India and Pakistan: Some Crude Thoughts on the Complex Nuclear Problem

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Introductory remarks:

At the end of the Cold War mankind could hedge the hope that the nightmare of nuclear war had at long last drawn to an end.

In retrospective we came to know that avoiding nuclear war between the inimical blocks of power several times was really a close shave. Half a dozen times at least it was only good luck as well as common sense on part of a few individuals which prevented all out nuclear war and thereby the descent of mankind into chaos, loss of civilization and bare survival under conditions of nuclear winter.

If we are honest we have to admit that mankind was not saved by the wisdom of politicians, not due to the fact that human beings are able to behave in a rational way and not because the ‘advisory circus’ on both sides or even intelligence services were wonderfully professional. The cruel truth is that mankind was saved by some sort of lucky accident and the probability of suffering a nuclear holocaust was at least equal to the probability of survival as we were used to.

If there is one scenario, avoidance of which is the prime imperative for mankind, it is the outbreak of nuclear war. In that context we must not entertain any illusion; even an ‘only’ regional nuclear war must be seen as worst case: There is an abundance of credible scientific findings which tell us that the side effects of an ‘only’ regional nuclear war will definitely have global consequences: I am not only alluding to the well-substantiated situation of ‘nuclear winter’ which will unavoidably lead to famine, thereby uncontrollable migration and widespread breakdown of law and order or to the likely damage done to the ozone layer; such a war would in the first place have far reaching socio-psychological impact on mankind in the sense that any optimism regarding the future evolution of mankind would be damaged for a very long time to come. The social and technological evolution of mankind would abruptly grind to a halt and give way to the sheer wish of survival under whatever primitive conditions.

When Hermann Kahn published his pioneering book ‘On Escalation’ in 1965, there still existed wide optimism regarding controllability of nuclear escalation. Today, if we honestly assess our experiences of the repeated danger of annihilation of mankind, which we were forced to make during the Cold War, then we can only conclude that in a situation of nuclear confrontation the carrying capacity of the “ice of rationality” on which our survival rests, is very small.

We should not entertain any belief, either, that - once two adversaries in possession of nuclear weapons have started using them they would be able to stop escalation at a relatively low level: In an extreme crisis situation which would see use of a first set of nuclear weapons the logics of preemption would wash away any inclination to stop escalation and to return to the negotiation table. It would be a deadly error to believe that once the nuclear jini is out of the bottle, man could master sufficient rationality to redress the situation. In nuclear confrontation the point of no return is reached at exactly that point in time when the first nuclear warhead has exploded. Any other train of thoughts must be considered as dangerously naïve and disregarding the nature of human psyche in a situation of ultimate threat. In other words: If nuclear deterrence fails there is no possibility to ‘unscramble the omelet’ of escalation.

Most experts would agree that the greatest danger of nuclear confrontation today does not exist between the USA and Russia or between China and the USA or between China and India, but between India and Pakistan.

In the following I will try to offer some trains of thoughts which can hopefully, at least slightly contribute to more rationality in discussions regarding strategic stability cum nuclear connotations between those two states.

The following trains of thoughts have been influenced by arguments put forward by experts on nuclear strategy not only in India and Pakistan but also in other parts of the globe as well as by historical experiences mainly of the Cold War.

I have dispensed with a proper array of footnotes and other academic accessoires in order to avoid losing sight of core problems. This is also to say that I would be most grateful if readers considered my deliberations rather an essay than an academic exercise which in my opinion would - in view of the seriousness of the problem - be too much of a luxury. 

Cold start and Nasr

The usual scenario or sequence of events which would lead to the unfolding of nuclear war between India and Pakistan can be sketched as follows:

The starting point would be a major terrorist attack in India whereby the terrorists can be ascribed some Pakistani connections either in the sense that Pakistani state organs have orchestrated that attack or non-state-entities which are at least tolerated by the Pakistani state. Once this has been established India will retaliate by launching a military strike with conventional means against Pakistani territory; the aim being to occupy some Pakistani territory as a kind of security in order to force the Pakistani state to eradicate anti Indian terrorist entities. In order to block that kind of reaction by India which would be based on the (never officially admitted) ‘Cold Start’-doctrine, Pakistan - due to its conventional inferiority - would feel forced to defend itself by means of tactical nuclear weapons, particularly by employing the nuclear armed ‘Nasr’-missile. This again would imply that in such a case Pakistan would not adhere to a no-first-use-doctrine. The Indian reaction to a first-use of nuclear weapons on part of Pakistan even if those weapons would be tactical ones, would be massive nuclear retaliation as stated by authoritative Indian sources. Presupposing that Indian massive retaliation would not be able to neutralize Pakistani second strike capabilities, massive nuclear retaliation by Pakistan would be unavoidable. With this the conflict would move to the strategic level which means that there would be an all-out nuclear exchange implying annihilation of population centers as well as damage to infrastructure to a degree which would block any kind of development for a very long time to come.

