How to reduce South Asia’s nuclear dangers

By , Rabia Akhtar, Mario E. Carranza, November 16, 2016

In the near term, prospects for South Asian nuclear disarmament appear dim. Assuming that nuclear weapons won't soon be eliminated from the subcontinent, what measures are available to India, Pakistan, outside nations, and international organizations that might reduce the risk of a South Asian nuclear exchange?

Round 1

US involvement is critical for South Asian arms control

South Asia's nuclearization has transformed the Indo-Pakistani conflict from a regional matter into a global issue. An exchange of 100 nuclear weapons between the two nations could kill 20 million people within a week and could also reduce global temperatures by 1.3 degrees Celsius, putting up to 2 billion additional people at risk of famine.

Realist scholars have long argued that to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in an Indo-Pakistani war, the two countries must achieve stable nuclear deterrence. Achieving this goal has come to seem increasingly difficult, if not impossible, and recent changes in India and Pakistan's nuclear doctrines and conventional strategies have made nuclear relations even more unstable. For example, the Indian Army's Cold Start doctrine involves quick conventional attacks—launched in retaliation for a terrorist attack by a Pakistan-based jihadi organization and intended not to provoke Pakistan into a first use of nuclear weapons. But Pakistan says it would respond to a Cold Start offensive with low-yield nuclear weapons.

The conventional wisdom is that India maintains a "recessed deterrence posture"—during peacetime, nuclear warheads are not mated with delivery systems and warheads themselves are not fully assembled. According to Debalina Ghoshal of the Delhi Policy Group, recessed deterrence contributes to strategic stability in Indo-Pakistani relations. But according to political scientist Vipin Narang of MIT, the belief that India keeps its nuclear weapons in a disassembled state "is largely now a myth. … [I]t seems likely that all of India's nuclear missile systems will eventually be deployed in a near-ready 'canisterized' state, which is a far cry from the prevailing perception that India maintains its nuclear force in a relatively recessed state." Pakistan's nuclear weapons, meanwhile, are apparently ready for use at any time, and authority to use nuclear weapons during military crises with India has reportedly been pre-delegated to Pakistani field commanders since 2000. It's too late now for true recessed deterrence in South Asia, and stable nuclear deterrence is probably impossible on the subcontinent.

The alternatives to stable deterrence are nuclear risk reduction and nuclear arms control. Unfortunately, the two countries have a poor record of implementing confidence-building and risk-reduction measures—and a robust regime for nuclear arms control faces barriers including the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of deep mutual mistrust. The February 1999 Lahore Declaration was an important breakthrough in Indo-Pakistani relations, but the Kargil "mini-war" later that year buried the "Spirit of Lahore." Can that spirit be revived in the era of Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif? Only if the two countries' leaders can overcome the powerful domestic vested interests that support indefinite maintenance of the status quo.

In 2004 India and Pakistan began a peace process known as the "composite dialogue." This process concerned eight baskets of issues, among them Kashmir, terrorism and drug trafficking, confidence building measures, and economic cooperation. The composite dialogue collapsed after the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai and the two countries failed to revive it in 2015.  Since then, India and Pakistan have been "thinking about the unthinkable," to borrow the phrase of strategist Herman Kahn. That is, both countries have engaged in doctrinal debates on "escalation dominance." This doctrinal competition significantly increases the possibility of an Indo-Pakistani nuclear conflict.

The danger that nuclear weapons will be used in the next Indo-Pakistani war is very real, but the two countries can take meaningful steps back from the brink of Armageddon. They can establish a permanent hotline between their prime ministers and directors-general of military operations. They can begin a serious dialogue on their nuclear doctrines. They can create nuclear risk-reduction centers staffed by officials from both countries. They can agree to inform each other when missiles are moved within their territories for training purposes. And they can sign a cooperative aerial observation accord, patterned on the Open Skies Treaty negotiated between NATO and the Warsaw Pact states at the end of the Cold War.

But whether the South Asian rivals definitively step back from the brink of Armageddon depends on the prospects for sustainable normalization of bilateral relations (even without a formal settlement of the Kashmir dispute). Normalization seems a rather distant prospect today because of persistent mutual mistrust. Also, the Indian leadership apparently lacks political will to make a second "leap of trust" (a phrase associated with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's 1999 trip to Lahore) by reviving the composite dialogue with Pakistan. Therefore it is crucial that the international community—led by the United States—attempt to reduce tensions and establish nuclear arms control on the subcontinent.

Today, three obstacles block the way to establishing a meaningful Indo-Pakistani nuclear arms control regime: lack of proactive US diplomacy; the subcontinent's "perfection of insincerity" (that is, both India and Pakistan often make proposals that they know the other side won't accept); and, in both countries, domestic opposition to solving the nuclear conundrum. In India, domestic opposition can only be overcome by "an Indian Gorbachev." In Pakistan, opposition will only be overcome when the military loses control of the nuclear weapons program.

