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Thursday, December 30, 2010

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The coming decade of nuclear risk

Four decades without war since 1971 is attributed as a peace preserved in part by nuclear weapons. By the mid-eighties both India and Pakistan had workable, if untested, nuclear weapons. By then, Pakistan was at war, if one by proxy. By the end of the decade there were two wars, one in Punjab and another in Kashmir. India too was at war, with itself. That the two states have not come to trade blows directly, despite Kargil, the Parliament attack and recently Mumbai 26/11, to some, is evidence of the nuclear peace. Will it persist through the coming decade?

If nuclear optimists are right then the coming decade should, unlike the preceding three, be most peaceful. Both India and Pakistan are poised at triple digit mark in warhead numbers. In other words, both can inflict unacceptable damage on each other. While India may believe that doing so is equivalent of assured destruction of Pakistan, it may be wrong to think that this would not be MAD (‘mutual assured destruction’). Both have evolving delivery systems. While Pakistan relies on missiles, India is working towards a triad with China as excuse. Both have a decade worth of experience with command and control systems. Pakistan has a head start and the dubious advantage of its military collapsing the three levels of war – tactical, operational and strategic – with the political in its omnibus Strategic Plans Division. Though smaller, it can yet prove to be David to India’s Goliath. Peace is to rely on this for longevity. Will it stand the test?

The immediate challenge will be posed by the manner Obama’s war unfolds. Having missed the earlier deadline of mid-next year, it has been reset to end by 2014. If all goes well, the opposition will expand the war in frustration and anger. If things go wrong, then the opposition will expand the war in pursuit of glory. The West, riven by distaste for the war, may disengage, perhaps as early as 2012 – a juncture dictated by US presidential polls. In case of Obama being a one-term wonder, a Republican Bush II could persist in the folly. In the four combinations possible, trouble lies ahead. For Pakistan, worse is ahead. What does this mean in nuclear terms?

The obvious is in the interest all sides will evince in nuclear weapons. With the US persisting in ‘going after’ them, the terror groups will go after nuclear weapons. The nuclear nether world can be expected to be active; with the ‘black swan’ event being the cataclysm waiting to happen. The second, of interest here, is in the regional impact of instability.

Just as they began the last one, India and Pakistan begin this one at odds with each other. The previous one began with the Kandahar hijack and ended at Taj Mahal Hotel. The current one finds India awaiting Mumbai II expectantly. Periodic terror alerts mean that terrorists need to be lucky but once and the state always. The odds are with the terrorists. No peace talks are on to prevent one. Without the peace process there is also no buffer, once the proverbial spark hits the cinder.

It must be conceded both state have not piled up cinder deliberately. India has tried to address ‘root causes’, but has been unable to go the distance. In Kashmir, it has reluctantly set the three interlocutors to work. It is pursuing the Sachar Committee recommendations in respect of alleviating concerns of its minority. It has placed the perpetrators of majoritarian terror on notice. It has investigated the leading political mascot of the nationalist opposition. It has attempted to reengage Pakistan, but found itself short of political capital to continue.

Pakistan for its part has been restrained in its provocation in Kashmir. It has attempted to cope as best as it can with the troubled western frontier. It has stopped short of risking civil war to placate the West or to give in to Indian demands to dismantle the ‘infrastructure of terror’.

While both states have gone some distance, both have also wilfully stopped short. And that gap could yet prove fatal.

India has replaced its unstated promise of ‘Cold Start’ with ‘contingency operations’ in case of another Pakistani provocation. This spells its comfort levels with its ability to react militarily. While this capability was being built up after Operation Parakram of 2002, ‘Cold Start’ was part of the smoke screen for deterrence. Retracting from it now, seemingly at the behest of the US to enable Pakistan concentrate westwards, indicates that it is a perfected manoeuver that can now be placed in cold storage. Pakistan, in its military exercises Azm e Nau over the summer, has also practiced its response.

Both sides stand confident. Readiness of both at the conventional and nuclear levels should spell mutual deterrence. Such confidence is dangerous. Such confidence impels continuation of their tryst at the subconventional level. It also impels the argument in favour of the military option next time round were push to come to shove. Under the circumstance, the nuclear backdrop can come to foreground in short order.

All it awaits is a trigger event. The two states have not done enough to preclude this. The difference between the original Cold War and that raging within the region is precisely this: existence of unaddressed flashpoints. The outline has been around for about a decade since the Agra summit. It would involve Indian accommodation and Pakistani abandonment of its chosen path of proxy war. India does not have the political will to follow through and Pakistan’s Army has not been singed by the terror backlash adequately.

Apparently it will take a war to prod both to senses. The one good to accrue is that it would be a sure way to bring about a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in South Asia. But, let’s be equally sure, it would be at a price!

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