Speech Raises the Nuclear Danger
Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, wanted to send a
shiver down the spine of the international community, and remind
it that South Asia still remains the world's most dangerous place,
he could not have done so more effectively than he did last Monday
while addressing Air Force veterans in Karachi.
Musharraf said he last year "personally" conveyed a clear
"message" to Prime Minister Vajpayee, "through every
international leader who came to Pakistan", namely, that Indian
troops "should not expect a conventional war from Pakistan"
if they "moved a single step across the international border
or the Line of Control".
is a major departure not only from Pakistan's stated nuclear doctrine,
but even from Musharraf's own statement last April in an interview
to Der Spiegel that he would use nuclear weapons only when
the whole of his country "faces the threat of being erased
from the map [of the world]". Islamabad can now threaten a
nuclear attack even in the very first stages of a military conflict,
not when it is about to be overrun in a conventional attack.
Musharraf's statement, and New Delhi's condemnation of it as "highly
dangerous, irresponsible and provocative", South Asia has slid
into yet another exchange of hostile military rhetoric. Worse, India
and Pakistan are embarking on programmes to close the gap between
the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and their induction into the
armed forces and actual deployment. All this dangerously lowers
the threshold for a nuclear conflict between the two rivals.
made the "disclosure" on December 30, the Musharraf government
soon embarked on a damage limitation exercise. Pakistan's defence
spokesperson Maj Gen Rashid Qureshi that very night "clarified"
that by the reference to "unconventional war", "the
President only meant unconventional forces and not nuclear or biological
is true that Musharraf did not explicitly use the words "nuclear
weapons" or weapons of mass destruction in his Karachi speech.
But then, historically, nuclear threats have been generally made
not through overt, explicit references to nuclear weapons, but through
warnings of "horrible" or dire consequences, etc. Qureshi
then put more spin on this by saying it is not the use of nuclear
weapons, but a popular uprising in Pakistan and Kashmir against
India and the "encircling" of Indian forces, that would
make the war in question "unconventional".
"clarification" is unlikely to convince many people in
the wider world, given both the context that Musharraf was referring
to – the 10-month-long post-December 13, 2001, eyeball-to-eyeball
confrontation at the border – , as well as India's and Pakistan's
hardening nuclear postures. It certainly won't convince Musharraf's
most important adversaries – in India.
Indian government has responded to Musharraf's speech by declaring
that it expected nothing better from Pakistan: "We have seen
these reports and are not surprised. Pakistan has also earlier threatened
use of nuclear weapons against India". More important, it let
it be known that India was going ahead with the formal establishment
of a Strategic Forces Command (SFC) this month. The SFC will manage
and operate India's nuclear arsenal. The government has already
selected a senior Air Force officer as the SFC's chief.
Delhi has also used Musharraf's nuclear "threat" as an
argument for dismissing as "unrealistic" any possibility
of a "meaningful forward movement" in relations with Pakistan.
Only last week, it further tightened visa restrictions for Pakistani
nationals. India is doing its utmost to torpedo any improvement
in relations with Pakistan.
is easy enough to see through New Delhi's hypocritical but sanctimonious
stand. Like Islamabad, it too has indulged in reckless nuclear threat-making.
Indeed, it took the lead in crossing the nuclear threshold
– first under the guise of a "peaceful" explosion, in
1974, and then overtly, in 1998.
it was India that a year ago initiated a massive military build-up
at the Pakistan border, with the clear intention to punish Pakistan
with war for its support to "cross-border terrorism",
in particular the December 13 attack on India's Parliament House,
for which it blamed Pakistan without detailed, clinching, proof.
on the mobilisation, India's outgoing army chief S. Padmanabhan
said on Monday: "We were absolutely ready to go to war. Our
forces were well located but such a decision is ultimately a political
decision." It is known – and confirmed by the conservative
pro-Bharatiya Janata Party weekly India Today – that India
and Pakistan were on the brink of a serious conventional conflict
at least twice last year.
January and end-May/early-June, India drew up elaborate military
plans for a conventional attack across the border. It called off
these plans essentially under US (and to an extent, British) pressure.
Padmanabhan all but dismissed the notion that it is Pakistan's nuclear
capability which deterred India from going to war on those two occasions.
