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Sunday, July 19, 2009

2793, 29 January 2009
Not Quite an Empty Threat Firdaus AhmedFreelancere-mail: G Parthasarathy, a leading Indian realist and former High Commissioner to Pakistan, has written in an opinion piece (Times of India, 22 January 2009) that nuclear weapons constitute "an empty threat" for there is "little chance" of Pakistan using them. As is known, India follows a policy of No First Use; Parthasarathy, however, misrepresents Indian nuclear retaliation as only being against a "major attack…in which nuclear weapons are used." Instead, India's posture of "assured retaliation" is against any use of nuclear weapons against it, including against a "major attack with chemical and biological weapons." Thus, in Parthasarathy's understanding - the shortcoming pointed out notwithstanding - there is "no prospect" of either state using nuclear weapons in a "limited conflict." However, the weakness in this conclusion is that "India does, therefore, have substantial strategic space to act to safeguard its people and its territorial integrity." He dismisses Pakistan's "strategy to pretend that if India retaliates even in a measured manner to terrorist attacks there would be a nuclear conflict." In effect, he advocates the hard-line military option. The logic is that Pakistani nuclear threshold being "high," as specified by Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai of the Strategic Plans Division, which includes territorial, military attrition, economic and political destabilisation parameters, Limited War is an option for India. The next terrorist attack could well be in the near term. India then may not have the luxury of abiding by its "traditional restraint." The strategist's argument would thus appear persuasive. However, two questions need be addressed: what would be the political aims and would the nuclear threat prove "empty"? It is understandable that those involved in the conduct of the Kargil War have internalised its foremost lesson, that nuclear weapons do not preclude war. These include the earliest advocates of Limited War, George Fernandes and Gen. VP Malik, and now, Parthasarathy. What has been omitted in their reflections is that such a war, even if risking a nuclear conflict did not achieve anything for Pakistan. Is it possible that their advocacy is informed by their being scalded by Kargil? It is difficult to envisage any war aims being achieved by an Indian counter-terror response using its military conventionally. Additionally, he writes that India has "no interest" in capturing "large parts" of "Pakistani territory" and that the war would be "short." It follows that territorial aims in POK, not being Pakistani territory, are legitimate. However, mountain warfare is a hard grind. Therefore a "short" war may get India to the next ridgeline, and only costly and needless shifting of the defences and minefields forward. There would be several thousand Pakistani settlers that would be displaced, and would keep the Indian Army occupied over the next decade or so, and hold up any Indo-Pakistani post-war political rapprochement. Regarding captured Pakistani territory, Iraq-style unconventional war methods would pose a challenge for even the manpower surplus and counterinsurgency-hardened Indian Army. Escalation could result from heightened passions such as attended the 1971 race for Dacca. Revenge and deterrence, the two aims sought by redoubtable Israel in Lebanon and Gaza against relatively easy opposition, may prove elusive for India. Therefore, it begs the question what would India achieve in a limited conflict. Therefore, war should be avoided, since there is no call to run the risk of a nuclear war for insignificant aims. Is the risk "little" and the threat "empty"? Parthasarathy indicates that there are indications that the US has contingency plans to "take out" Pakistani nuclear weapons if there is an extremist threat to them. In his scenario, this would occur if the Pakistani state loses out to radical elements. This threat might exacerbate in Pakistan following an Indian attack. Relying on the US to forestall Pakistan's nuclear option is hardly prudent. Any third party risk to its nuclear assets will most certainly trigger a nuclear response. In any case, it takes two to keep a conflict limited. The expectation of a "high" threshold is self-serving for the hard-line school to push its favoured military option. The seeming utility of the military instrument eclipses the political approach to issues India is pledged to seek. Parthasarathy is right that there is "virtually no possibility" of either side resorting to nuclear weapons in a "limited conflict." However, his reliance on Kidwai's statement and on rationality guiding the Pakistani Army is not enough to prove his case. Conflict has its own dynamics and creates its own psychological environment. The danger is that there is no guarantee of the conflict staying "limited." That is the price of living with nuclear weapons.

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