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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Successful deterrence? Hardly.

29 February 2008 - It is being argued in scholarly circles that despite the crises that have periodically punctuated the recent history of the subcontinen, there has been no war owing to successful operation of the 'nuclear deterrence' principle. Knowing that the other side too has the ultimate weapon, neither side has resorted to war to settle its political differences or to gain military advantage due to the fear of the war escalating to the nuclear level. This is seen as a continuing successful case of nuclear deterrence in South Asia.

The problem with such reasoning is that is legitimises nuclearisation into perpetuity. Redefining peace as merely the absence of war is troubling, for nuclear weapons remain an existential threat not only to the other side as deterrence theory asserts, but also to possessors. Even so, to those who argue that deterrence has dissuaded political heads from choosing war as an option, we should point out that deterrence remains untested in war.

In wake of Operation Parakram - the year long military stand-off of 2002 - arguments echoing international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz's formulation in favour of nuclear proliferation, that 'more may be better', appear to be gaining ground by default. Sumit Ganguly, an influential presence on the scholarly beat with his ten books on the strategic scene in South Asia, in a co-authored work with Devin Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan crisis in the shadow of nuclear weapons (Seattle, Univerity of Washington Press, 2004), contends that the crises have not turned into conflicts on account of three factors: one is the operation of conventional deterrence; next is the peace-making role played by the US; and lastly is the successful operation of nuclear deterrence.

A refutation of this view is in order, for the simple reason that crises have in fact often not turned into conflicts for reasons other than nuclear deterrence. The crisis of the pre-nuclear era, that of the 'fourth round' of 1984 and 'the war that never was' of 1987, to use the catchy titles of the knowledgeable Ravi Rikhye's idiosyncratic books, are not considered here. In 1990 too, India shifted troops from its North East to cope in Kashmir, as also to respond to Pakistan's reply to India's Exercise Brasstacks called Exercise Zarb-e-Momin. Such manouevres signal war clouds, evident from the example of Egypt, which launched the Yom Kippur war of 1973 under the guise of going in for military exercises. Thus war, not being an option, cannot be said to have been deterred by the existence of nuclear weapons, which both states by then are now known to have had only a screw's turn away.

In 1998, the intervening period between Pokhran and Chagai, witnessed considerable rhetoric on part of India principally to goad Pakistan into testing, and thereby legitimising India's tests and deflecting the ensuing international criticism. Discussion of the possibility of preemptive action by India was academic, as the tests by Pakistan were more a demonstration of capability, it reportedly having used the Chinese test site at Lop Nor earlier to acquire the capability.

Non-wars without the need for deterrence

The role of nuclear weapons in the two major events post-nuclearisation requires more careful refutation. Pakistan chose the site of its Kargil adventure with care. This is attributed to its desire to limit India's reaction, cognizant that the scale of the reaction would determine the nature of the subsequent conflict, which could assume nuclear proportions. If we are to remove nuclear weapons from the equation, it would yet be proven that Pakistan would still have chosen the same site for its intrusion.

See for balance article -

The extended crisis of 2001-02 too requires further probing, for there is more to the issue of the Parliament attack than the popular narrative lets on (see 13 Dec: The strange case of the attack on the Indian parliament, published by Penguin Books in 2006). But even with a plausible casus belli, India did not go to war, and this is taken as Indian prudence brought on, amongst other factors, by presence of nuclear weapons. But what is more likely is that economic and strategic interests in India deflected any possibility of a war, and no further 'deterrence' was needed to dissuade it from one. In Pakistan too, there was no question of contemplating war, for it was by then fully immersed in the Global War on Terror.


Once each crisis is put into perspective, the role of nuclear deterrence becomes self-evidently a fallacy. Unfortunately, the nuclear deterrence argument is gaining ground, and one expects to see more of this in future, thereby increasing nuclear dangers. Arguments on their utility have therefore to be relentlessly exposed, lest the dangers continue to mount.

The plain fact is that most of the thought exercises about deterrence are way off the mark; there are any number of other reasons that can fully explain why India and Pakistan have not moved to a point of open conflict, and the possession of nuclear weapons is only incidental. Still, they are always looked at as more important than is the reality, because this fits nicely with the 'seminar circuit', which is happy to discuss nuclear weapons if only for the simple reason that, like the Himalayas, 'they are there'! ⊕

Firdaus Ahmed
29 Feb 2008

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