26 April 2017

South Asia is not the most dangerous place on Earth

Ramamurti Rajaraman

Ramamurti Rajaraman

Rajaraman is emeritus professor of physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, a member of the Bulletin's Science...


Nuclear weapons are arguably among the most dangerous inventions of man. The scale and rapidity of the destruction they can cause is unparalleled, as evidenced by the two occasions that they were used on civilian populations and by the numerous tests conducted on testing ranges. It follows that any country choosing to possess nuclear weapons is creating an existential threat, not only for its adversaries but also for itself and for its general neighborhood. Such places are all very dangerous to be in.

Given the immensity and gravity of this danger, it might seem silly and ghoulish to quibble over which nuclear weapon country is a greater danger than the others. Nevertheless, in the 70-year history of nuclear weapons such comparisons have often been made by diplomats, national leaders, scholars, and the media. Motivations have varied. Mostly they come from genuine concern for the safety of that region and of the world in general. But sometimes it is part of the thrust and parry of diplomatic engagement, or a strategic step to name and shame a country. It can also be a strategy for individuals and nongovernmental organizations specializing in that region to enhance the importance of their scholarly niche and ensure the next tranche of grant money.

In this genre, the flavor of the decade has been the notion that “South Asia is the most dangerous place on Earth.” This view was launched after a remark by President Bill Clinton, about two years after the nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan in May 1998. Shortly before he was to make his first state visit to India, Clinton said: “The most dangerous place in the world today, I think you could argue, is the Indian subcontinent and the line of control in Kashmir.” The statement quickly gained wide currency.

Since then it has become customary for analysts in think tanks and Western media to routinely and casually use this phrase or something equivalent.

This perception, however, is not widely shared in the Indian sub-continent. In fact, soon after Clinton made his statement and during a formal banquet in India honoring Clinton’s visit, Indian President K.R.Narayanan cautioned:

“It has been suggested that the Indian sub-continent is the most dangerous place in the world to-day and Kashmir is a nuclear flash-point. These alarmist descriptions will only encourage those who want to break the peace and indulge in terrorism and violence.” A similarly sober assessment continues to be provided by experts in India. These include not just politicians and civilian officials who could conceivably be expected to paint a reassuring picture, but also senior military officers who would seem to be inclined to be hawkish and belligerent.

For example, Lt. Gen. Vijay Oberoi, former Vice Chief of Army Staff, has written: “Keeping rhetoric, verbal statements, and saber rattling aside, both India and Pakistan know that even a single use of a nuclear weapon—whether in [its] own or [on the] adversary’s side of the border, would invite massive retaliation and destruction, not only for both countries or substantial parts of both countries, but also have severe adverse impact for the region and many parts of the world. Consequently, it is illogical to conclude that the escalatory ladder will climb to the nuclear level as a matter of course.”

Such sober views are not limited only to Indian analysts who, one might say, are compelled by regional pride to be biased in favor of thinking highly of their ability to handle nuclear responsibility in a crisis. Some analysts in the Western media have taken a similar stance, such as the BBC’s Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus: “In going nuclear, and in a sense in getting away with it, they [India and Pakistan] have provided a dangerous precedent. That is certainly the way western analysts would view it. Though local experts in the region would probably echo their own governments in insisting that if nuclear deterrence is okay for Britain, France, Russia, and the United states—not to mention China—then it should be fine for India and Pakistan as well.”

Meanwhile, other Westerners took a very different view. In 2007, four very distinguished elder statesmen of the US establishment—George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn—published a very influential article in the Wall Street Journal calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. Such a call for total disarmament by veterans of the Cold War was widely welcomed around the world. But one of the arguments they used to advocate this goal was less than universally welcome: “New nuclear states do not have the benefit of years of step-by-step safeguards put in effect during the Cold War to prevent nuclear accidents, misjudgments or unauthorized launches. The United States and the Soviet Union learned from mistakes that were less than fatal. Both countries were diligent to ensure that no nuclear weapon was used during the Cold War by design or by accident. Will new nuclear nations and the world be as fortunate in the next 50 years as we were during the Cold War?”

Although the distinguished authors used very diplomatic language in attributing the prevention of nuclear disasters to good fortune, the undertone was that the “new nuclear states” may not have the same technical capability or the nuclear maturity that the two Cold Warriors had to safely maintain their nuclear arsenals. That is a bit rich, given that the time when we came closest to a nuclear exchange was during the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, which lasted for 13 days as the world waited with bated breath to see who would blink first, the United States or the Soviet Union. No threat of remotely similar proportions has emerged from South Asia in the 19 years since Pakistan announced that it had conducted nuclear warhead tests and the region can be said to be nuclearized by both parties. Our weapons are not on a ready-to-launch state of alert. In India, and as far as I know also in Pakistan, the warheads are kept de-mated from the missiles.

Despite this, outbreaks of alarmist comments about South Asia recur from time to time from think tanks and scholars in the West. One recent example was reportedly a talk at the prestigious Carnegie Conference held at Washington in March 2017, which in turn led to a flurry of articles in major US newspapers. The talk and a subsequent New York Times article about it drew their conclusions from some re-interpretations of our No First Use doctrine by some retired Indian officials to permit a first strike in some circumstances. True, these officials are highly respected people who had held apex positions in the government‘s strategic establishment. But there is no evidence that their post–retirement views represent in any way the policies of the government currently—or for that matter, even when they held office.

