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In wake of the Abu Jindal revelations, not much could be expected from the Joint Statement at the end of the recently held meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan. For that reason perhaps the ‘one small step’ that has potential of being ‘a giant leap’ for the region has been missed. This article recommends a direction for taking the refreshing initiative forward. The nugget in question reads: “It was decided that separate meetings of the Expert Level Groups on Nuclear and Conventional CBMs will be held to discuss implementation and strengthening of the existing CBMs and suggest additional mutually acceptable steps that could build greater trust and confidence between the two countries, thereby contributing to peace and security.”
This reflects an intention on part of the two security establishments to discuss CBMs in the two fields – nuclear and conventional – separately. While five rounds of talks had taken place between the Lahore Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), in which such meets were envisaged, and 26/11, the resumption of the joint working group meets was only in December 2011. This meeting was reviewed during the recent foreign secretary talks and the decision to separate the discussion on CBMs, which will enable a more detailed look at each domain, was the happy outcome.
A separate expert level dialogue on nuclear CBMs is in order since vertical proliferation and a diversification in the arsenal and defensive measures, such as ballistic missile defences, are speedily underway in the subcontinent. The separation suggests that the two governments sensibly see the nuclear domain as a stand alone one. This is in keeping with India’s stand that nuclear weapons have no military value. Pakistan, on the other hand, believes in the military utility of nuclear weapons, hence its first use doctrine.
The intention to form an independent expert group for discussing conventional CBMs is heartening. The significance of this forum derives from the devastation that terrorism has wrought in the region. India’s answer to sub conventional provocation, the Cold Start doctrine, has shortened the window for crisis resolution. The expert group can be put to good use to discuss threat perceptions and war game reactions in such instances so as to build in firewalls between terror attacks and conventional fisticuffs.
Further, the notion of a conventional working group suggests a more visible military presence. The working group will be a useful forum for the two militaries to have representatives directly across the table, even if one is sprinkled with defence bureaucrats. For a start, it can take up the lone pending issue of the Lahore MOU - the absence of CBMs on the seas. It can help narrow down the differences over Siachen by preparing a demilitarization document for the two states to sign. It can explore the expansion of the ceasefire on the Line of Control to include joint patrolling. With time, habits of cooperation may form (as is the intent behind the concept of CBMs) to enable a more ambitious agenda, such as resurrecting the environment damaged by the million plus land mines there.
The levels of trust necessary for ensuring that the promises made in the Lahore MOU for discussing the doctrines are fulfilled can be built up in the more focused group. This can be envisioned only in case there is a meeting of minds in the conventional experts group. India can use the conventional experts group to persuade Pakistan that the conventional military balance is not skewed in India’s favour. Arriving at a shared understanding on the strategic balance can serve as a forerunner to doctrinal change towards No First Use in the nuclear sphere. Together it will make both states secure.
Lastly, to withstand the test of the next terrorist-instigated crisis, the experts groups must either be standing forums in continuous session or capable of being called into session at the time of a crisis outbreak. They can then serve as crisis defusing mechanisms, helping to execute and monitor policies and decisions mutually arrived at through exchanges over the multiple hotlines in play. In effect, they can be ‘camouflaged’ Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers.
The understanding that undergirds this recommendation is that the two states share a mutual interest in crisis management and de-escalation. Therefore, mechanisms to bring this about have to already be in place. The two forums can supplement the hotlines currently available. Such direct interface of experts, acquainted with each other, would be in addition to existing diplomatic channels actively addressing the crisis, thereby enabling early and easier resolution.
The separation enables the requirement under Article 6 of the Lahore MOU, which caters to the setting up of ‘appropriate consultative mechanisms’. Whether these fulfill the promise of Article 1 – ‘bilateral consultations on security concepts, and nuclear doctrines…’ – will be their true test. If these two separate experts groups can in time be combined to become a forum for a strategic dialogue, going beyond CBMs to mutual and balanced forces reduction, including nuclear stockpiles, then peace would truly be at hand.