The first NSA-level talks between India and Pakistan have generated much hope as a new and high forum for the resolution of problems. Unfortunately, preparations are already being made by both sides to use this forum to merely raise their litany of woes regarding terrorism and LoC violations. Reports from across the border indicate this meeting will be used to thump the table about RAW activities in Pakistan. This augurs an unfortunate beginning for the high-level talks, which could have done without the acrimony of low-level pettiness on routine issues.
What the NSAs should have done was genuinely raise the level of the exchange beyond LoC flag meetings and inter-prosecutor meetings on criminal investigations as well as the granting of bail to those accused of terrorism. A good beginning could have been made by addressing the issue of nuclear stability between India and Pakistan. It’s a worthwhile aim.
The West claims they achieved nuclear stability despite hair-trigger alerts, the launch on warning (LOW) doctrines, and an arms race that ended up with 30,000 nuclear weapons. The West also claims that South Asia is the most dangerous place on Earth, where terrorism is conjoined with nuclear weapons. In 45 years of nuclear confrontation in central Europe, Nato and the erstwhile Warsaw Pact saw only one small arms-firing incident at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie. In the subcontinent, the firing never ceases. So, the challenge of establishing nuclear stability is all the greater in South Asia. This is an issue that the two NSAs should have begun their talks with.
Nuclear stability can broadly be divided into crisis stability and arms control stability. India and Pakistan have had three crises after their overt weaponisation — the Kargil War, Operation Parakram and 26/11. The first issue that needs attention is achieving some transparency regarding the state of nuclear alert. During Kargil, then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif was given a dressing down in the US for moving Pakistan’s nuclear assets — an act he said was kept from him, possibly correctly. Did Indian nuclear assets also move during Kargil, or during Parakram? Do nuclear alert states have any link with general mobilisation states in the subcontinent? The steps involved are vague and could lead to fatal misunderstandings. If both countries observe a peacetime status of de-mated nuclear weapons, why not formalise it in an agreement? Deterrence works best when it’s out in the open. With nuclear assets going to sea and even with canisterised land assets, shouldn’t a state of nuclear readiness be more transparent? If Pakistan fields tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), presumably with no pre-delegation, why not declare so, without losing effectiveness but clearing up any misunderstanding?
On arms control stability, both countries have refused to adopt LOW doctrines. However, the Pakistani TNW doctrine casts serious doubt on India’s doctrine of massive retaliation. This needs either signalling to restore balance, or overt reaffirmation, or a tweaking of the doctrine. South Asian arsenals have not reached the obscene levels of the West, but the elegance of a nuclear doctrine is judged by how small a number can be made credible. Pakistan has commissioned three new plutonium reactors and built a missile that goes beyond possible subcontinental use. The NSA-level dialogue is the apt forum to talk about all such subjects pertaining to nuclear stability. For India, with its need to deter two nuclear-weapon powers, achieving stability with Pakistan is desirable because arsenals don’t need parity — something China has demonstrated with the US.
Finally, the subcontinent needs professional arms control negotiators, who will stick to the job for years. The US-Soviet SALT 1 took four and a half years of negotiations; SALT II took eight. It’s enough for the NSAs to make humble beginnings, even to jointly declare nuclear stability as a subcontinental goal. As long as terrorism persists, crises will happen. The solution is to prevent a crisis from becoming a nuclear one through misperception. The challenge in South Asia is far more serious than it was in central Europe. India reserves the right to punitive retaliation for a massive terror strike. But what can be done to make the escalation an orderly process and not a stumble into a nuclear crisis? And when will the nuclear ambitions of India and Pakistan be satiated, without the countries walking into an arms race?
The writer, a former rear admiral in the navy, is author of ‘A Nuclear Strategy for India’