced themselves that New Delhi had now staked an irrefutable claim to both international prestige and security. When Nawaz Sharif set off six of his own blasts in 'retaliation', he boasted: 'Ab Pakistan hamesha ke liye mahfooz ho gaya.' ('Now Pakistan has become safe forever.')

Strategic 'experts' in both countries duly spun out fanciful rationalisations for the blasts. India and Pakistan, they prophesied, would both become more secure. Missiles 'Maturity' and 'sobriety', would be infused into their fraught relationship. South Asia would become 'stable'. India and Pakistan would gain in global stature and expand their room for independent manoeuvre. And of course, as the theory of nuclear deterrence ordains, India and Pakistan, being nuclear powers, would never go to war again. Their leaders, however reckless, would be compelled to realise that even conventional war is unacceptably risky. Doesn't deterrence theory tell you that? The US and the USSR didn't exchange a single shot during the Cold War.

Today, all these predictions stand demolished--many times over. The hope that India and Pakistan would behave with 'maturity' lies in tatters as they confront each other with more than a million troops, but without a clearly defined political purpose. The barbaric Jammu terrorist attack has further aggravated matters. New Delhi blames it on Pakistan-sponsored militants.

'Limited strikes' by India seem imminent. So does 'retaliation' by Pakistan, leading to a full-scale conventional conflict. Indian and Pakistani leaders may well bend to the inexorable logic of action-reaction, escalate that conflict to the nuclear plane, and thus finally disprove deterrence theory--with catastrophic consequences for their peoples. Four years on, it should be plain that nuclear weapons have failed to deliver to India and Pakistan any of the 'beneficial' things they were meant to give. But they have fulfilled the most dismal of pessimistic projections.

I personally plead guilty to some such projections. Pokharan-Chagai, Achin Vanaik and I co-authored South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament (since published by Oxford University Press), in which we argued that nuclear weapons would degrade India and Pakistan's security. In India, we said, they would disastrously strengthen the forces of nationalism, militarism, and communalism. Their strategic, social, economic, and political costs would prove onerous. On Pakistan, our analysis was even more sombre: 'In...retrospect, [nuclearisation] might well be seen as the final act that precipitated a decisive historical transformation of the Pakistan polity, dramatically reversing for a long time to come the difficult process of democratic consolidation. One hopes this will not be the case, but it could be...

'The systemic crisis of legitimacy, the increasing loss of the state's moral purpose, the inability of Islam to provide the foundations of a viable state, have all contributed to the growing failure of the Pakistani political system...If Pakistan proceeds to manufacture and deploy nuclear weapons...the economic consequences could become unbearable...'

Regrettably, these forecasts have largely materialised. A particularly corrosive consequence of nuclearisation, mediated by the 1999 Kargil war, has been Pakistan's greatly deepened crisis of governance. Pakistan got a major break because of Pervez Musharraf's decision to execute a U-turn on his Afghan policy and join the US's 'war on terrorism'. Musharraf took some action against jihadi fundamentalists, haltingly and hesitantly. But the recent downside in this is only too obvious. To return to Kargil, it has turned out to be a more horrific story than we all imagined. In a sensational report, the Sunday Times (London) has revealed that the Pakistani army mobilised its nuclear arsenal against India during that war without the knowledge of prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Citing Bruce Riedel, a senior White House adviser, the story says that US intelligence had gathered 'disturbing information', suggesting India and Pakistan 'were heading for a deadly descent into full-scale conflict, with a danger of nuclear cataclysm'. Although Riedel is silent on India's counter-preparations, it is almost inconceivable that New Delhi would not have drawn up plans for using nuclear weapons.

Sharif was told the truth about Pakistan's nuclear preparations by Bill Clinton in Washington. Pakistan's army tightly controls all information about nuclear activities--to the point of keeping the civilian leadership in the dark. Earlier, Benazir Bhutto too had to beg the CIA to brief her on Islamabad's nuclear capability. Her own army denied her that--when she was prime minister! When reminded by Clinton of how the US and the USSR had come close to nuclear war over Cuba in 1962, an 'exhausted' Sharif recognised the 'catastrophic' danger, and 'said he was against [the preparations], but worried for his life back in Pakistan'. This prepared the ground for an end to the Kargil conflict--much to Musharraf's annoyance. The rest is history.