In fact, one can cite several examples of restrained behavior in the subcontinent in support of India's claim that nuclear weapons, while very dangerous anywhere, are no more so in the hands of the Indians and Pakistanis. Situations that could have escalated from the conventional level to a nuclear exchange did not do so. The first example, the Kargil “war” of 1999, happened just a year after the two countries had turned nuclear. It began with the Indian discovery that Pakistani soldiers had occupied some strategic mountain peaks on the Indian side and had to be evicted. Although it was limited to a narrow 100-mile long strip of uninhibited mountain ridges abutting the Line of Control, or de facto border, in Kashmir, it went on for three months, involving not only ground troops but also the Indian Air force. If there ever was a time to seriously worry about a nuclear war, it was then. The two countries, after conducting their respective nuclear tests in May 1998, were presumably in possession of a few warheads each. One could have legitimately worried that with little prior experience in possessing nuclear arsenals, one or the other side might have erred on the side of excessive military action or aggressive bluster, and take them both down the treacherous slope towards nuclear exchange.

But that did not happen.

The war was not allowed to escalate. The Indian government had given firm orders to its Air Force that beyond evicting the intruders, its airplanes should not cross the border in hot pursuit. The Pakistanis in turn, with reportedly some counseling by the Americans, withdrew from the remaining occupied areas. Cease fire followed.

The next few years witnessed what could be viewed as far more serious challenges to nuclear stability in the subcontinent. First came the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, by the Pakistan-supported terrorist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Fortunately, it was repelled by the Indian security detail, but even if a single terrorist had managed to enter the building, there were a hundred unarmed members of the parliament inside, ready for picking. Despite the massive uproar this caused in India, with calls for immediate revenge, the Indian government kept its cool and took no military action. For purposes of comparison, imagine the dilemma President Trump would face if some armed outfit from Mexico snuck across the newly renovated border wall and attacked the Capitol building while the US Congress was in session.

What the Parliament attack in New Delhi did result in was a show of strength by India through a military mobilization (“Operation Parakram”) at the border the following summer, leading to a similar response by Pakistan. The troops were lined up on their respective sides of the border in a face-to-face confrontation which lasted for months. From time to time sporadic incidents on the border or a burst of overheated rhetoric from either side would generate rumors in the foreign media that war between the two nuclear armed neighbors was imminent.

I recall being on a brief visit to the United States in that summer of 2002. My American friends expressed concern over the situation back in India and were equally concerned over my nonchalance on the matter, given that my family was living in New Delhi. So, mostly to reassure my friends, I called my wife that evening and was informed that there was no feeling of imminent danger, let alone panic on the streets of Delhi. The poor were as usual worried about their next meal, while the middle classes was pre-occupied with upward mobility in a growing economy!

It must be acknowledged that during this face-to-face standoff, leaders of other nations, especially the United States, contacted their counterparts in India and Pakistan, expressing their concern and urging them not to let the situation go out of control. While their concern and advice did contribute to the resolution of that crisis, it does not follow that without their input the two protagonists would have not have, on their own, avoided stepping into the abyss.

Terrorist attacks continued to be launched even after that, not only within Kashmir but also on the Indian mainland. The worst of them was the attack in Mumbai in 2008 in which over 160 people were killed. This attack also received more attention than usual in the West, because several foreigners from the United States and Israel were among the casualties. The Indian public reaction to this attack was stronger than ever before and, as credible evidence of the involvement of Pakistan-based outfits grew, so did calls for reprisal. Yet once again the Indian government resisted pressures to retaliate. Instead, it was content to register its outrage through diplomatic channels, by providing evidence on how and by whom the attacks were planned.

It is not as though India has been the only one to exercise restraint. The other side has, in its own way, done that too. Once it became clear, after Mumbai, that the Indian government might be forced by public opinion to launch a punitive strike the next time there was a major act of terror on India, there have in fact been no more attacks of that magnitude for several years since. Whoever organizes and funds these attacks from Pakistani soil has been told to refrain from doing so. How much of this is because of pressure from the world community and how much due to the wisdom of Pakistani strategists, we do not know. But the fact is that nothing close to the Mumbai or Parliament attack in size or significance has happened since then.

Another instance which effectively became an act of Pakistani restraint was their response to the Indian “surgical strikes” on Pakistani infiltration camps last November. Although terrorism on the scale of Mumbai has not happened since then, there has been a resurgence of attacks on Indian military bases near the border, first at the Pathankot airbase on January 2016 and then at Uri on September 18, 2016. Seven Indian soldiers were killed at the former and 18 at the latter. The Indian government decided that this time a calibrated punitive measure was finally called for and launched a set of coordinated strikes across the border on the launch pads of the infiltrators. The scale of that counterattack was not much higher than standard cross-border attacks that have been taking place for years in Kashmir. The difference this time was that the Indians publicly announced these counter strikes. In Asia, where saving face is as important a criterion as any other in deciding foreign policy, the announcement of the Indian counterattack was also a public reprimand to Pakistan. Such an “insult” could easily have generated an uncontainable public demand in Pakistan for a tit-for tat response and the whole situation could easily have escalated to something bigger. But the Pakistani government chose not to retaliate, either with military action or even threatening rhetoric. Instead they chose to ridicule the Indian claims of a major “surgical strike” and declared that no such things had happened. Now, I do not know what exactly motivated the Pakistani army to take such a position of denial. But the net result, once again, was that matters were prevented from escalating.

No one is arguing that the nuclearization of South Asia has not been a very dangerous development. It certainly has. There is also no doubt that all the nuclear weapon nations of the world, including those in South Asia, should relentlessly strive to get rid of these weapons. Specifically, making South Asia a nuclear weapons-free region is primarily the responsibility of us Indians and the Pakistanis. In support of this ongoing effort by right-thinking people here, advice, counsel, and analysis coming from other nations are of course very welcome. But such inputs will be counter-productive if they are condescending and simplistic. That will only put the backs up of conservatives and ultra-nationalists in South Asia, and make the prospects of arms reduction even more distant.