However, India and Pakistan do not live on a different planet from everyone else. They are vulnerable to external normative constraints, as shown by their compliance with the global moratorium on nuclear testing and by their adherence so far to the "non-use" norm (even if the nuclear taboo is very brittle in South Asia). If the nuclear taboo could be strengthened at the global level, India and Pakistan could be forced to take it more seriously. Specifically, if the United States (as a major norm entrepreneur) foreswore the first use of nuclear weapons, and also pursued a new, proactive policy of promoting nuclear arms control in South Asia, chances of a South Asian nuclear exchange would be reduced.

The United States should completely revise its approach to the nuclear stand-off in South Asia. It should abandon its current policy of siding with India and instead adopt a balanced approach to Indo-Pakistani relations. This would involve improving relations with Pakistan—though it would be a mistake to offer Pakistan a nuclear deal that would make it a mainstream nuclear weapon state. Rather, Washington should reactivate the nuclear nonproliferation norm in South Asia by renegotiating its nuclear deal with India, imposing constraints on India's nuclear weapons program that the Bush administration failed to negotiate.

The United States should also exert diplomatic pressure on both nations to start serious negotiations on nuclear arms control. At a minimum, both India and Pakistan would formally commit to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (after the US Senate ratifies the treaty). Meanwhile, the humanitarian initiative (a movement that essentially seeks a treaty banning nuclear weapons) could play a crucial role in bringing nuclear arms control back into the domestic political arena in both India and Pakistan. Antinuclear nongovernmental organizations, both local and international, could do likewise.

The India-Pakistan nuclear conundrum allows no quick fixes—but time to address the problem may be running out. Now is the moment for forceful US intervention that could help the South Asian rivals create a robust nuclear arms control regime and could save millions from a nuclear Armageddon.


Time for India and Pakistan to resolve their own crises

For nearly two decades, India and Pakistan have lived constantly under the shadow of nuclear war. In 1999, within a year of becoming nuclear-armed, the two states were embroiled in the Kargil crisis, a conventional conflict in which a limited nuclear exchange seemed a real and very threatening possibility. Each crisis since Kargil has raised anew the threat of nuclear escalation. Thus the subcontinent urgently needs a crisis management system that can prevent rapid escalation from conventional to nuclear war. It's not acceptable simply to hope that no further crises will develop. The two countries have shared a troubled past, and given their protracted conflict over Kashmir and the region's cross-border terrorism, hoping that crises won't occur is essentially dreaming the impossible.

Each nation's behavior toward the other is shaped, to some extent, by confidence-building measures that have been instituted over the years, both before and since nuclearization. But these measures do not prevent crises—nor, crucially, do they help manage them once they begin. And since crises are almost certain to erupt from time to time, the primary focus of nuclear stability efforts in South Asia should be to develop a mechanism for preventing rapid escalation, from conventional to nuclear, when crises do occur.

Too much Uncle Sam. Since nuclearization in 1998, both Pakistan and India have shaped their nuclear arsenals to suit their own strategic needs and outlooks. Each nation has developed its nuclear infrastructure and has continually modernized its nuclear assets and delivery systems. And each has flirted with the idea of limited nuclear war. Amid all this, each has learned how difficult it is to prevent escalation during a crisis.

Indeed, every time a bilateral crisis with nuclear overtones has developed, the United States has been asked to broker peace and practice crisis management. In effect, India and Pakistan have outsourced escalation control to the United States. Washington has ended up as the standard bearer for South Asian crisis stability even though it has no control over the Indian-Pakistani dynamic of deterrence. India and Pakistan's outright reliance on third-party mediation has left the South Asian nations dependent on the strategic mollycoddling of an extra-regional power.

Islamabad and New Delhi, both before crises and during them, face an absolute need for open channels of communication and dialogue. But today, the only available structures are fragile, unstable, and prone to collapse—just witness the "composite dialogue" process that was launched in 2004 but crashed in 2008 after the Mumbai attacks.

The United States, meanwhile, is not certain to remain engaged in future South Asian crises. In fact, some observers of regional escalation dynamics worry that US disengagement could prove highly dangerous—India and Pakistan have never handled crisis dynamics on their own, so what guarantees that they could? I understand this concern. But at the same time, India and Pakistan will never learn to contain nuclear dangers if Washington is always worrying about escalation on behalf of the two countries. The United States should actively encourage the two sides to develop bilateral crisis management mechanisms so that, when the next crisis requires de-escalation, Islamabad and New Delhi can reach out to each other instead of Washington.

The shared responsibility. In 1998, the year of the subcontinent's nuclearization, Pakistan proposed that India join it in an arrangement called the Strategic Restraint Regime. The regime contained three critical, interlocking elements: nuclear restraint, balanced conventional forces, and resolution of disputes. Years have passed, but the regime could still be adapted to contain bilateral crisis management as an essential element of its broader measures for nuclear risk reduction. Unfortunately, India has opposed the regime and has treated its three elements dismissively—arguing that New Delhi's military capabilities and force posture are driven by threat perceptions extending beyond Pakistan.

