Thursday, 31 May 2012

India-Pakistan: Missing NCBMs

by Ali Ahmed

February 22, 2012

An Indian think tank reports (‘Indo-Pak Nuclear CBMs: The Road to Nowhere’) on one reason why India and Pakistan do not pursue nuclear confidence building measures (NCBMs) with any sense of purpose or a degree of urgency as being “the threat of a nuclear showdown is primarily an invention of the West, especially the US.”
Is such a belief warranted? Does precedence of the nuclear level not having figured in the Kargil War and the ‘twin peaks crisis’ episodes suggest that the two states are rational enough to keep the nuclear overhang become a sword of Damocles?
The two states are working overtime to ensure mutual deterrence. Both are at the three figure mark in warhead numbers. Indians are additionally looking for a ballistic missile shield, having successfully conducted its fourth interceptor missile test, and a nuclear submarine anchored ‘triad’. Pakistanis have reinforced their intention of going first by unveiling the Nasr, advertised as a tactical nuclear weapon. Will deterrence hold if conventional push comes to nuclear shove?
Admittedly, the two states are wisely lengthening the nuclear fuse. India’s commerce minister’s three day visit to Pakistan is set to open up mutual investment. He inspected the integrated check post completed at Wagah border along with his Pakistani counterpart. The two states are into their second round of talks, indicating that even terror incidents of the order of 26/11 can at best dent the relationship, not set it back irretrievably. They have conventional CBMs and CBMs over Kashmir in place. On the NCBMs front they have extended the life of their agreement on interaction in case of nuclear accidents by five years.
However, if all these welcome features are taken as substituting for the missing, and more consequential NCBMs, there is need for ‘selling’ the idea aggressively. Not emplacing NCBMs while the going’s good, such as now, may be regretted later.
The fact is that India, believing that Pakistan exploited the nuclearisation of May 1998 more proactively, has drawn a page from Pakistan’s book. At the conventional level, imitating Pakistan’s observation of space for conventional operations below the nuclear threshold, it has gone in for a ‘proactive’ offensive conventional doctrine. At the nuclear level, it has attempted to increase this space by assuring ‘massive’ punitive retaliation in case of Pakistani first use, even if provoked by India’s conventional pincers.
Pakistan for its part has reportedly firmed up its conventional counter, apparently termed ‘early strategic offensive’. Even though its troops are involved in counter insurgency on the western front, it intends to beat India’s integrated battle groups to the draw. Given that it is a military dominant state, it does not have democratic and bureaucratic encumbrances. It would need to use the time profitably while India debates whether and to what degree the Pakistani state is complicit and whether to go in for firepower-centric, air force led reprisals or go for Cold Start.
Secondly, even if Nasr is a deterrence-gimmick for the moment, when the balloon goes up, it would be hazardous to think, as revealed by the Indian think tank, that: “Though Pakistan threatens to use the nuclear weapons and has convinced the rest of the world that its nuclear threshold is low, there is a larger understanding between the two countries that the threat is only a posture and not an actual position.”
Given this as ‘dry tinder’ piled up high, all that is needed is the proverbial spark. This is not unlikely, given the onrush of the magic year, 2014. Imagine a situation in case of the West disengaging progressively from ‘AfPak’ in which uncertainty reigns. With both states in election mode over the interim, there would be less maneuver space for governments. It bears recall that the parliament attack and 26/11 both were in some measure a spillover of the turn of events in ‘AfPak’. Since the end game there is set to culminate in 2014, and if Leon Panetta is to be believed, may even be advanced to 2013, the ‘spark’ could well be round the corner.
The catastrophic terror threat by autonomous non-state actors in Pakistan not having receded, more needs doing to manage the fallout. Under the circumstance, getting NCBMs into place appears sensible. It is self-evidently so in India’s case since it has made arrangements over the past decade to leverage its conventional military advantage.
Superficially, this may not be in Pakistan’s interest since its nuclear deterrence is also meant to cover the conventional level. However, the Pakistan’s Establishment would not want the extremist fringe gaining space, more than a happenstance in case an India-Pak crisis turns into conflict.
In the December round of talks in Islamabad, India asked Pakistan to come clean on its nuclear doctrine. This bespeaks of maneuvering and validates the revelation in the think tank report of down grading nuclear dangers. The reason is perhaps that keeping such dangers off the radar screen enables the state to quietly work on nuclear preparedness unhindered by the self-interested scrutiny of an aroused attentive public. No wonder the mechanics of engagement are in place.
The logic from a state point of view should instead be that the more the nuclear preparations, the more the need to manage the environment. NCBMs provide the necessary cover and a back stop. What needs setting up instead is a strategic dialogue mechanism for across-the-spectrum engagement. Because it would be in continuous session, it can also serve, if needed, as an ‘NCBM plus’ or an NRRC (Nuclear Risk Reduction Center) by the backdoor.
India has recently committed to a working mechanism with China for consultation and coordination over their border issues composed of diplomatic and military officials of the two sides. This is a useful model for managing its relations with Pakistan. The timing of such an initiative from India is just right in that this would ease pressure on Pakistan and its Army, thereby making the idea easier to materialize and the state and its minder more amenable to peace overtures.
Both states have strategic dialogues with their mutual friend, the US. It makes more sense to have such a dialogue mechanism in place with the perceived adversary, i.e. with each other.