He said, "When we assess our adversaries, we assess all [their]
capabilities. We had evaluated it [the nuclear capability] and were
ready to cope with it".
hinted that an "informal" nuclear command structure has
already been in existence: "If it does not appear to be there,
it does not mean it is not there. What is invisible today will become
visible tomorrow". This is presumably the SFC.
this means that the threshold for an India-Pakistan nuclear
confrontation has fallen to a new, dangerously low, level – probably
lower than at any time during the Cold War after the Cuban missile
crisis 40 years ago. India and Pakistan have proved cavalier and
utterly irresponsible in repeatedly lowering that threshold.
unembellished truth is that both the Vajpayee and the Musharraf
governments are acting under largely domestic compulsions and a
certain set of frustrations at their inability to get the
better of each other.
India and Pakistan have witnessed rightward political shifts. In
India, following state legislature elections in Gujarat – where
the BJP won despite the terrible pogrom of 2,000 Muslims under its
sponsorship last spring – , the Vajpayee government is under growing
Hindu-fundamentalist pressure to ratchet up the level of hostility
with Pakistan. In Pakistan, the nominally civilian government faces
pressure from a rejuvenated Islamic right.
Vajpayee government feels bitter that it could not get Pakistan
to completely stop supporting secessionist militants in Kashmir
– despite the recent costly military mobilisation and India's energetic
lobbying with the US. The Musharraf government too feels frustrated
that it cannot get India to talk on the "core dispute"
of Kashmir, or even restore diplomatic relations, which were drastically
curtailed after December 2001.
also explains the boasts by each of the two governments that it
came out "the winner" in the recent border confrontation.
Two months ago, India's defence minister George Fernandes made that
claim, declaring the military build-up had achieved all "its
principal objectives". Now, Musharraf has announced: "We
have defeated our enemy without going into war … The enemy has withdrawn
its forces and we are also withdrawing ours".
reality, both India and Pakistan lost billions of dollars in staging
the globe's biggest military mobilisation since World War II, involving
one million troops. Both imposed avoidable hardship and fatigue
upon their armed forces by keeping them on high alert for long periods
of time. Both sacrificed the lives of scores, if not a few hundreds
of their own soldiers – in landmine blasts, shelling, and numerous
accidents. (In India, the estimate is 300 armed personnel dead,
and an unspecified number of civilians, along with serious injures,
including loss of limb, to several hundreds, and the death of countless
sheep, goats and cattle.) Neither gained a strategic advantage or
political-diplomatic leverage on the other.
of the most nauseating aspects of such casual, cavalier exchanges
of hubris-driven, boastful statements between the two nuclear adversaries
is the tub-thumping reception they receive from the strategic "experts"
and hawkish politicians.
sabre-rattling in South Asia fosters the irrational illusion that
each nation is in some sense "prepared" and ready to counter
the other's "nuclear" challenge, that nuclear wars are
winnable, that there is some "protection" possible against
is macho mythology, the most dangerous part of the pathological
mystique associated with nuclearism. There are, can be, no victors
in a nuclear war. Nuclear weapons are strategically irrational.
They cannot protect soldiers, leave alone civilian non-combatants.
Rather, they make unarmed civilians particularly vulnerable to mass-destruction
best "security" which nuclear weapons can provide is of
a negative kind – based on fear, insecurity, balance of power, through
so-called deterrence, itself a flawed doctrine. But deterrence can
break down, leading to nuclear retaliation. However, nuclear retaliation
is itself an act of senseless revenge, not of regaining security.
There is no defence – military, civil or medical – against nuclear
and Pakistan are taking one more step in the direction of enhancing
the nuclear danger in South Asia. Yet, the world community is unlikely
to intervene in this region to counsel restraint and halt India
and Pakistan's descent into a nuclear arms race. The US is preoccupied
with Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Besides, it has itself set a negative example
by legitimising nuclear weapons and setting its face against disarmament.
pressure for restraint will have to come from within India
and Pakistan. In today's vitiated global and regional climate and
jingoistic domestic politics, that is a tall order. Only a strong
civil society initiative and a peace movement can alter this dismal
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