Wednesday June 19, 2024

Retooling strategic balance

The writer is a retired air-vice marshal, former ambassador and a security and political analyst. It is time to say it. We may have done so behind closed doors, in informal Track II interactions, and in defensive arguments to the Americans on being labelled as violators of a nuclear order,

By Shahzad Chaudhry
October 21, 2015
The writer is a retired air-vice marshal, former ambassador and a security and political analyst.
It is time to say it. We may have done so behind closed doors, in informal Track II interactions, and in defensive arguments to the Americans on being labelled as violators of a nuclear order, but we have never said it in full to the entire world, giving our rationale of why nuclear weapons are important for Pakistan and how these forge the strategic balance in South Asia. We have simply owned them and let that reality impose its own rationale.
In today’s world you need an accompanying narrative that will establish credentials that will justify a strategic option. That is what international diplomacy is all about – creating and evolving rationales for strategic choices. In South Asia – vis-a-vis India – Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence is ‘the’ critical factor to the strategic balance that keeps the two from deviating from a state of relatively peaceful coexistence. The alternate is only more war. That is the crux of it.
Sabre-rattling, yes; and a hoard of blame and ill will leading to acrimonious trade of fire at the border that kills humans on both sides, yes; but both sides have resisted the temptation to an all-out slug-out. In 1999 when they met under Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif to chart a new course, they spoke of the strategic restraint, and the need to work out the elements of it. But that got lost on the altar of imperial hubris that comes easy in this part of the world. South Asia lost the opportunity of a legal framework for peace and normative coexistence. This imperative, however, imposed itself around alternate paths in evolving nuclear realities, forcing a strategic balance that became difficult to breach. South Asia now stares into the stark reality of an Armageddon with its own set of determinants. ‘Lump it’ may just be the exclamation for it.
Imagine what all the region has gone through since 1998, after the two powers went overtly nuclear: the 1999 Kargil episode – did the event happen because of the space that opened with an imposed restraint regime, or was the subsequent management of it severely curtailed because of the consequences in going beyond its restricted scope; the 2001-02 parliament attack in Delhi, and the subsequent ten-month long eye-ball to eye-ball stand-off which in usual times, without the nuclear overhang, had the making of another full-scale war between the two, but fortuitously remained just that – a prolonged deployment.
And then the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks with its alleged base in Pakistan; an arrogant, economically rejuvenated, imperious India could only reverberate in frustration, having to eschew what its impulse dictated despite the clamour to punish Pakistan. It is true that nuclear deterrence imposes its own rationality forever changing the nature of conflict, if not entirely eliminating conflict.
Pakistan has ‘bought’ peace for itself with the nuclear deterrent. Without it each of these occasions would have caused the imperiousness of one to invade the other. That may be frustrating to the dominating power of one, but is the saving grace for the other, and thus the region. If we had chosen to follow a cooperative restraint regime, we would have avoided the consequences of one imposed.
Both India and Pakistan do not talk to each other anymore; imagine if there wasn’t the restraining reality of an impending annihilation, what devastation may have visited upon the people of the two nations. Remember not all has been quite since Mumbai. The two have squabbled and traded abuse over minor and sometime contrived deviations, violating boundaries and borders with shaming alacrity; yet imposed rationality has impeded greater misfortune.
Strategic balance is essential to South Asia’s peace; for the moment ‘only’ nuclear deterrence enables it. When war is the default resort to any disconcert, strategic safeguards are the only lifeline. When China vanquished India in 1962, the land of Gandhi chose the nuclear route as a leveller against future Chinese aggression. When Pakistan lost to India in 1971 and India reinforced its total domination Via the ‘Smiling Buddha’ in 1974, Ahimsa was a far cry. In search of equilibrium and sustainable survival, Pakistan turned to the nuclear option. Since then South Asia has not known a period of uninterrupted relative peace.
There is another deliberately planted insinuation on Pakistan’s expanding size of arsenal making the case for a possible nuclear arms race in South Asia. It remains characteristically unrepresentative of the realities on both sides. What, however, may bother the proponents of disarmament is the doctrinal mutation that has begun to be spelled by Pakistan. Pakistan now counts ‘full spectrum deterrence’ along with ‘credible minimum deterrence’ as a policy plank. This too needs to be better explained.
With India’s hands tied against war under a nuclear overhang, its desire to wage one remains frustrated. Indian generals, of late, have begun to claim a window for a limited war. Theories of the ‘cold start’ doctrine have been frequently pedalled. It has roots in an Indian design to punish Pakistan with offensive insertions of significant sized forces at a number of points where a cumulative effect is to impose a dilemma of response and seek better strategic orientation resulting in wide but shallow gains. The aim remains to punish and hurt Pakistan in retribution for perceived excesses and failures, such as were claimed for Mumbai 2008.
An all-out nuclear resort by Pakistan of such attacks may be avoided if weapons of shorter range and limited yield, used possibly within its own territory against an aggressing enemy – as how the Chinese now redefine their doctrine – qualify as a proportionate deterrent to Indian ambition. The ‘Full Spectrum’ – from small, to the longer range missiles capable of reaching the farthest Indian redoubts on the Andaman – is what defines this doctrinal mutation. This too is meant to keep war out.
The lesson for India is simple here: we do not want war, and will keep it out with whatever it takes. India, on the other hand, seeks war, incorrectly characterised as limited – with a potential to blow beyond its designed scope. Pakistan, with its nuclear capability, has been able to defeat this Indian design. That is what has kept relative peace going in South Asia.
For the US and the rest of the world, so bothered with the possibility of South Asia blowing itself up in nuclear incineration, there are other ways too to assure a strategic balance in South Asia, save the nuclear route opted for by default by Pakistan. It lies in the elimination of conflict, auguring strategic stability that perpetuates peace.
The conflict between India and Pakistan may be historic but it resonates in quantifiable issues that beg resolution. The world has been at odds instead, driven more by its bilateral interests with the nations of the region than the moral quotient that they claim triggers their urge to save civilisations from assured destruction. Does the world, the US in particular, have it in them to chart a political route to an assured strategic balance that can eliminate conflict from the region?
Having gone nuclear there is little chance that Pakistan could reverse that status, but where it can review is in reverting its doctrinal mutation from ‘Full Spectrum’ back to only the ‘credible minimum deterrence’ datum. This will mean a significant reformulation of its arsenal mix. That though will need an evolution of an order within South Asia where reason for serious conflict has been obviated for the significant future.
This is the question Nawaz Sharif should be posing to President Obama when he meets him at the White House this week. Otherwise Pakistan will of necessity have to buy peace for itself, and the region by extension, through a strategic balance assisted by a well-designed and well deliberated nuclear deterrence.