It's a strange argument. India's deployment of armored formations along the Pakistani border is certainly specific to Pakistan. So is New Delhi's Cold Start offensive doctrine, which is designed for launching quick military action against Pakistan without crossing Islamabad's nuclear threshold. India may have realized by now how difficult Cold Start would be to execute, operationally speaking. But the damage is done: Cold Start has already provoked Islamabad to develop battlefield nuclear weapons.

India ought to receive in a spirit of magnanimity any proposal that Pakistan makes, whether it's the Strategic Restraint Regime or some means of developing bilateral crisis prevention and management mechanisms. But ever since India went nuclear, it has displayed a great deal of swagger. Sometimes it treats Pakistan as a sort of "nuclear Dalit" (the lowest caste in India)—not worthy of respect and equal treatment at the nuclear table. But responsibility for altering South Asia's strategic dynamic lies as much with India as with Pakistan. The two countries, together, are responsible for regional stability. As long as the two sides fail to recognize the mutuality of their threat perceptions, chances of establishing "mutually assured strategic stability" are dim.

India and Pakistan cannot ignore or wish away geography. The only way toward strategic stability—a shared responsibility, after all—is through dialogue and cooperation.

A final point. Near-term prospects for South Asian nuclear disarmament appear dim. But long-term prospects are no better, unless and until the process of global nuclear disarmament quickens at the top. That is, the recognized nuclear weapon states must start keeping their end of the bargain that underlies the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Though India and Pakistan, through hard work and a willingness to cooperate, may yet achieve nuclear stability on the subcontinent, they cannot achieve global disarmament on their own. That job must start with the largest nuclear powers.


Three concrete steps toward South Asian nuclear stability

India and Pakistan continuously increase their stockpiles of fissile material. Pakistan possesses battlefield nuclear weapons that it threatens to deploy against India. New Delhi is close to completing deployment of a nuclear triad. Non-state actors in South Asia pose a perpetual threat of gaining access to nuclear weapons or materials. Artillery fire along the India-Pakistan border is frequent.

For all these reasons, the nuclear situation in South Asia demands attention. But with Islamabad and New Delhi unlikely to slow their nuclear weapons development amid the long-standing antagonism and mistrust between the two sides, can anything be done to reduce nuclear risk in the region? Yes—initiatives of three kinds stand out for their potential to enhance South Asian nuclear stability. First, New Delhi and Islamabad could undertake bilateral cooperation in nuclear security. Second, the two sides could—with international help—seek to improve the region's nuclear cybersecurity. And India and Pakistan could commit, in one fashion or another, to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Improving nuclear security. An ongoing concern in South Asia is that terrorist groups might gain access to nuclear materials, either to use these materials in attacks or to use them as bargaining chips against either New Delhi or Islamabad.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative and its Nuclear Security Index, both India and Pakistan do a poor job of safeguarding nuclear materials. But in recent months, both countries have taken some promising steps. Ahead of the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, which began in March, Islamabad ratified the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. At the summit itself, New Delhi made commitments regarding nuclear smuggling and other issues. And in June, India committed to an important initiative known as the Joint Statement on Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation.

Still, India and Pakistan both face risks regarding the security of the nuclear materials within their territories. Cooperative, bilateral mechanisms to tackle these challenges could be beneficial for both sides—but such cooperation is minimal today. What's needed is a framework for nuclear security cooperation that encourages the two sides to share best practices, know-how, and intelligence, and to conduct joint law enforcement drills.

Fortunately, an existing framework for nuclear confidence-building measures could be molded into a bilateral mechanism for improving nuclear security. Unfortunately, confidence-building efforts on the subcontinent are routinely interrupted by terror attacks on Indian soil. The 2008 Mumbai attacks resulted in a suspension of nuclear confidence-building measures for several years, and this year's Pathankot attack has led to an impasse in bilateral talks on a number of issues. It is essential, therefore, that India strategically delink nuclear security from terrorism. Otherwise, consistent progress on nuclear security is unlikely to be achieved.

Enhancing cybersecurity. The subcontinent faces an urgent need to increase its capability in cybersecurity. Weak cybersecurity infrastructure makes both countries' nuclear installations vulnerable—neither India nor Pakistan has in place the robust cybersecurity measures that their countries' nuclear facilities require. India produced a National Cyber Security Policy in 2013, but it merely set out a broad cybersecurity vision, without establishing the sort of detailed plans that cybersecurity threats require. Pakistan, meanwhile, passed a cybersecurity law in August, but the law has more to do with restricting the spread of extremist ideology than with protecting nuclear sites.

