CURRENT affairs programmes on television are providing a lot of entertainment these days. A number of anchors and commentators on various channels are talking about the threat of war but not about the dark reality of conflict.
Some have talked about how, in the event of hostilities intensifying, Pakistan could push the nuclear button, thus putting the onus of not adding to tensions on India. It is believed that because of the nuclear factor, New Delhi did not carry out a pre-emptive strike and would not do so.
Nuclear deterrence seems to have worked for both countries so far. While Pakistan withdrew its forces from Kargil due to the threat of escalating hostilities, India did not go beyond lining up its forces during the 2001-2002 stand-off. However, the caution the two nuclear neighbours have exhibited in the past does not mean that there is no threat of an inadvertent rise in nuclear-related tensions.
The security establishments of India and Pakistan backed by their respective media are behaving cautiously but the tone is aggressive. Even if a full-scale war has been avoided, unfortunate incidents in the future cannot be ruled out. The Indian Air Force avenged the death of its pilots and the embarrassment faced in Kargil by shooting down a Pakistan Navy Atlantique aircraft with several personnel on board. In any case, right-wing elements and the security establishments of both countries have managed to scuttle the peace process and the people-to-people dialogue for the foreseeable future.
The argument on the Indian side is that contact between people didn’t stop the Pakistani establishment from allowing terrorist strikes in Mumbai (assuming that Pakistan is involved in the incident). New Delhi would like to discourage people-to-people contact. This is a soft sanction which would not benefit the two countries in the long term. If India does claim to have a long-term plan of becoming a significant regional state, it would have to connect with other states in the region. Shutting down borders would not explain the trauma to the rest of the region or the world.
Hard moves, of course, would mean military measures such as attacking training camps inside Pakistan’s territory. India lost the window of opportunity to attack by also losing the element of surprise. Some analysts argue that it could still attack in order to raise Pakistan’s costs of supporting terrorism and conduct surgical strikes. Delhi might not be able to find the real target but the collateral damage would be an expression of its willingness to escalate tensions.
Our analysts claim that we are ready to push the nuclear button if confronted with such adverse action. The possible scenario is that Pakistan would respond to any surgical strike by India by deploying its own forces that would elicit a response from the other side. At this stage, either the escalation would stop because of international interference or would continue resulting in the resort to the nuclear option by either state. (The Pakistani military is not about to consider President Zardari’s formula of no first use. Implementation of this proposal requires a certain level of understanding and peace between the two states. This in turn would mean that the military in Pakistan is subservient to political masters and willing to take dictation from the top which doesn’t seem likely right now.)
So the probability is that in case of a deliberate or inadvertent escalation the threat of a nuclear conflict can increase.
However, what many commentators are not considering are two factors. First, that despite its aggressive tone Delhi has not added to tensions by conducting a surprise attack which means that it is still willing to talk. Second, in case there is further escalation of hostilities the onus of stopping this rests on Pakistan as much as it does on India.
Our experts on television do not realise that pushing the nuclear button means total destruction. There would be no India or Pakistan. There would be no people. Many experts talking about the nuclear option out of concern for national honour or even out of a desire for heaven would not have thought of total extinction. If such rabid commentators were put through simulators to experience a nuclear holocaust, they would question the nationalist ethos that they uphold. This applies to both sides of the border.
So the question which decision-makers will ask themselves in Delhi and Islamabad is who would want to be the first to destroy the region and their own homes. The experience of Kargil shows that Pakistani generals acted rationally and withdrew when faced with the threat of escalating hostilities. It is being assumed that Pakistan would be the first one to push the button. This is based on an evaluation of our limited conventional military capabilities and the fact that such an imbalance resulted in Pakistan losing earlier wars with India. It would be under greater pressure now. However, pushing the nuclear button isn’t as easy as it sounds on television. Our home-grown drawing room strategists must carefully consider the consequences before they even talk about it.
This is not to argue that Pakistan take everything lying down from India. But we have to understand that nuclear weapons force us to behave more responsibly. I remember a discussion with one of our former army chiefs after Kargil. The commander was of the view that Pakistan had understood India’s threshold for terror and pain, meaning that the two countries would not engage in proxy wars.
The two states must also be careful not to tolerate or encourage attacks by non-state actors. The lesson of the current crisis is very simple: the region is intrinsically connected despite political boundaries. The crisis of one is bound to spill over to the other. For those who want to destroy Pakistan or India by waging internal wars, the answer is that the overall effect would be terrible and difficult to contain within a certain geographical boundary. In any case, the continuation of terror outfits does not serve the interest of either state.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.