Dealing with South Asia’s Nuclear and Security issues


Former Ambassador to US Dr MALEEHA LODHI makes an eloquent case for a better understanding of nuclear and security related issues in SOUTH ASIA

In evaluating the future of Trust and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs), it is important to be mindful of past experience. In the Indo-Pakistan context, Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) have proven to be of limited utility for tension-reduction. 17 types of CBMs are now in place between the two countries, but their operational value has been doubtful in an environment and culture of mistrust.

Both countries have in fact lacked confidence in the CBM process itself, underscoring that CBMs cannot stand alone, and can only work in a broader context. The presumption of priority for CBMs is that the underlying problems are not resolvable, and therefore, by freezing the status quo, CBMs can somehow reduce tension and avert the danger of war. This presumption has been belied by the experience in the subcontinent,

especially as examples abound of CBMs having been used to deceive and mask intentions.

The most telling illustration of this relates to chemical weapons. In August 1992, Pakistan and India agreed to a joint declaration on the complete prohibition of chemical weapons. Under this, they undertook not to develop, produce or use chemical weapons. But subsequently, when India signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and disclosed its stocks, this showed what a sham its 1992 undertaking to Pakistan really was.

This exemplifies that when the CBM process is abused, it can exacerbate mistrust rather than create confidence and can also be more dangerous than if the CBM was not there. Another kind of example is provided by the 1988 Indo-Pakistan agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities. Despite this CBM, Pakistan feared an Indian pre-emptive strike in May, 1998 soon after India had conducted its nuclear tests.

CBMs in the Indo-Pakistan context have revealed many and different kinds of problems. Meant to be a step towards conflict-resolution, they can often be used as a substitute. They have frequently been pursued in South Asia under external prodding or pressure, and at the expense of problem-solving. CBMs have also exposed the danger of exhausting political capital and diplomatic energies on limited measures that are

not necessarily cost-free. Given finite diplomatic resources, should these be so preoccupied by CBMs? For these reasons, CBMs, if they are to work in our region, must form part of the process of reaching a political solution, not become an excuse for not doing so.

The experience of bilateral dialogue too has been unedifying. The start, stumble, stop pattern of talks has in large part reflected the fact that they have been undertaken more in response to international urgings rather than the two countries’ faith or trust in the intrinsic value of such a process. Often talks have been afflicted by the joker-clause syndrome, where proposals have been made by one side with the fore knowledge that these would be unacceptable to the other. The proneness of negotiations to relapse into procedural wrangles - endless round of talks about talks - has prevented them from moving into serious and sustained efforts at conflict resolution.

Keeping in view this instructive backdrop and the new realities of the post-nuclear test environment, a broad but integrated approach may offer a viable way forward toward tension-reduction and conflict avoidance. Nomenclature is less important than the means to promote tension-reduction. After all, CBMs are a means to an end; not an end in themselves.

The lesson to be learnt from the past is that normalisation efforts are unlikely to succeed in the absence of a comprehensive approach and strong political will. If, in the aftermath of South Asia’s nuclearisation, there is a genuine desire on the part of the two countries to avoid conflict, promote reduction in tensions and prevent a nuclear and conventional arms race, a comprehensive approach has to be evolved to build peace and security.

What are the elements of such an approach? This must comprise mutual nuclear and conventional restraint as well as progress toward conflict resolution. Five elements of such a strategy can be identified and suggested: nuclear restraint, conventional restraint, Kashmir-related CBMs pending a settlement of the dispute, political-level CBMs and economic and other non-military CBMs.

Nuclear restraint

Identification of the following restraint measures is informed by two factors. First, that in the near term, nuclear deterrence in South Asia will rest on a mixture of ambiguity and transparency. Thus, importing constructs from the US-Soviet nuclear competition of the Cold War, has obvious limits. Second, that specific CBMs will have to reflect and respond to the nature of the deterrence regime that will evolve in the region. Discussion here is therefore confined to those possibilities.