Admittedly, it is hard to envision Pakistan and India cooperating on cybersecurity amid the frequent cyberattacks that flow across the border. Moreover, neither country has the economic wherewithal to make the heavy investments that reliable cybersecurity infrastructures require. Staying ahead of the latest threat scenarios requires constant upgrades, so cybersecurity is a very expensive affair. Nonetheless, cybersecurity on the subcontinent could be improved if the international community, led by the United States, helped ensure that South Asian nuclear facilities are safe from, for example, a Stuxnet-style attack by hackers or terrorist groups. Just last month, India and the United States signed an agreement meant to enhance cooperation between the two countries regarding cybersecurity best practices and identification of cyber threats. It is the first such framework established by either country; more initiatives of this kind in both India and Pakistan could go a long way toward improving South Asian nuclear cybersecurity.

Rejecting nuclear tests. Since May 1998, when 11 nuclear explosions shook the subcontinent, neither India nor Pakistan has conducted a nuclear test. On the other hand, neither country has signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In August, Pakistan made an overture to India, offering to establish a bilateral test-ban treaty that would formalize the two countries' existing voluntary moratoria on testing. This move was strategic to be sure, but also welcome. So far, India has demonstrated little interest in the proposal—even though pursuing it could help New Delhi in its bid for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Indeed, New Delhi's aspirations for membership in key export-control regimes make it essential for India to embrace a new approach to the issue of nuclear testing.

One approach for New Delhi would be to "go French." Under this scenario, New Delhi would behave regarding the CTBT as Paris once behaved regarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—that is, formally declining to sign the treaty, but acting like a signatory. This approach would entail several benefits. First, it would formalize New Delhi's existing commitment not to test nuclear weapons and would help dissolve India's image as a "nuclear pariah." This might help New Delhi achieve its long-term aim of gaining membership in export-control groups including the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Second, it wouldn't create pressure within India to conduct additional nuclear tests. Agreeing to sign the CTBT likely would create such pressure, especially in view of claims that India's 1998 test of a thermonuclear device was not completely successful. Third, adhering to the CTBT without signing it would be compatible with Pakistan's proposal for a bilateral nuclear test ban.

The Indian subcontinent is dominated by nuclear rivals with contested borders and a history of warfare. Therefore the region's security prospects can seem gloomy. But history provides reasons for hope. Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 70 years ago, nuclear weapons have not been used in wartime. When China and the Soviet Union—two nuclear weapon states—engaged in conventional conflict along the Ussuri River in 1969, hostilities did not escalate into a nuclear exchange. If Russia and China, despite their long common border and their sometimes acrimonious relations, can co-exist without launching nuclear weapons, maybe India and Pakistan can do the same. Yet the potential for nuclear warfare in an area fraught with interstate disputes cannot be completely written off. Leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad have tools at their disposal that can help keep nuclear-armed missiles out of the air. Nuclear security, cybersecurity, and a test ban can chart the path toward a more stable future for South Asia.  


Round 2

South Asia: Beyond crisis management

Rather than "too much Uncle Sam"—that's how a subheading in Rabia Akhtar's first essay expressed the author's view—the problem in South Asia is "too little Uncle Sam."

Akhtar is concerned about India and Pakistan's inability to "grow up" and end their dependence on US management of nuclear crises. I share her concern, but unless Washington forces New Delhi and Islamabad to stop their nuclear arms race and take arms control seriously, the two South Asian nations will continue playing with nuclear fire. Pure bilateralism, without any US pressure, is a dead-end street—witness the two countries' inability to prevent the current crisis over the Uri attack.

What India and Pakistan require is more US involvement (along with a multilateral effort to reduce nuclear dangers, both globally and in South Asia). Washington's ultimate goal in the region must be denuclearization. Nuclear arms control would be a first step in that direction.

Akhtar claims that US influence over the South Asian rivals "is less pronounced… than my roundtable colleagues seem to believe." But Pakistan still depends on US economic and military aid. And the United States could use its leverage over India—made possible by the US-India nuclear deal—to encourage India to disavow its army's Cold Start Doctrine. Meanwhile, Washington could exert strong pressure on the Pakistani military to enforce the illegal status of all anti-Indian jihadi terrorist groups based on Pakistani territory. India might then reduce its military pressure on Pakistan, allowing the Pakistanis to feel more secure. Islamabad then might agree—under US pressure—not to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. The Indians might then make a similar pledge. This would amount to a "graduated and reciprocated initiative in tension reduction" of the sort identified by British economist and peace activist Kenneth Boulding. The result would be significant reduction in the risk of a South Asian nuclear exchange.

India and Pakistan are not condemned to live in a situation resembling a permanent Cuban Missile Crisis. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it comes in part from the international social and normative environments that affect India and Pakistan's nuclear choices. International normative pressure under US leadership is the key to solving the subcontinent's nuclear problem. Yes, the South Asian rivals will sooner or later have to "grow up," but what "growing up" really means is accepting normative constraints over nuclear behavior.

