Friday, 1 June 2012


Deterrence has a shaky and brief shelf life
Ali Ahmed says current India-Pakistan nuclear confidence measures are not enough
THE FIFTH meeting of the Joint Working Group on nuclear confidence building measures (NCBMs) ended in Islamabad as the year 2011 ended. There was a previous meeting in late 2007 and a subsequent one was aborted after the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. Between then and now we had the 26/11 crisis with a nuclear backdrop. And in the meantime, Pakistan has unveiled a tactical nuclear missile system, the Nasr. India’s steps towards a triad and a ballistic missile defence system are sure and steady. Clearly, the two states got the timing of the meeting right.
But there’s much to be done. Periodic meetings are useful but insufficient. What needs doing instead is the establishment of a standing engagement mechanism. The problem with this is that neither state wishes to give the impression that it sees the nuclear dimension of their relationship as problematic. They wish to convey that deterrence being in good health, there is no need for a more extensive interface. Both appear to be nuclear optimists, sanguine that deterrence works. Another problem is that the two states have arguably entered an era of mutual assured destruction (MAD). MAD’s yardsticks of the Cold War on the levels of destruction amounting to 50 per cent of the industrial capacity and 25 per cent of the population need not detain us. Given the nuclear ordnance at the disposal of the two states, they can despatch the other back to the Stone Age.
The arsenal of both reportedly is in the vicinity of three digits. India believes it can destroy Pakistan while it can survive because of its size. Pakistan for its part has been increasing its nuclear numbers to ensure that enough survive to be able to set India back sufficiently for India to disabuse itself of the notion that it can survive Pakistan.
India’s posturing is apparently for deterrence; to assure Pakistan that since it would survive, it does not fear Pakistani nuclear posturing. Yet, firstly, the subcontinent being one geographic entity, nuclear effects will have consequences across the Indo-Gangetic plains. Second, Pakistan’s numbers are sufficient to take out a few consequential Indian cities. With New Delhi and Mumbai gone, it would take a while to put India together again. Lastly, even if India survives, it would lose out in its competition with China.
While the possibility does serve to deter, the doctrines of the two states enhance dangers. Pakistan, hoping to extend the working of deterrence to the conventional level by preventing an Indian conventional attack, has advertised its intent of going nuclear first. India hopes to use its conventional might to deter Pakistan from being overly provocative at the subconventional level. Given that at the subconventional level armed non-state actors operate with impunity, the situation does call for strategic engagement between the two states.
That none of the series of crises, numbering in some counts to seven in the nuclear era dating to the mid-1980s, has eventuated into a conflict of nuclear proportions suggests that deterrence is operational. But while relying on deterrence may be useful and also help cement NCBMs, the two states must more importantly arrive at a solution to their outstanding problems. CBMs, as the term suggests, are no cure; while deterrence, being fallible, needs to be made redundant. The problem is that deterrence and conflict resolution are mutually incompatible. Deterrence brings about protraction of conflict. It makes the possibility of conflict endemic by inducing the notion that it is manageable. Its management becomes equated with national security. National security is therefore doubly threatened by deterrence: one through keeping existential problems unaddressed and, second, in deterrence promising more than it can deliver when push comes to shove.
THE DANGER is for the two states privileging NCBMs over the consequential dimension of their engagement. The implication of deterrence as a strategic doctrine subscribed to by both states is that they do not expect their underlying disputes would be resolved soon. In effect, nuclear dangers would persist. NCBMs, while necessary, are insufficient. What needs to be put in place is a Nuclear Risk Reduction Centre (NRRC) to manage future crises so they do not spiral into conflict. Since neither state wishes to draw attention to the nuclear dimension of their relationship, they would be wary of the term NRRC. Therefore, the mechanism could be created under a different name and with a broader mandate, such as that of a strategic dialogue.
This would help them address the deeper substratum of their relationship, that of imbalance in relative power. India’s preponderance is seen as threatening by the Pakistani military that runs that state.
Ali Ahmed is a research fellow at the IDSA.
aliahd66@gmail.com

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