Already complex questions are raised by indications of divergent Indian and Pakistani deterrence doctrines developing. These doctrines have by no means fully evolved much less been articulated or elaborated. But the developing Indian doctrine seems to imply both weaponisation and deployment, possession of a second-strike capability, and deterrence based on tactical nuclear warfighting. Pakistan’s evolving doctrine of a minimum deterrence posture appears to lay emphasis on stable and credible deterrence predicated on the lowest level of nuclear capability to avoid the costly ‘overkill’ model of superpower deterrence during the cold war.

Nuclear restraint in the existing post-test environment can be of three kinds. Before discussing these, it is important to note the implication of Indian statements and behaviour after the nuclear tests. Indian

leaders have talked of maintaining a minimum nuclear force. They have said they need this to deter both Pakistan and China. They have also said they will develop and deploy nuclear weapons. Indications also point to preparations for the use of battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons.

All of this implies that deployed deterrence will replace the recessed or nonweaponised deterrence that has been in de-facto operation for the past decade. If that is so, then this will represent another step up the nuclear escalatory ladder.

The key question is whether crossing this threshold can be prevented. If the international community accepts the Indian argument about developing its deterrent capability against China, which is a nuclear weapon state, then what is being accepted is deterrence based on a deployed nuclear arsenal. That would imply a matching response by Pakistan, which will lead to a new stage in nuclear escalation in South Asia.

We, in Pakistan, know that the China argument was an afterthought and a phony construct to create a rationale for India flexing its nuclear muscle to project its power. But the question is how far the international community shares this view. And what is it prepared to do to restrain India’s status-driven nuclear and missile ambitions.

Nuclear restraint can be envisaged at the next three stages of post-test nuclearisation: weaponisation, which in its initial phase involves the manufacture, assembly and storage of components or assembled weapons. Second, weaponisation means mating weapons with delivery systems. The third stage at which restraint can be envisioned is deployment of nuclear-armed missiles.

Weaponisation in the first sense of the term cannot be verified. So that it is difficult to address by any restraint measure. The presumption that would therefore have to be made is that weaponisation has occurred and the region is already at this stage, or beyond, of nuclearisation.

The next stage, mating weapons with delivery systems, is possible to restrain and reasonably verify—by NTMs, aerial surveillance and other means. Restraint at this level may be the most realistic objective at this time.

The third stage, deployment, is a complex area. There is first the question of what constitutes deployment? Pakistan has long adopted the position that serial production of the mobile Prithvi missiles amounts to deployment. Therefore the 30 Prithvis stored at the forward position (at Jullendar) are presumed by Pakistan to be virtually deployed. The short range missiles possessed by Pakistan are evidently not in as advanced a stage of deployment. The challenge ahead for any nuclear restraint regime is how to avoid a de-facto situation of deployment.

There is another complicating factor in this area. For Pakistan, lacking sufficient frontline, high-tech aircraft, medium and short-range missiles can also be expected to play a conventional war-fighting role. Keeping in view the multi-dimensional role that missiles are likely to play in Pakistan’s defence doctrine in the absence of top-of-the-line aircraft (Pakistan has 30 against India’s 300), it is likely to feel compelled to operationally deploy its missiles if the threat posed by India’s conventional superiority becomes more acute.

The paradox will be that such missile deployment in a conventional role will nonetheless be perceived as nuclear-capable and thus evoke an Indian response.