No evidence? Akhtar, disputing my Round One statement that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are apparently ready for use at any time, wrote in Round Two that there was "no evidence" that my statement was true. But most analysts agree that since 2001–2002, Pakistan and India have both developed their nuclear doctrines in the direction of having ready-to-use nuclear weapons. As early as 2001, the US Defense Department believed that Pakistan could "probably assemble some weapons fairly quickly." General Khalid Kidwai, the former head of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division, reportedly confirmed this assessment during two interviews with an Italian experts' group, the Landau Network-Centro Volta, in 2002 and 2008. In the second interview, Kidwai reportedly stated that Pakistan's nuclear weapons "will be ready when required, at the shortest notice… distance is not the issue, the issue is timing. Separation is more linked to time rather than to space." According to Sébastien Miraglia of the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, Pakistan's command and control system is assertive—that is, placed under tight centralized control by the National Command Authority—only during peacetime, and includes very few protections against unauthorized nuclear use during military crises with India. MIT's Vipin Narang, meanwhile, has reported that Pakistan's Nasr nuclear missile will be eventually deployed in a near-ready "canisterized" state, and that the Pakistani army's positive control procedures to rapidly deploy nuclear weapons "may include predelegating some authority to end users in its chain of command to move and release nuclear weapons under the plausible scenario that communication was to break down in the midst of a crisis."

More broadly, Akhtar claims that I examine the Indo-Pakistani nuclear competition through a "Cold War prism." But in my recent book India-Pakistan Nuclear Diplomacy, I argue in support of the thesis advanced by Stanford's S. Paul Kapur that nuclear South Asia is not like Cold War Europe. To be sure, India and Pakistan can learn from the US-Soviet experience of achieving nuclear arms control agreements, but the Cold War is not the only available model for nuclear arms control in South Asia. Indeed, I argue in my book that India and Pakistan could learn from the Argentine-Brazilian experience of nuclear trust-building.


South Asian diplomacy must rest on trust

In any crisis involving India and Pakistan, diplomacy is the first casualty. About two weeks ago, when militants attacked a brigade headquarters of the Indian army in the Uri sector of Indian-occupied Kashmir, New Delhi issued premature allegations that Pakistan was responsible. On both sides of the border, there was talk of teaching the other side a lesson. The media in both countries fanned the flames and soon it was a war of allegations, leading to heightened tensions on both sides. The ugly reality in South Asia is that the path to nuclear war probably leads through an escalating crisis.

For sanity to prevail, diplomacy must be given a fair chance—but for diplomacy to work, trust is indispensable. Trust cannot exist when India blames Pakistan for any attack against it and deliberates over punitive reprisals against Islamabad. All the while New Delhi expects Islamabad to accept its punishment quietly.

Rather than engaging in this sort of bluster, both sides must ensure that channels of communication remain open. Indeed, my roundtable colleague Mario Carranza called in Round One for the establishment of permanent hotlines between Pakistan and New Delhi. Three such hotlines already exist—in theory, anyway. But two of them have been suspended as a result of previous crises.

Via hotlines or not, telephone calls during a crisis must run between New Delhi and Islamabad—not between either of those two cities and Washington. US influence on the subcontinent is less pronounced in any event than my roundtable colleagues seem to believe. In fact, I don't think that Washington has any leverage to exert over Islamabad. The sooner New Delhi understands that, and the sooner nuclear crises are managed indigenously rather than outsourced to external partners, the better for bilateral dialogue. The continued US involvement that both my roundtable colleagues favor will only perpetuate the strategic and doctrinal dilemmas that characterize relations between India and Pakistan.

Not the Cold War. I must take issue with Carranza's characterization of Pakistan's nuclear posture. He writes that Pakistan's weapons are "apparently ready for use at any time." He also states that Pakistan has reportedly "pre-delegated to Pakistani field commanders" the "authority to use nuclear weapons during military crises with India." But no evidence suggests that such policies exist. No launch-on-warning strategy is in place for Pakistan's nuclear weapons. The National Command Authority exerts centralized command and control over nuclear weapons, regardless of their range and yield. India, meanwhile—as Carranza correctly notes—has moved toward canisterization of long-range systems such as the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic system. (That is, India's warheads are increasingly mated with missiles.)

Finally, to examine India and Pakistan through a Cold War prism, as Carranza essentially does, is to gloss over some of the subcontinent's intricacies. What worked for the Cold War rivals will not always work for India and Pakistan—as a co-author and I have discussed in the monograph Nuclear Learning in South Asia: The Levels of Analysis. Risk reduction centers, the nuclear taboo, and negotiated arms control treaties are rightly celebrated as Cold War successes. But they will not necessarily reduce the nuclear danger between India and Pakistan. In South Asia, the goal should be mutually assured stability, and not much will be achieved unless the two governments can exhibit enough trust to address common threats to strategic stability.


Different kind of crisis, same need for Washington

A new South Asian crisis began on September 18 when armed militants attacked an Indian military post in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing 18 soldiers. Officials in New Delhi quickly voiced suspicion that Islamabad was involved. A war of words broke out. India weighed its strategic options, and Pakistan's defense minister said Islamabad wouldn't hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons if its security were threatened. Unsurprisingly, both sides sought US involvement in the crisis. New Delhi asked that Islamabad be sanctioned economically for support of terror, and Islamabad sought redress of human rights violations in Indian Kashmir.