One remark at this stage: In India and also in Pakistan I have sometimes heard statements which point to the belief that even a massive nuclear exchange could somehow be absorbed. This - in the view of most experts I was talking to - is a most naïve and thereby a most dangerous way of looking at the problem: Even if only one fifth of the nuclear arsenal of either side hit the territory of the other one both adversaries would no doubt slide down into some sort of historical oblivion: Pakistan - due to its smaller territory - would more or less be gone completely but also India would cease to exist in any meaningful way.

Apart from this the whole scenario is not very credible as the following questions suggest:

1. Even in case that it would be possible to prove that (like in the case of 26/11) terrorists came from Pakistan or that handlers of terrorists were based in Pakistan – would there be sufficient evidence of state involvement to justify a major military operation respectively seizure of territory? Could it not be that the Pakistani state has no sufficient possibility to control all terrorist groups which are able to launch attacks in India? Is it reasonable in such a case to punish a state which is too weak to control all terrorists on its soil? Would such punishment not be grist to the mill of terrorists?

2. Which sense would it really make if India - after a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack - would secure a dead pledge in form of occupation of Pakistani territory?

Why would this force the Pakistani power elite to take efficient measures against terrorist entities? On the contrary: a loss of territory would de-legitimatize the state which was unable to protect its territorial integrity and would strengthen, not weaken, the position of the terrorist non state-actors. I am afraid that thinking along the lines of a ‘Cold Start’-reaction is rather counterproductive as such a reaction would weaken exactly that state which, by means of ‘Cold Start’, was supposed to be forced to act strongly against terrorists. It is somewhat illogical to expect strong action from someone who has been weakened. Once again: What positive result could be expected from occupation of Pakistani territory except a certain short-lived satisfaction on part of an emotionally agitated population?

3. If we assume that in a kind of ‘Blitzkrieg’ the Indian army would occupy portions of Pakistani territory as a reaction to a major terrorist attack - would it in that case be credible that the Pakistani army would not fight Indian troops with tactical nuclear weapons because of Indian threats of massive retaliation? - Probably not.

There is a historical precedent: In view of vast conventional superiority on part of the Warsaw Pact countries NATO readied tactical nuclear weapons as well as so called ‘nuclear mines’ to stop in case of war the advance of the conventionally superior forces of the Warsaw pact. ‘Full spectrum deterrence’ on part of NATO blocked plans by the Warsaw pact to overrun Western Europe. NATO’s nuclear deterrence was considered credible for the simple fact that NATO had no other option and the long awaited attack on Western Europe did not take place.       

In my view this is the weakest component of the whole ‘Cold Start’-approach: namely the belief that the threat of massive retaliation would deter the use of tactical nuclear weapons against a conventional attack. This kind of deterrence is not credible because Indian massive retaliation would unavoidably imply Pakistani massive retaliation, as well. Is it credible then that Delhi would hazard the consequences of annihilation of major population centers because Indian troops have been attacked with tactical nukes on Pakistani territory? Rather not.

There are many more aspects of the above scenario which point to the fact that the whole scenario is unrealistic and obsolete. This is obviously based on the presupposition that there are rational actors on both sides. Given this it can be ruled out that India would react to a major terrorist attack by waging “Blitzkrieg” against Pakistan and if this option would have been credibly declared a non-option, reasons for the current build-up on both sides of nuclear weaponry would fall away to a great degree.

At this point of my discussion I would like to allude to a grave error which seems to influence the thinking of strategic planners: The belief that in a nuclear arms race strategic stability - in the sense of improbability of nuclear war - grows in relation to the level of nuclear weaponry reached. In other words: The larger - both in terms of quantity and quality - the nuclear inventories on both sides are, the less probable war becomes. In my opinion this is a dangerous error in reasoning for the following reasons:

A nuclear arms race - let us say in a regional context - basically goes through three stages:

1. The stage in which the competitors start showing intention to acquire nuclear weapons. At this stage stability is very low because the stronger competitor will do nearly everything including military options to stop the weaker one before the latter disposes of nuclear weapons.

2. The stage at which both sides dispose of nuclear capacities - which may be relatively modest - which however provide something like credible nuclear deterrence. At this stage there exists a more or less symmetrical distribution of capacities whereby the term ‘symmetrical’ refers to both sides’ abilities to inflict unbearable damage on the other side. Since nuclear weapons are something like a great ‘equalizer’ the weaker competitor will be relatively safe because the stronger one must always try to avoid the risk of a second strike. Stability at this stage is relatively high.

