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Turning nukes on their head

June 08, 2002

The Indian Express

Turning nukes on their head
By Shekhar Gupta


On ABC ‘Nightline', one of America's most watched news programmes last Sunday, Pervez Hoodbhoy, the reputed Pakistani nuclear expert and peace activist, and I, were asked a chilling question: how come there is so little fear over a nuclear war in the subcontinent? Are the people of India and Pakistan trapped in self-denial?

The answer, for now, was simple. It isn't just denial that makes our people so nonchalant. It is a more dangerous cocktail of denial, anger and ignorance laced with a selective understanding of a bitter history. But, on second thoughts, is that all there is to it? Or is there more to nuclear denial in our region than these simplicisms? I would plead it is so.

That, particularly in the case of India until not so long ago, there was a political edge to this nuclear denial. We did not want to believe our nuclear status was for real and had mentally resigned ourselves to the inevitability of a Pakistani nuclear blackmail.

The logic was: yes, we also have the nukes. But we can never be so mad as to use them. At the same time, the Pakistanis are so mad they would use them as soon as a new war begins. So it was best to avoid catastrophe. It was because of this touching belief that we let Pakistan bleed us through terrorism under the umbrella of nuclear blackmail for more than a decade.

Now, so suddenly and so decisively, we have blasted out that mental block. One does need to sound a note of caution on the perils of thinking nuclear dangers lightly, but it is quite dramatic how, at the popular level, the fear of the nukes has disappeared. It is also possible that the dawning of this new wisdom, a sort of nuclear nirvana, will now actually help us avoid the prospect of nuclear war, not just for now but for a long time to come. And, who knows, if everybody plays their cards right, forever?

The past six months have seen a decisive unravelling of Pakistani's strategy of nuclear blackmail. I will bleed you through a thousand cuts and, if you hit back, I shall nuke you. Then you may nuke me back in return, but I'm so mad I don't care.

Now General Musharraf is going around announcing to the whole world that even the thought of using nuclear weapons is an insanity. Earlier the Pakistani line was more like: what is the point of having the bomb if you are not going to use it? And now? Please rewind Musharraf's statements last Friday onwards.

To understand what has brought about this transformation and how significant it is, not only for India but for the people of the subcontinent, you need to flash back to the summer of 1990. This is when Pakistan first employed nuclear blackmail seriously and India's establishment responded, first, with weak knees and confusion and, later, with denial.

I got caught up in this in unusual circumstances. While working on a very complex story on the increasingly jehadi and pan-Islamic turn in the Kashmir insurgency, I was picking the brains of Steve Coll, then heading the Washington Post's investigative bureau in London. Coll, now the managing editor of the Post and one of the finest foreign correspondents to have ever been posted in India (in the early nineties), had just finished a remarkable Page 1 series on the network of pan-Islamic funding. But, as he passed on some of the wisdom of his research, he also pulled out a manuscript of Critical Mass, a soon-to-be published book by NBC reporter Robert Windrem and William E. Burrows.

It had a whole chapter on South Asia with a stunning revelation that in the summer of 1990, as the two armies stood muzzle-to-muzzle and Benazir upped the rhetoric, Robert Gates (later CIA head), on a peace mission to South Asia for George Bush Sr, had been told by the Pakistanis to warn India that should a war begin they will open it with a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

This apparently sent the V.P. Singh government into a tizzy. The authors described South Asia as the most dangerous place on earth and even though they had blamed it entirely on Pakistani nuclear adventurism, publication of extracts from the book sent the Indian establishment into a blue funk.

Even before the Pakistanis, we denied the story, the kingpins of the ‘security and political' establishment condemned me as gullible, India Today, where I then worked, as ‘immature', and the authors of the book as idiots. The book was roundly condemned by so many luminaries of our security establishment in so many publications that it nearly sent Windrem into depression.

It is just that each time I met him in New York subsequently, he had more material to back his facts.

It was much later that some of the players of 1990 opened up to me. Yes, the Pakistanis had sent out a nuclear threat. Yes, the V.P. Singh government did not know what to do and while Gujral did defiantly rant to Sahibzada Yakub Khan, warning him of the perils of this blackmail, the fact is that our establishment had failed to show the resolve to counter it.

The result was a decade's proxy war because this validated General Mirza Aslam Beg's doctrine of offensive defence: take the war into Indian territory through terrorism and defend yourself against Indian armed strength with the threat of nukes.

For Pakistan, therefore, the nukes were not a final deterrent. They were the cutting-edge of an aggressive doctrine.

Because we had never sat down seriously to think these possibilities through and develop a doctrine, we responded with the classical Indian waffle. And, later, when the revelations came, we were too shy to admit this and lapsed into denial. This never happened, we said. This is American non-proliferation propaganda. India and Pakistan are every bit as capable of being responsible nuclear weapon states as the US and Russia. And so on.

The shift that began in May 1998 with Pokharan II, has now acquired doctrinal maturity. The upshot is, Pakistani nuclear bluff has been well and truly called.

The subcontinental strategic paradigm of the nineties has been turned inside out. India has not once, but twice, threatened a conventional military response. Only a week back Pakistan waved its nuclear threat, but that was more a trial balloon, lacking in the old conviction. Just three missile launches and one indiscreet statement from a diplomat were enough to bring so much international pressure on Pakistan that Musharraf has now had to do the damage control himself in an unprecedented manner and in repudiation of the country's own nuclear doctrine.

Today, not only is he underlining the ‘‘insanity'' of anybody contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, he is even denying all western allegations that Pakistan even thought of deploying them in the past.

At his Almaty press conference, he even named former National Security Council official Bruce Riedel and rubbished accounts of how US intelligence had picked evidence of Pakistan deploying its nuclear weapons during the Kargil conflict.

If these revelations had come in the nineties, the Pakistanis would have kept quiet, letting uncertainty build while India would have gone on to the rooftops to deny it. If the equation has now reversed entirely, it is something that people of both countries should savour.

This phase of diplomacy has delivered a strong blow against nuclear adventurism. It has also pulled the Indian establishment out of the nuclear denial of the nineties.

The challenge now is to build on this toehold in coming months along with the US and other powers, to further reduce the risk of nuclear irresponsibility in the region.

This would be the real prize of this phase of our diplomatic campaign powered by the military posture. In comparison, the near-term objective of a Kashmir election is a mere consolation prize.

If the objective is durable peace, nuclear stability and eventual settlement of the Kashmir problem, the route now will have to be more politics, more diplomacy and more networking with world powers who fear nuclear irresponsibility much more than routine terrorism.


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