The new crisis broke out after this roundtable began publication. Nonetheless, a key issue in Round One was the appropriate level of US involvement in South Asian crises. Rabia Akhtar argued that India and Pakistan must learn to solve crises on their own—instead of relying on "the strategic mollycoddling of an extra-regional power." Mario Carranza wrote that US engagement in South Asia is critical and in fact called for more of it. My views tend to align with Carranza's. In a region where relations between two nuclear-armed adversaries, one of them a fragmented state, are complicated by violent non-state actors, stability demands that the United States continue to be involved.

Not just reacting. In many ways, the current crisis on the subcontinent is similar to previous crises. But two key differences distinguish it from previous iterations.

First, the current crisis occurs at a time of change in Washington's priorities in Asia. It appears that Washington's support for Pakistan as an ally in its "war on terror" could unravel. A bill now before the US Congress would designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. The Pentagon announced in early August that it would withhold $300 million in military aid from Pakistan because of Islamabad's failure to act against militants who operate in Afghanistan. In the past, despite qualms about the Pakistani government, Washington has generally lent support to Islamabad because it has needed Pakistan's help as an ally, either in the Cold War or during the "war on terror." Now Washington appears willing to break from this path and establish a new strategic axis in Asia—with the United States, India, Japan, and South Korea countering Russia, China, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Second, the actual use of nuclear weapons in a South Asian crisis appears increasingly likely. Pakistan relies heavily on the "madman theory," Richard Nixon's technique for intimidating an adversary into acquiescence by deliberately appearing irrational. Islamabad has found the madman theory useful both for warding off an Indian conventional military attack—the Pakistani defense minister's recent statement about using tactical nuclear weapons was not the first such claim from Islamabad—and for drawing concessions from the United States. Admittedly, India's large defense expenditures contribute to the tense situation. Moreover, New Delhi is no longer a "reactive power," as many experts once categorized it. In recent years India has increased its support for pro-independence groups in Pakistan's province of Balochistan—hoping to jolt Islamabad, much as Pakistan itself jolts India by supporting separatist groups in Indian Kashmir.

Still, though much is made of India's Cold Start military doctrine, New Delhi's operational capability to carry out the sort of attack envisioned in Cold Start remains unproven. And in any event, New Delhi values its international status as a "responsible power" too much to squander that reputation on a unilateral military action against Islamabad. In contrast, a fractured and diplomatically cornered Pakistani state could all too easily begin a nuclear war.

In Round One I spelled out the reasons that South Asian nuclear stability is so precarious—growing supplies of fissile materials, poor nuclear security, and more. One measure I proposed for reducing tensions was for both sides to adhere, in one form or another, to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But given the strategic situation on the subcontinent, not to mention the present crisis, a bilateral nuclear test ban appears unlikely. Perhaps a bilateral no-first use agreement is possible instead. If so, it could put an end to the current state of affairs, in which each new subnational attack introduces the risk of a nuclear exchange. Such an agreement, however, will not materialize without effort from the international community. Leadership, naturally, must come from the United States.


Round 3

Reality and fantasy in nuclear South Asia

India and Pakistan are ultimately responsible for resolving their own crises, but the nuclearization of the subcontinent has internationalized their disputes. South Asian tensions are no longer just a regional matter because of the potentially catastrophic global humanitarian consequences of a nuclear exchange in South Asia.

In my second roundtable essay I argued that Washington's ultimate "goal in the region must be denuclearization," as part of a multilateral "effort to reduce nuclear dangers, both globally and in South Asia." My roundtable colleague Rabia Akhtar claims that this is like "living in fantasyland," but there's nothing fantastic about my argument. Since Barack Obama's 2009 Prague speech, "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" has been official US policy. The goal of a world without nuclear weapons was also endorsed in 2009 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Akhtar attempts to rebut my "fantasy" ideas by writing that "choices have been made"—meaning, primarily, that India and Pakistan have decided to seek security in nuclear weapons while standing outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime. But such choices are not irreversible. Indeed, India and Pakistan are out of sync with the overwhelming majority of states, which have renounced nuclear weapons, and it's the South Asian rivals that behave as if they were living in a "fantasyland"—a delusionary and dangerous "realist" fantasyland. New Delhi and Islamabad attempt simply to ignore the international social and normative environment in which their mad nuclear competition takes place.

Though the United States may have recognized India and Pakistan as de facto nuclear weapon states, the majority of the international community has not. In 1998, for example, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1172, calling on India and Pakistan "immediately to stop their nuclear weapon development programs." India is already paying a price for ignoring the nuclear nonproliferation regime: Its application for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was rejected in June of this year because—among other reasons—"some NSG members believe India must ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state before being admitted to the NSG."

