Fearless Nuclear Gamblers

News & Politics

For the last month, world leaders worked overtime to prevent tensions between Pakistan and India from exploding into war. Thousands of artillery shells exchanged since the beginning of this year destroyed the lives of border residents. Meanwhile, a million troops from the two countries glowered at each other across the border and air raid sirens were tested in some cities.

Today, nuclear tensions are down one notch and some semblance of normalcy is beginning to emerge. But, even at the peak of the crisis, few Indians or Pakistanis lost much sleep. Stock markets flickered, but there was no run on the banks or panic buying of necessities. Schools and colleges, which generally close at the first hint of a real crisis, functioned normally.

The outside world saw it in very different terms -- as the fierce and suicidal struggle between two nuclear armed states. Foreign nationals streamed out of both countries. We saw the crisis as more of the usual, except the rhetoric became just a little bit fiercer, and the sabre-rattling a little louder.

In a public debate in Islamabad on the eve of the Pakistani nuclear tests, the former chief of the Pakistan Army, General Mirza Aslam Beg, declared "We can make a first strike, and a second strike or even a third." The dreadful vision of nuclear war left him unmoved. "You can die crossing the street," he observed, "or you could die in a nuclear war. You've got to die someday anyway."

Across the border, India's Defence Minister George Fernandes, in an interview with The Hindustan Times, voiced similar sentiments: "We could take a strike, survive, and then hit back. Pakistan would be finished." Indian Defense Secretary Yogendra Narain took things a step further in an interview with Outlook Magazine: "A surgical strike is the answer," he said. But if that failed to resolve things, he said, "We must be prepared for total mutual destruction". Brahma Chellaney, a hawk whose feathers caught fire during the Kargil war, demanded that India "call Pakistan's nuclear bluff".

Pakistan and India are making history in their own way. No nuclear states in the world have engaged in such fiery rhetoric, even though hatreds between them have been intense. The fear of mutual destruction has always put sharp limits on the tone and volume of nuclear rhetoric. So, what accounts for this extraordinary difference between us -- Pakistanis and Indians -- and the rest of the world? Why makes us such extraordinarily bold nuclear gamblers, playing close to the brink?

In part, the answer has to do with the fact that India and Pakistan are largely traditional societies, where the fundamental belief structure demands disempowerment and surrender to larger forces. A fatalistic Hindu belief that the stars above determine our destiny, or the equivalent Muslim belief in "qismet", certainly accounts for part of it. Conversations and discussions often end on the note "what will be, will be", after which people shrug their shoulders and move on to something else. Because they feel that they will be protected by larger, unseen forces, the level of risk-taking is extraordinary. Travelling in a madly careening public bus in Karachi or Bombay, which routinely smash into and kill pedestrians, provides convincing proof .

But other reasons may be more important.

Close government control over national television, especially in Pakistan, has ensured that critical discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear war are not aired. Instead, in Pakistan's public squares and at crossroads stand missiles and fibre-glass replicas of the nuclear test site. For the masses, they are symbols of national glory and achievement, not death and destruction.

Nuclear ignorance is almost total, extending even to the educated. Some students at the university in Islamabad where I teach said, when asked, that a nuclear war would be the end of the world. Others thought of nukes as just bigger bombs. Many said it was not their concern, but the army's. Almost none knew about the possibility of a nuclear firestorm, about residual radioactivity, or damage to the gene pool.

Because nuclear war is considered a distant abstraction, civil defense in both countries is non-existent. India's Admiral Ramu Ramdas, now retired and a leading peace activist, caustically remarked recently, "There are no air raid shelters in this city of Delhi, because in this country people are considered expendable." Islamabad's civil defense budget is a laughable $40,000 and the current year's allocation has yet to be disbursed. No serious contingency plans have been devised, plans that might save millions of lives by providing timely information about escape routes, sources of non-radioactive food and drinking water, iodine tablets, etc.

Ignorance and its attendant lack of fear make it easier for leaders to treat their people as pawns in a mad nuclear game. How else to explain Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's recent exhortations to his troops in Kashmir to prepare for "decisive victory?" His nuclear brinkmanship has been made possible by influential Indian experts seeking to trivialize Pakistan's nuclear capability. Such analysts have gained wide currency -- they offer instant security to all who choose to believe them.

The reasoning of the "trivialization school" goes as follows: Pakistan is a client state of the U.S. and Pakistani nuclear weapons are under the control of the U.S. Hence, in an extreme crisis, the U.S. would either prohibit their use by Pakistan or, if need be, destroy them. At a recent meeting this January in Dubai, I heard senior Indian analysts say that they are "bored" with Pakistan's nuclear threats and no longer believe them. K. Subrahmanyam, an influential Indian hawk who has advocated overt Indian nuclearization for over a decade, believes that India can "sleep in peace."

Indian denial of Pakistani capabilities is not a wholly new phenomenon. Two months before the May 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, as part of a delegation from Pugwash, an international organization of scientists concerned about nuclear war, I met with Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral in Delhi. In response to my expressed worries about a nuclear catastrophe on the subcontinent, he repeatedly assured me -- both in public and privately -- that Pakistan did not have the capability of making atomic bombs. He was not alone. Senior Indian defense analysts like P.R. Chari had also published articles before May 1998 arguing this point, as had the former head of the Indian Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Raja Ramana.

Pakistan proved the doubters wrong. Forced out of the closet by the Indian tests, Pakistan's nuclear weapons gave the country a false sense of confidence and security. This encouraged it to launch its secret war in the Kargil area of Kashmir. In fact, this war will be recorded by historians as the first that was actually initiated by nuclear weapons. Although India wanted to respond, the existence of Pakistan's deterrence sharply limited its options.

Then came September 11.

In a global climate deeply hostile to Islamic militancy, new possibilities opened up to India. Seeking to settle scores with Pakistan, India now began to seriously consider cross-border strikes on militant camps on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control in Kashmir. To sell this to the Indian public, denying the potency of Pakistan's nuclear weapons became essential.

But to fearlessly challenge a nuclear Pakistan requires a denial of reality. It is an enormous leap of faith to presume that the U.S. has either the will -- or even the power -- to destroy Pakistani nukes. Tracking and destroying even a handful of mobile nuclear-armed missiles is no easy feat. During the Cuban missile crisis, even though it had aerial photos of the missile locations and its planes were only minutes flying time away, the U.S. Air Force reportedly could not ensure more than 90 percent effectiveness in a surprise attack against the Soviet missiles on the island. More recently, in Iraq, U.S. efforts to destroy Iraqi Scuds had limited success. There is no precedent in the world where a country has tried to destroy another's nuclear bombs. This would be fantastically dangerous because one needs 100 percent success -- a remaining nuke could unleash catastrophe.

Fight or flight? Biological evolution has programmed us for two elemental responses to external threats. Without fear there is no flight, just fight. The brave are doomed. Ignorant and fearless, India and Pakistan could well add a new chapter to well-worn textbooks on the theory of nuclear deterrence.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

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