Pervez Hoodbhoy

Fearless Nuclear Gamblers

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.

Lighting the Nuclear Fire

A nuclear war is said to have no winners, but Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seems to think otherwise.

His exhortations to Indian troops in Kashmir to prepare for sacrifices and "decisive victory" have set off widespread alarm. It seems plausible that India is preparing for a "limited war" to flush out Islamic militant camps in Pakistan administered Kashmir. But with swift reaction and counter-reaction, it is far from clear whether the combat can remain confined.

Events shall take their course in the days and weeks ahead, but there is much to reflect upon as we cross the fourth anniversary of the Pokhran and Chaghai nuclear tests.

With free debate on sensitive issues largely proscribed in both countries - particularly on national television - the only voices to be heard are those of militarists and establishment strategic analysts. Not surprisingly, nuclear affairs are now being guided by wishful, delusional, thinking.

The most frightening delusion is India's trivialization of Pakistan's nuclear capability. This relatively new phenomenon has gained astonishingly wide currency in Indian ruling circles. Although Pakistan's nuclear tests had dispelled earlier scepticism, senior Indian military and political leaders continue to express doubts on the operational capability and usability of the Pakistani arsenal.

Still more seriously, many Indians believe that, as a client state of the U.S., Pakistan's nuclear weapons are under the control of the United States. The assumption is that, in case of extreme crisis, the U.S. would either restrain their use by Pakistan or, if need be, destroy them. At a recent meeting, I heard senior Indian analysts say that they are "bored" by Pakistan's nuclear threats and no longer believe them. Should one laugh or cry?

Wishes are being confused here with facts, and expediency with truth. Four years ago, to their chagrin, Indian militarists realized that they had shot themselves in the foot by forcing Pakistan's nuclear weapons out of the closet. This had been subsequently rationalized by claiming that a stable peace based upon a "balance of mutual terror" was now imminent. But after the upsurge of Kashmir militancy, denying the potency of Pakistan's nuclear weapons has become more convenient because it clears the road to a limited war.

One notes another massive change in the attitude of Indian militarists. For years they had insisted that all matters, including nuclear issues, be settled only bilaterally. Suggestions that nuclear weapons in the possession of India and Pakistan were more dangerous than those possessed by the West, Russia, and China had been angrily rejected. How dare anyone suggest that India and Pakistan are in any way less responsible, reasonable, and rational?

Bilateralism has now bit the dust. Having cut off direct communications with each other, both adversaries have thrust disaster prevention into the hands of diplomats and third-tier leaders of western countries. A continuous stream of officials from America and Britain has passed, or is due to pass, through Islamabad and Delhi. These include Christina Rocca, Chris Patten, Jack Straw, and Richard Armitage The subcontinent's fate now hangs in their hands.

Pakistani nuclear misperceptions and miscalculations have been no less severe than India's.

Pushed into the nuclear arena first by India's tests in 1974, and then again in 1998, Pakistan soon became addicted to nuclear weapons. Countering India's nukes became secondary. Instead, Pakistani nukes became tools for achieving foreign policy objectives. They created euphoric hyper-confidence and a spirit of machoism that led to breath-taking adventurism in Kashmir.

The subsequent Kargil war of 1999 will be recorded by historians as the first actually caused by nuclear weapons. Believing that a nuclear shield made Indian retaliation impossible, Pakistan coyly disclaimed any connection with the attackers who were extracting heavy Indian casualties from their high mountain posts in Kargil.

These illusions were soon to be dispelled. As India counter-attacked, a deeply worried Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington on 4 July 1999, where he was bluntly told to withdraw Pakistani forces or be prepared for full-scale war with India. In an article published last month, Bruce Reidel, Special Assistant to President Clinton, writes that he was present in person when Clinton informed Nawaz Sharif that the Indian Army had mobilized its nuclear-tipped missile fleet. Unnerved by this revelation and the closeness to disaster, Nawaz Sharif agreed to immediate withdrawal, shedding all earlier pretensions that Pakistan had no control over the attackers.

Other pretensions continued. Today, in spite of General Musharraf's soothing statements, there is little doubt that militant camps shelter under Pakistan's nuclear umbrella. Having operated openly for over a decade in full public view, and with obvious state backing, only magic -- or massive military action -- can eliminate them.

Whatever Pakistanis might choose to think, the rest of the world remains incredulous of the continuing official Pakistani position that it provides "only diplomatic and moral support" to the people of Kashmir. Earlier denials of military involvement in Kargil, or of providing military support to the Taliban regime, have hugely diminished Pakistan's international credibility.

It is now a matter of survival for Pakistan to visibly demonstrate that it has severed all links with the militant groups it had formerly supported, to be firm about providing "only diplomatic and moral support", and to implement what General Musharraf promised in his Jan 12 speech. To run with the hares and hunt with the hounds -- and imagine that the world will not know -- has become impossible. War is around the corner.

Difficult though this course of action is, it is also essential if the people of Kashmir are to be spared from the brutal rapaciousness of Indian occupying forces. Although our generals have yet to swallow this bitter pill, the fact is that Kashmir cannot be liberated by force. The "bleed India" policy, an apparently cheap option for Pakistan, was vociferously advocated for over a decade. This has totally collapsed -- Pakistan has bled no less than India.

Even more important than the fate of a few million Kashmiris is that of India's huge Muslim minority, which equals or exceeds the population of Pakistan. Without Pakistan's decisive action on cross-border insurgency, the Muslims of India will become the target of state-sponsored pogroms and ethnic cleansing. The massacres of Gujarat provide a chilling preview of what may lie ahead at the hands of a fundamentalist Hindu government.

Terrible dangers lie ahead. Lacking any desire for political settlement or accommodation, or even a strategy for achieving victory, jihadists in Kashmir now operate as a third force independent of the Pakistani state. Their goal is to provoke full-scale war between India and Pakistan, destabilize Musharraf, and settle scores with America. Hence the possibility that they will soon commit some huge atrocity -- such as a mass murder of Indian civilians -- which would turn India into a mad bull dashing blindly into a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Many observers have noted that the Srinagar, Delhi, and Jammu attacks on Indian civilians coincided with the visits of high officials from Western countries. Could the forthcoming visit by Richard Armitage provide a trigger for the next atrocity and a nuclear war?

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.