Akhtar also argues—along with Jayita Sarkar, this roundtable's third participant—that Washington's ability to influence India and Pakistan's nuclear diplomacy is limited. This is only true if the next US administration continues the Obama policy of deference to Indian sensibilities. Washington's influence could be maximized if, as I suggested in Round One, it adopted "a balanced approach to Indo-Pakistani relations" and improved relations with Pakistan. Akhtar may claim that "Washington never had much leverage over India," but alliances always give the stronger partner leverage over the junior partner. The US-India strategic partnership is no exception. If the United States, for example, withdrew support for Indian membership in the NSG, India's prospects for joining the group—already dim—would soon disappear.

The choice that faces the main actors in South Asia's nuclear drama is more of the same or something radically different. More of the same has not worked for Pakistan; arguably, it has not worked for India or the United States either. In South Asia, the United States should move from an exclusive focus on counterterrorism and geopolitics to a focus on conflict resolution and nuclear arms control. It should adopt the bold policy that Obama set out in a 2008 interview with Time—"working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve [the] Kashmir crisis in a serious way." (The Obama administration itself abandoned this sort of proactive approach under pressure from the Indian lobby in Washington.) And though Akhtar claims that I don't exhibit "historical rigor" when I suggest that Washington should boldly encourage India and Pakistan to take nuclear arms control seriously, historical precedent exists for a bold US approach to the India-Pakistan conflict: In 1963, the Kennedy administration sponsored six rounds of negotiations on the Kashmir dispute.

Nuclear weapons won't be eliminated from the subcontinent right away. But South Asia's nuclear dangers can be reduced if the two sides exchange information on nuclear doctrines, improve nuclear and cyber security, and create nuclear risk reduction centers. New Delhi and Islamabad should also pursue urgently needed nuclear arms control measures such as a bilateral no-first-use agreement and a bilateral test ban—and delink them from a final resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan has strong incentives to pursue such steps first. If today's mad nuclear game continues indefinitely, Islamabad has more to lose than New Delhi, in terms of security and of diverted economic resources. But ultimately it is in the interest of both sides to revive 1999's "Spirit of Lahore"—while also establishing a united front to face all forms of terrorism in the region.


India and Pakistan: Very far from Kansas

The United States does not enjoy the same leverage over Pakistan that it once did. Washington never had much leverage over India. So my roundtable colleague Mario Carranza's idea that Washington can "force" New Delhi and Islamabad to "stop their nuclear arms race and take arms control seriously"—even as the United States modernizes its own nuclear arsenal—lacks historical rigor.

The argument I have made against "too much Uncle Sam" doesn't mean I favor eliminating the United States from the Indo-Pakistani equation. It may well be decades before Washington recedes as an extra-regional force in South Asia. I am only suggesting that early US interventions in South Asian crises embolden the two sides to explore limited war options (even if India and Pakistan have historically welcomed such interventions).

Carranza writes that Washington's "ultimate goal in the region must be denuclearization." I would agree if we were living in fantasyland. But we aren't. Choices have been made. They are reflected in New Delhi and Islamabad's decisions to stand outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime—decisions not to accept organized hypocrisy. Choices are reflected in Pakistan's shifting alliance patterns, with China and Russia drawing closer. For its part, India declines to put all its strategic eggs in the US basket despite the completion of the Indo-US nuclear deal and Washington's push for Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Gone are the days when US leadership was the "key," as Carranza has it, to solving the subcontinent's problems. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was right—we're not in Kansas anymore. Never will be again.

Neither fragile nor isolated. I write this soon after a horrific suicide attack on a police training academy in Quetta, in Pakistan's province of Baluchistan. More than 60 young cadets were killed in the attack. So I understand why my colleague Jayita Sarkar writes that the "fragile Pakistani state might fall apart." From a distance, one might wonder how Pakistan is still standing even now.

But it's also important to note Pakistan's ability to bounce back from terrorism. It's important to credit Pakistan for the Zarb-e-Azb military operation that has eliminated terrorist hideouts in North Waziristan. Pakistan is a resilient nation. Resilient nations aren't fragile. This deserves acknowledgement.

Sarkar links Pakistan's "fragility" to its alleged isolation. Since the militant Uri attack against an Indian military outpost on September 18, a narrative about Pakistani isolation has been popularized in India. But the claim doesn't bear scrutiny. For example, Sarkar mentioned a conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which had been scheduled for Pakistan next month. The conference was postponed because some nations pulled out. But this is very weak evidence for Pakistani isolation—the SAARC summit is automatically canceled if even one member country withdraws. Meanwhile, evidence against Pakistani isolation abounds. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is poised to attract $150 billion in investment—but it's not only Pakistan's "buddy" China that is investing. Iran is also interested, and would be welcomed into the economic corridor by both Beijing and Islamabad. In September, Russian and Pakistani troops held their first-ever joint military exercises. And a team from the International Monetary Fund, after a visit to Pakistan just this week, acknowledged that Pakistan has emerged from its economic crisis and is on the way to instituting needed economic reforms. Isolation? Think again.