For this reason, any nuclear risk reduction objective requires addressing the conventional asymmetry between Pakistan and India to reduce Pakistan’s greater need for missiles. These are already regarded as both feasible and cost-effective by its defence planners. There is also the danger of escalation posed by India’s plans to acquire and induct anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) and SLBMs (Sagarika). This would inject new instability and gravely undermine any nuclear restraint regime in the region. The time to consider declaring the region an ABM-free zone is obviously now, not after destabilising moves are already underway and become impossible to reverse. Conventional Restraint Building stable nuclear deterrence has a close nexus with the conventional force balance or the lack of it, as also actual force deployments. This means putting in place conventional force CBMs that would help to bolster stable deterrence and avoid the risk of accidental or inadvertent conflict that can escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

So far, CBMs in the conventional military sphere have been restricted to very narrow and limited concepts, mainly prior notification of troop movements and military exercises. So long as the bulk of the Indian army and air and naval assets remain deployed against Pakistan, these CBMs even if effectively implemented, can hardly contribute to tension-reduction and a climate of normalcy.

Serious efforts to promote conventional CBMs require tangible measures to deal with the reality of tension-inducing deployment in recognition of the fact that the structure, posture and deployment of Indian military forces are Pakistan-specific. Such tangible measures can include:

a) a mutual understanding between Pakistan and India not to deploy long-range artillery close to border areas containing large population centres.

b) a mutual agreement not to deploy armoured divisions in areas where surprise attack is possible, specifically in the central and desert plateau along the Indo-Pakistan border. That whole area can be declared a tank-free zone.

c) India should undertake to redeploy atleast a third of its frontline forces to locations atleast 300 kms away from the border, so that the capacity to launch a surprise attack is reduced. This would also reduce the compulsions for nuclear deterrence based on deployed arsenals.

d) Defence acquisitions of new weapon systems and new technology should be made the subject of mutual discussions.

Kashmir-related CBMs

It is obvious that nuclear risk reduction will not get anywhere if there is no movement towards a broader settlement on Kashmir. Pending a solution to the dispute, progress is essential in dealing with the immediate sources of tension to build a climate of normalcy and pave the way to a just Kashmir settlement. There could be two ways of doing this:

First, humanising the problem: Address the humanitarian aspects of the issue and alleviate the suffering of the Kashmiri people. CBMs can include measures to safeguard fundamental human rights, unconditional release of Kashmiri prisoners, unifying divided families, providing access to international humanitarian organizations in occupied Kashmir and granting Kashmiris the right to a fair trial. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but illustrative of how to humanise the problem in order to deal with its most urgent dimensions.

Second, pursuing political CBMs. This should entail allowing the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), comprising 35 Kashmiri organizations, to legitimately function and field candidates in elections within occupied Kashmir — without pre-conditions and without the visible presence of coercion — so that political normalcy can be established. The objective should be to restore normalcy and peace in order to pave the way for a negotiated settlement of the dispute.

In addition, arrangements could be agreed by both India and Pakistan to allow the Kashmiri people to travel and trade freely across the Line of Control (LoC). India has itself proposed people-to-people exchanges as a CBM. The best arena for this CBM to be first implemented is across the LoC, thus opening the door to intra-Kashmiri trade, cultural exchanges, and other contacts.

Political-level CBMs

  • Institutionalized exchanges at Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Parliamentary-levels.
  • More frequent use of the hot-line that is now in place.
  • Joint positions can be evolved on convergent interests in multilateral forums like the WTO, IMF and World Bank.

Economic, Social, Cultural CBMs

Many are available and new ones can be evolved aimed at bridging the chasm of mistrust and promoting a habit of cooperation. The potential here is considerable, but immediate possibilities are limited due to the ‘hot war’ that rages unceasingly across the Line of Control and in other dimensions on Kashmir.

Mired in a situation of no-war, no-peace, Pakistan and India can hope to start making the critical and defining transition from conflict-avoidance to confidence-building by engaging in a comprehensive normalisation process that acknowledges the linkage between nuclear risk reduction, conventional restraint and conflict resolution. A CBMs-only approach that loses sight of the bigger picture and implicitly assumes continued arms racing, will doom such efforts to re-enacting the sterile bilateral dialogue of the past-half century, leaving the region exposed to heightened nuclear risks. In such a scenario Kashmir will continue to be a flashpoint for tensions and nuclear confrontation.