Nuclear escalation

Pakistan's General Musharraf
Pakistan's General Musharraf

This gives a hair-raising edge to the well founded fears expressed by many analysts, including me, that the Kargil conflict had a dangerous nuclear-escalation potential. I once counted that India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear threats no fewer than 13 times during that seven week long war--itself the world's biggest ever conventional conflict between two nuclear weapons states. The disclosure that we were on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe in 1999 should chill many spines. In nuclear war it doesn't take two to tango. A single adventurist move can have catastrophic consequences for millions of people. Wreaking nuclear devastation upon the adversary after he has used a nuclear weapon against you can only be an act of mindless revenge, not of regaining your security.

Such a dangerous stand-off may again be imminent. Pakistan and India have not only failed to evolve a stable deterrent equation, they probably cannot do so. Nuclear weapons will always be a strategic liability for them. India's rulers are discovering that time and again. As for Pakistan, nuclear weapons figure in Musharraf's 12 January address as a constraint, as something to be guarded and protected, not as a means with which to negotiate around Washington's demand to 'cooperate' with its Afghan operation. So much for nukes expanding your room for independent policy-making or giving you a greater voice in the world!

Nuclear weapons have failed to bestow great-power status upon India too. India's profile has recently risen in the US more because of silicon valley immigrants than because of factors intrinsic to India, and in spite of nuclear weapons--largely because the Vajpayee government has entered into a subordinate partnership with the US. That is no invitation to the world's high table.

There are no worthy arguments for nuclear weapons. There are many strong ones for ridding south Asia of these instruments of genocide. The strongest one comes from the grave threat of annihilation which they pose to millions of us non-combatant civilians.

South Asia will remain the world's most dangerous place so long as it has nuclear weapons--the globe's only region where two strategic rivals have remained locked in a continuous hot-cold war for half a century, and where countless disputes and events can suddenly precipitate a terrible crisis with 'potential to escalate'. To become even minimally secure, south Asia must come out of the bomb's dark shadow.

The growing opposition

The chickens are coming home to roost. Far from the 'war against terrorism' making the world a safer place, its consequences are leading to the threat of more wars and devastation. India and Pakistan are on the brink of a war involving nuclear weapons. But this is only one part of the instability that the 'war against terrorism' and the bombing of Afghanistan have unleashed. The war in Afghanistan itself is far from over. Fighting still continues in the south of the country, the government's writ does not run outside Kabul and the country is in danger of sliding back into civil war. Freedom and democracy are as far away as ever for the people of Afghanistan. Western troops have been reduced to firing on wedding parties in the mistaken belief that celebratory gunfire at these events is an attack by Al Qaida.

Events in Palestine signal the dangers inherent in the strategy. Ariel Sharon has used the events of 11 September to deepen his merciless war on the Palestinians, again in the name of the war against terrorism. Reaction to the attacks on the Palestinians in recent months throughout the Middle East has shown the huge political significance of the question in the region and the unpopularity of the pro-Western governments there.

This instability from Morocco to Syria has given even George Bush's generals food for thought. In Washington there is serious debate about whether they can move to attack Iraq with up to 200,000 US troops early next year. The US is seen by many as all powerful, but it is not in a position to invade Iraq without the support of at least some of its neighbouring regimes. Yet even the most devotedly pro-US regimes are reluctant to give such support in the face of mass opposition from below and the threat of greater instability in their own countries as a result of such an invasion. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose active support is needed to ensure a successful invasion, are expressing concern at developments.

Opposition does not just reside in those countries immediately surrounding Iraq. The populations of most Western countries are expressing grave reservations at the policies of the US government. There is no enthusiasm for further war among the European populations. Even their governments are less than fully behind Bush. In Germany last month two demonstrations in Berlin against Bush numbered 100,000 and 50,000. The PDS (former Communist Party in East Germany) unfurled a banner in the Reichstag (parliament) against Bush's war drive as Bush was speaking.

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The grievances which motivated Bin Laden and his supporters have certainly not gone away since 11 September. US troops are still on Saudi soil; the Palestinians are still oppressed; and the attacks on Iraq have only been exacerbated in recent months. The coming months will determine who wins in the clash between those who want to extend the war and those who oppose it. On one side are the imperialists, the rulers of the major capitalist powers--especially our own Tony Blair. On the other are those fighting against oppression and injustice and for a more equal world. In Britain there have been six major demonstrations over the war and Palestine since last October, as well as hundreds of local protests and meetings. We have built one of the biggest anti-war movements in Europe. We have to ensure that the priorities of Bush, Blair and Sharon do not win out.
Lindsey German

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