Sarkar also tied the risk of a Pakistani "implosion" to the prospect of nuclear proliferation. This sort of argument has long since lost steam. Sure, it's easy to bring up A.Q. Khan—and "rub it in"—while making a case about Pakistan and nuclear proliferation. But why is it so difficult to credit Pakistan for the steps it has taken to prevent the emergence of A.Q. Khan 2.0?

There is only one way for Pakistan to go—forward. India can either wish Pakistan success and prosperity or wish Pakistan failure and chaos. There are no other choices. A frozen-in-time political dialogue doesn't help either country.

I agree with Sarkar that India and Pakistan need to conduct bilateral dialogue toward nuclear stability—but in South Asia, nuclear stability isn't just one thing. It is a combination of political stability, deterrence stability, and crisis stability. As long as the bilateral political environment itself isn't stable, neither deterrence stability nor crisis stability can be achieved.

At all costs, India and Pakistan must talk.


South Asian nuclear tensions: Back to core issues

Over the past month, as this roundtable has unfolded, South Asia has sometimes seemed on the brink of war. On September 18, in the Uri attack, militants killed 18 Indian soldiers in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Afterwards, New Delhi and Islamabad went back and forth about whether India responded to the attack with surgical strikes on Pakistani territory. (India said yes, Pakistan claimed otherwise). At times the two sides argued over the very definition of "surgical strikes."

Meanwhile, my fellow roundtable participants examined India-Pakistan relations primarily through one lens—that of US involvement in the region.

To be sure, when tensions erupt between nuclear-armed adversaries in a conflict-prone zone, a superpower's regional role is far from irrelevant. But my colleagues Rabia Akhtar and Mario Carranza have portrayed Washington's role in South Asia in dichotomous terms: Akhtar has called for the United States to disengage while Carranza has encouraged Washington to behave like a helicopter parent to the South Asian rivals. Neither Akhtar nor Carranza seems to account for a changing geopolitical reality—the United States, frustrated with Islamabad's spotty performance on counterterrorism, has drawn perceptibly closer to New Delhi. I wrote in my second essay that Washington now appears willing to "establish a new strategic axis in Asia—with the United States, India, Japan, and South Korea countering Russia, China, Pakistan, and North Korea." I stand by that assessment, and I would add that while Washington has too much at stake in Afghanistan and in the fight against Islamist terrorism to disengage from Southern Asia any time soon, the United States also has too many commitments in regions such as Northeast Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa to increase its involvement in South Asia beyond present levels. So instead of focusing on Washington's role in the region, it would be more useful to examine practical steps that could prevent intentional or inadvertent escalation of bilateral conflicts from the conventional to the nuclear level.

Or, to look at things from a different angle, one might ask how Pakistan can be prevented from imploding. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem unrealistic today that the fragile Pakistani state might fall apart, giving rise to Islamist terrorism that could destabilize the region. This danger now seems especially acute because of Pakistan's regional isolation—Washington is withholding the support that it has traditionally supplied to Islamabad, and a regional cooperation summit scheduled for November in Pakistan was postponed indefinitely after a number of South Asian nations elected to boycott it. Tensions are growing as well between Pakistan's military and its civilian leadership.

A Pakistani implosion would also exacerbate nuclear proliferation risks—could Pakistan as a failed state become a key provider of nuclear weapons or radioactive materials to unstable regimes? Pakistan's proliferation record is flawed, as exemplified by the A.Q. Khan network. Islamabad's traditionally close ties with Saudi Arabia—as well as Riyadh's complicated relationship with Washington and its reputed interest in nuclear weapons—provide great cause for concern. Recent reports of Islamabad's possible assistance to North Korea's nuclear program only ring more alarm bells. Averting a Pakistani implosion is far more critical than is precisely determining the optimum level of US involvement in South Asia.

In my first essay, I outlined three concrete steps that India and Pakistan might jointly take toward nuclear stability in the region. These steps included cooperating on nuclear security, improving the region's cybersecurity environment, and making a joint commitment not to conduct additional nuclear tests. Steps such as these will be difficult to enact given current bilateral tensions, but they are not completely unimaginable. Though Pakistan recently criticized India for not responding to Islamabad's proposal for a bilateral nuclear test ban—an initiative that the Indian media mostly dismissed as farcical—New Delhi could nonetheless demonstrate interest in the test ban proposal while also insisting on a bilateral no-first-use agreement as a precondition. Indeed, a bilateral no first-use agreement could be a stepping stone toward a stable subcontinent.

Moreover, unconfirmed reports that New Delhi has completed an operational nuclear triad make it incumbent upon India to act as a responsible nuclear power. This means taking specific and credible actions, whether bilateral or unilateral, such as establishing a test ban, imposing stronger nuclear security measures, and enhancing the cybersecurity of the Indian nuclear establishment. Such actions would be consistent with India's long-term ambitions to enter multiple nuclear export-control regimes—without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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