Indo-Pak Security Profile Since Pokhran II

Columnist MUMTAZ IQBAL analysis the security of INDIA and PAKISTAN. Since the nuclear explosions in POKHRAN in May 1998

How much has S. Asian security profile changed since Pokhran II? (Security is the discipline where military and non-military factors intersect, overlap, reinforce and feed on each other). The short answer is: not much as well as a lot. Perhaps one way to understand this paradox is to analyse some issues surfacing after Chagai.

Accidental Nuclear War

This issue generated the greatest publicity, lots of heat and some light. This is hardly surprising, considering the terrible examples of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. The fear of dying in a nuclear holocaust understandably arouses strong emotions.

But this primordial fear is not particularly pragmatic or rational. The chances or prospects of a nuclear exchange was and is not very great.

There's no real reason or cause then as now for Delhi and Islamabad to go to war. Even if they did, the restraint such as avoiding civilian targets with which they have fought previously suggests they will do so again. A nuclear escalation is certainly not inevitable and hardly makes good strategy or good sense.

Both sides' nuclear bombs are somewhat crude weapons not yet fully or properly operationally 'weaponised' (mating together all parts of the bomb). Besides, their main delivery mechanism is the primitive medium of jets (upgraded F16s and Jaguars).

Their capacity to penetrate enemy defences is more uncertain and less potent than missiles.

Most importantly, both capitals tightly control their nuclear toys—civilians in India, military in Pakistan. The controls may not be as good as the US's. That explains the western media's somewhat condescending attitude and derisive tone to existing Indo-Pak nuclear safeguards.

But the safeguards probably are good enough to avert the fear of their accidental or unauthorised use. This fear is authentic and widespread. But the international press and foreign leaders have exaggerated its magnitude from a mix of genuine altruism to calculated self-interest.

Finally there's the sober restraint that characterised the Cold War US-USSR nuclear relationship. There's no reason why Delhi/Islamabad can't replicate this precedent. In fact and in practice, this has been the case so far, despite the huffing and puffing by politicians and press.

Thus, it's not surprising and entirely positive that Sharif/Vajpayee signed an accord last month to ensure that the nuclear genie remains safely in the bottle. They get full marks for this effort.

Conventional Military Balance

In essence there's not much change here. Delhi's ahead, and has been mostly so since 1947, on land, sea and air. This lead increases as India adds to her blue water force projection capability and expands her tactical electronic warfare infrastructure e.g. smart bombs, through her accumulated indigenous and imported skills in information technology e.g. spin-offs from computer simulation nuclear programmes.

Islamabad faces difficulty in bridging this widening gap. One reason is money. She doesn't have enough of it now. Nor is she likely to have it later, given Pakistan's dependence on IMF.

Another is human resources. Islamabad lacks and is unlikely to have enough scientists, engineers and technicians to boost her three services' capability sufficiently extensively or quickly to match or catch up with Delhi's hardware and software assets.

Economic Difficulties

The western sanctions impacted markedly differently on the two countries' economies. India got a nasty headache. Pakistan was admitted to the IMF hospital's intensive care unit.

Pakistan's agreements with IMF are the first steps toward restoring its economic health. The overt and covert web of harsh conditionalities are believed to include direct and indirect capping over time of defence including nuclear spending, and separation of warheads from missiles, with sensors placed on the former to control their location and movement. The sensors should effectively inhibit accidental nuclear war.

Western Intervention

Ferocious Western indignation at the subcontinentals' gate crashing their way into the nuclear club led the US to mount a searing diplomatic offensive to control Pokhran & Chagai's fallout. The idea among others is to get Delhi and Islamabad to sign the CTBT, MFCT, stop 'weaponising' and missile deployment, improve safeguards and drop nuclear technology exports.

Washington appears to have made progress in achieving understandings on these issues. However, both principals have not yet signed any documents. This is expected to be a matter of time especially as lifting sanctions depends on progress in S. Asian peacemaking.

One can regard the Sharif/Vajpayee accord as the first such document. This accord resulted probably from forceful US pressure as much as belatedly prudent S. Asian diplomacy to reduce tensions and use it as a building block for developing meaningful future relations.

Summing Up

Pokhran II and Chagai opened the door to unsolicited, unwanted but inescapable foreign intervention in Indo-Pak strategic and economic issues more pervasively than before. The two countries have established a sort of hazy nuclear parity. This ambiguity is precisely what makes it valuable. It gives pause for thought and reflection to Delhi and Islamabad policy makers.

India has weathered the sanctions better than Pakistan and is fast increasing her quantitative and qualitative conventional superiority.

Will this growing gap increase the Indian establishment's incentive for a decisive showdown in the Punjab plains? It's possible but unlikely, probably remote. A defeated Pakistan will have every incentive to follow the Masada complex and use nuclear weapons. This prospect should and probably does give pause to the most rabid Delhi hawk.

Besides, there are easier more lasting ways to achieve the goal of subcontinent domination. That's to charm rather than disarm your opponent. Trade, travel and mutually beneficial regional cooperation are some means.

This possibility is probably the Lahore declaration's real significance. As a Hindu nationalist party whose credentials are less suspect, its easier for BJP to cut a deal with Pakistan. BJP's like US Republicans whose visceral anti-Communism facilitated wheeling and dealing with Beijing and Moscow.

So it's possible even probable that reduced tension even constructive rapprochement is in the works between Delhi/Islamabad. This will be a pleasant surprise if it happens. Sober rattling instead of saber rattling will be a novel if overdue experience in S. Asia.


A retired banker from Bangladesh with a passing interest in military history. His brother late Maj Mahmood Kamal served with distinction in Pakistan's elite SSG. The article was published on 12 March, 1999 in HOLIDAY in Bangladesh. His email in Toronto is:
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