South Asian diplomacy must rest on trust

By Rabia Akhtar, October 3, 2016

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.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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