In his inaugural statement at a seminar on nuclear security at a think tank in Islamabad, the Nuclear Development Adviser to Pakistan’s National Command Authority, retired general Khalid Kidwai, made sure to get the deterrence message across to India.
He warned that ‘Cold Start or no Cold Start’, Pakistan’s adoption of ‘full spectrum deterrence’ had brought about ‘retention of strategic equilibrium in South Asia’ by seriously neutralising any propensity in India for the ‘use of the military as an instrument of policy’.
For their contribution to ‘peace and stability in the region’, he was inclined to echo the title of a book on India’s nuclear weapons by Raj Chengappa, calling Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, ‘weapons of peace’.
Is Khalid Kidwai right?
On return from Islamabad where Sushma Swaraj had gone for the ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan, Swaraj in briefing parliament acknowledged as much, saying: “war is not an option”. Whereas she did not specify why this was so, the nuclear factor also figures among other reasons to avoid war, such as the economic one.
Since both states are close to embarking on a ‘bilateral comprehensive dialogue’ brokered by Swaraj during her Pakistan visit last December, it would appear that Khalid Kidwai is at least partially right. However, since the promised dialogue has not taken off three months on since its announcement indicates the pitfalls.
The terror attack on Pathankot airfield early in the year resulted in the foreign secretary talks scheduled for mid January being postponed. Even if talks finally take off in wake of the visit of the joint investigation team from Pakistan to the site of the terror attack in Pathankot, the hiatus indicates a continuing fragility that cannot be wished away.
This is compounded by India’s Pakistan strategy, likened by a former Indian ambassador to that country as ‘manic pirouetting’. Since the strategy is controlled by National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, his views are worth probing.
Immediately prior to parliamentary elections in which Doval had a major hand in generating the Modi wave, Doval laid out his strategic world view at a talk in Sastra University. He called for a shift from a defensive strategy to one of ‘defensive offence’. Since this was not an offensive strategy, the nuclear threshold was not of consequence. He preferred ‘intelligence led’, ‘covert’, operations to military action against Pakistan’s ‘vulnerable’ areas, such as its ‘internal security’.
Deeming ‘strategy without tactics is noise before defeat’, it can be expected that Doval as NSA is practising what he preached. Pakistan’s recent nabbing of an alleged Indian spy, former naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav, is perhaps evidence of this.
Alongside, in another preview of his Pakistan strategy, Doval as head of the Vivekananda International Foundation had instigated a press statement by 41 members of the strategic community. The statement had effectively tied down UPA II from contemplating a resumption of talks with Pakistan. It called for terrorism as being the sole agenda of talks.
Today the promised ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’ continues in abeyance, held hostage to terrorism. This explains Sushma Swaraj’s briefing to parliament: “We have decided that through talks we will resolve the issue of terrorism as talks is the way forward so that the shadow of terror is removed.”
The upshot is that India’s Pakistan strategy appears to have two prongs. One is to condition Pakistan to its underside by exposing it to Indian intelligence operations, while engaging in a dialogue restricted to terrorism.
The strategy is not without its dangers.
Firstly, while Indian interests are sought if not quite met this way, over time Pakistan’s national security estabishment’s interest in the dialogue would lag. It is currently not averse to Sharif’s outreach to India that relies on personal equations reinforced with Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi’s brief stop over at Sharif’s Raiwind residence. However, a status quo in India’s favour could prompt counter action by the Pakistan army to once again use its tried and trusted instrument, the ISI.
Secondly, the Pathankot terror attack and Pakistani NSA’s tip off to his Indian counterpart of infiltration of ten terrorists on Mahashivratri eve into India suggests that terrorist forces can act autonomously. They can trigger off another crisis by a mega terror attack.
During his Sastra University address, Doval had weighed in favour of an intelligence driven response to 26/11. In effect, the intelligence game would now heat up, increasing propensity for either side eventually going military. It is then that the nuclear threshold, so cavalierly dismissed by both Doval and Khalid Kidwai, would kick in.
Given such escalatory possibilities, the contrasting policies of the two states appear delusional. Whereas Pakistan loses no opportunity to foreground nuclear dangers to reinforce deterrence, as done most recently by Kidwai, India for its part has taken care to omit any mention of nuclear weapons in relation to military exercises since 2013.
Foregrounding nuclear dangers thus continues to be important, if only to compel the two states to remain at the table.