3. The stage of high level and further increasing nuclear capacities and also of efficiency of delivery systems. At this stage stability is decreasing again in proportion to the efficiency of weapons systems on both sides: On the one hand either sides are tempted to risk a first strike in order to disarm the adversary; on the other hand, such a first strike is pondered because the adversary is perceived as calculating in exactly the same way; accordingly the need of preemption or the probability of nuclear war is growing. That stage is characterized by extreme instability.

Regarding nuclear armament by India and Pakistan my view is that the second level has been reached; this is to say that as long as the third stage has not been reached respectively the “logics” of preemption does not play a decisive role, yet the danger of nuclear war remains within manageable dimensions i.e. remote.

If this is correct it would make a lot of sense to arrest the present nuclear armament at levels reached already and keep distance to the threshold which marks the beginning of stage three. In order to achieve this a new quality of CBMs will be required, new efficient channels of communication and a departure from the old mindset which looks at India-Pakistan relations as an unavoidable zero sum game.

Once again: First of all, strategic thinking has to move beyond the strategic paradigm which rests on the assumption of a chain reaction which leads from a major terrorist attack to a kind of Blitzkrieg which would trigger use of tactical nuclear weapons and would end up in reciprocal massive retaliation. This paradigm should be put into the museum of bizarre and obsolete thinking as soon as possible.

Presupposing that decision makers on both sides will move away from the thinking in terms of a zero sum game and notwithstanding the possibility that fanatics which feel obliged to whatever variant of doomsday ideology manage to control the nuclear triggers, another kind of battlefield will be unveiled in the foreseeable future: We will witness the two adversaries moving to a different ‘chessboard’ where concepts such as ‘cold start’, ‘full spectrum deterrence’ and ‘massive retaliation’ are not part of the game any longer.

This is not to say that military confrontation will be ruled out completely: One could imagine India pondering the option to answer terrorist attacks by using cruise missiles to take out terrorist camps or neutralize leaders of terrorist organizations through commando-operations by special forces. The killing of Bin Laden and this year’s operation against the NSCN-K on the Myanmari side of the border by Indian commandos might look like a pattern worth considering a kind of model in the minds of some people. On the other hand, one could imagine similar Pakistani operations which would be directed against perceived supporters of insurgencies in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit Balistan or elsewhere.

Switching over to this kind of operations does still carry the danger of military escalation which does not necessarily have to stop at the nuclear threshold. But there would be more steps on the way to nuclear catastrophe and more time to break the spiral of escalation than in the scenario which was outlined above.  

The deep-seated antagonism between Pakistan and India, which possibly dates back to socio-psychological traumata originating at the time of partition if not further back, will not vanish any time soon. But since a military show down would only know losers, particularly if the nuclear threshold is transcended, it cannot be ruled out that decision-makers on both sides will sooner or later look to a different ‘chessboard’ in order to do justice to respective interests as well as to the quest for national identity.

The alternative chessboard I am alluding to is called ‘international relations’, particularly ‘international economic relations’ and first of all ‘regional relations’.

Provided that the rational players, who are by and large in command today, will not be replaced by fanatic advocates of some kind of ‘Armageddon’, there is some hope that the possibility of nuclear war between the two countries we have looked at becomes a more and more remote danger.

There are two ways of looking at the antagonism existing between the two nuclear armed South Asian powers: One could discuss in detail and in the arcane terms of game theory options which are open to both adversaries, one could depict likely stages of measures and countermeasures such as for instance BMD against tactical nuclear weapons as well as countermeasures against countermeasures and so on and so forth.

The other possibility would be to hope that decision-makers on both sides will come to know that in correlation with increasing quantity and quality of nuclear arms and delivery systems the constraint of preemption will grow until all encompassing catastrophe takes place and that they are able to master enough rationality to stop a race nobody can win in the end.

If - at this point in time - that hope is justified and we perhaps detect first signs that both sides are about to consider other scenarios than the ones characterized by violent conflicts then the study of relations between India and Pakistan could concentrate on more constructive topics than was the case so far.

I am aware of the fact that the above thoughts and hypotheses are only of fragmentary nature. Certainly more questions have come up than have been answered. But if it was possible to contribute to the feeling that regarding the antagonism between India and Pakistan it is time to leave behind established paradigms of unsolvable controversy in that case far more would have been achieved than could be hoped for.

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Author: Prof. Dr. Klaus Lange