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India - Pakistan: Kashmir and the Bomb

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By Ali Ahmed *          

Mr. Modi has put a temporary halt to a promising discussion prompted by his party's manifesto reference to a revision of nuclear doctrine by decreeing that India will abide by NFU. Even so, it was altogether a good thing that the nuclear issues found mention in the media. However, the nuclear issue will at best end up a footnote to any recounting of the campaign. The good part is that the nuclear issue was not dragged into the mud as have been the other weighty issues that have figured in the elections campaign.

It is the unfortunate phenomenon in strategic affairs generally, that when it is easier to discuss issues, in times of relative peace, they tend to recede to the background as less urgent and undemanding. The problem is that discussion, particularly sober discussion within one's own side and more so with the adversary, is impossible under the circumstance of crisis and impending conflict. Consequently, it would appear that an opportunity has been missed to engage equably with the nuclear factor in India-Pakistan relations. Hopefully, it would not be an opportunity rued after some future calamity.

Since Kashmir is central to any such possibility, here a view is taken of the nuclear factor in relation to Kashmir. In the recent discussion, Kashmir found mention in an oblique manner. The votaries for rescinding NFU opined that in light of Pakistani fragility, its nuclear weapons could find their way into jihadist hands with or without state complicity. The jihadists, in league with Kashmiri extremists ensconced in Pakistan, may use this for blackmailing India to make concessions on Kashmir. Such scaremongering was used to advance their view that India may require to go nuclear to smash such a contingency. If NFU is made history, then it would enable suitable response, besides being a suitable deterrence to negative forces for taking over Pakistan's crown jewels.

The nuclear blackmail narrative has been there since the very beginning of nuclear thinking. In the early eighties, Stephen Cohen reports of an interview he had in Pakistan in which his bemedelled interlocutor suggested that one utility of the bomb, then in Pakistan's basement, was to blackmail India politically for concessions on Kashmir. Militarily, he described its utility as plugging India's reinforcement routes into Kashmir from Jammu and slicing off the Valley in the melee.

The story was duly picked up by Subramanyam, leading advocate for India's nuclearisation. He justified redressing India's nuclear asymmetry, highlighting that just as Pakistan could plug the Valley from an Indian military surge in case of conflict by dropping the Bomb at Banihal or thereabouts, India could also do so by sealing off the other end of the Valley at Jhelum's exit. A nuclear symmetry would put paid to Pakistan's ambition to gain an upper hand in conflict and wrest Kashmir. A Pakistan brought to its strategic senses by the nuclear balance, would then reconcile to the status quo. To Subramanyam, acceptance of the status quo by Pakistan was the solution to the Kashmir conflict and at one remove to the hostility between the two countries. By the end of that decade, Kashmir was on the boil, hardly in sight of the solution, though India had nuclearised by then.

What Subramanyam failed to mention, not because of lazy strategic thinking but surely so as not to complicate his nuclear advocacy, was that Pakistan could choose other options under the cover of the Bomb. In the event, Pakistan chose the route described by analysts as the 'stability/instability' paradox that has it that stability brought on by mutual deterrence at the nuclear level opens up strategic space below for exploitation. Pakistan let loose a proxy war, no doubt emboldened and eased by Kashmiri alienation and angst.

It was able to exploit the subconventional level by neutralising India's conventional might by the threat of nuclearisation of conflict in case of India wanting to teach it a military lesson conventionally. Though India studiously denies it, Pakistan prefers to believe that it has deterred India's conventional hand on occasion, testifying to the deterrence regime in the subcontinent even at a time when recessed deterrence prevailed prior to the May 1998 landmark events.

After the 'Smiling Buddha' tests, LK Advani threw down the gauntlet. Though rationalised later as India's way to smoke out Pakistan's capability and have it join India in the doghouse, his call could well have been prompted by what some regard as a millennial 'jung' between 'two' civilisations. Nawaz Sharif was left with little choice. Both ruling parties assuming that the nuclear stalemate enabled rapprochement took the leap of faith at Lahore. However, in the case of Pakistan, Sharif was ahead of his security establishment that sprung a Kargil on him and Pakistan.

To Pakistanis it was an extension of the undeclared war along the Line of Control, unmindful of the changed security environment post Pokhran II and Chagai. Intended to divert Indian attention, it extended the life of mayhem in Kashmir. While India's army chief then, who might well have been outside India's nuclear loop, says nuclear weapons had no part in the conflict, a nuclear chronicler, Raj Chengappa, let on breathlessly that India had upped its nuclear readiness levels. Bruce Reidel recounts Clinton's ambush of Nawaz Sharif on Pakistani military's nuclear readiness during his visit to Martha's Vineyard. Both sides claim that nuclear weapons were not in the reckoning during the subsequent crisis of 2001-02. While Musharraf said that India's restraint owed to deterrence success, India's president Abdul Kalam in a notable faux pas acknowledged as much.

This brief recounting suggests that nuclear weapons have been a factor in past crises and therefore can be expected to figure in future ones. They would also be a feature in case a crisis turns out the real thing, since Pakistan has unveiled a tactical nuclear weapon. Though its employment is expected to be in the plains sector against Indian columns advancing in keeping with its newly minted doctrine of proactive offensive, Indian commentary suggests that the plains sector is, on this count, unlikely to be site of Indian offensives.

Instead, these may well be in the mountains sector where gains made can be kept and where Pakistan cannot readily use nuclear threats. Not only has the area Muslim population; but Pakistan also lies downstream. Nevertheless, in case there is a breakout in the mountain sector, it would place Indian troops within sight of Pakistan's national capital region, thus bringing nuclear weapons into the reckoning. Since India is giving itself a mountain strike corps, ostensibly for use on the China front, its use elsewhere cannot be guaranteed against. Gains it makes can prove nuclear provocations and would lie within fallout distance of Kashmir.

Therefore, while The Bomb may not directly and readily figure in the military calculation in Kashmir for either side, it can be hazarded that in case of nuclear use, self-restraint and regulation may also be a casualty in a post nuclear environment. Kashmir could well find itself at the rough end of an Indian stick. It is a separate issue that it would also face environmental consequences of a regional nuclear war, which even if of a threshold that does not provoke nuclear winter, can be expected to impact contiguous areas direly. Also, indirectly, once the nuclear genii is out of the bottle, motivated rationale can be manufactured, such as a need to interdict Pakistani supply lines to China under the 'two front' concept, for Kashmir to also get a dose of the nuclear medicine closer home.

Deterrence optimists, who seem to people nuclear establishments on both sides, would be averse to such prognosis. It is for this reason that the problems that could provoke such a denouement are allowed to persist. Since Kashmir cannot expect to escape being signed by nuclear incidence, both politically and physically, it may require exerting to ensure that it does not provide the proverbial spark to the nuclear tinder in South Asia. In the nuclear era, destiny of communities and societies cannot be left entirely in the hands of nuclear armed states, since they have to face the consequence in case deterrence optimists are found wanting at the crunch.

* The author blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in  This article first appeared in Kashmir Times Online Edition.

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