It would be so much better for all inhabitants of the sub-continent if there was passage of trade between India and Pakistan rather than exchanges of aggressive rhetoric about their disputes. The statement on January 12 by India’s Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, about his country’s nuclear posture was irresponsible and disturbingly provocative — but Pakistan’s responses merely exacerbated distrust and, alas, fed the bilateral hatred that is now more evident than for decades.
General Rawat declared that, “If we will have to really confront the Pakistanis, and a task is given to us, we are not going to say we cannot cross the border because they have nuclear weapons. We will have to call their nuclear bluff.” It must be accepted that this is India’s official government policy, as no such prominent figure could make a public statement of this nature — committing his country to war in a particular set of circumstances — if there were no approval at the highest level.
Similarly, the response by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif must be regarded internationally as reflecting official policy. He riposted that Rawat’s words amounted “to an invitation for a nuclear encounter. If that is what they desire, they are welcome to test our resolve. The general’s doubt would swiftly be removed, inshallah.” There is little wonder that the rest of the world is perturbed about all this. But what is equally troubling is that so many people in both countries imagine that it is laudable and patriotic to brandish their national nuclear weapons’ capability — and that they approve of their leaders’ preparedness to employ these machines of ultimate destruction.
It is astonishing that the most influential military officer in India has stated unequivocally that in the event of a confrontation his country would ignore the existence and aim of Pakistan’s newly developed tactical nuclear capability. The destructive effects of tactical weapons are by definition confined to the battlefield. But their wider consequences are immeasurable, as a tactical nuclear strike would almost certainly result in instant escalation, with hideous results.
Nuclear weapons are not just devices that make a bigger and more satisfying bang than conventional explosives, as fondly and absurdly imagined by so many inhabitants of the sub-continent. They have the potential to lay waste their countries and indeed the entire planet, which is terrifying.
Before General Rawat’s call to arms, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the quaintly-named but most serious organisation that analyses nuclear threats around the world, noted that “In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and re-learned that minimising evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies”. One of the main “dangerous situations” to which the Bulletin referred is the Korean Peninsula concerning which the President of the United States appears intent on goading the similarly unbalanced ruler of North Korea to ever-greater heights of confrontational insult.
Other problems lie with the build-up of the US-NATO forces along Russia’s borders, and US coat-trailing provocation in the South China Sea where, in spite of refusing to ratify the internationally accepted UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Washington continues to deploy guided missile destroyers to conduct inflammatory “freedom of navigation” manoeuvres designed to aggravate and humiliate China, which is extremely unwise.
Any of these critical situations could lead to local conflict that would rapidly escalate and prompt those involved to have recourse to the ultimate weapon, but the Bulletin refers to the sub-continent only fleetingly, mentioning that “In South Asia, Pakistan and India have continued to build ever-larger arsenals of nuclear weapons.”
This reference, although apposite, could not take into account the gravity of subsequent developments. Rawat’s wielding of the nuclear sabre has made it clear that India is prepared to conduct a military foray across Pakistan’s border while ignoring Pakistan’s main deterrent against invasion : the rapidly-deployable, nuclear-tipped Nasr tactical weapons system. An analyst in The Diplomat concludes that “Pakistan believes the most credible way to deter a conventional war against a nuclear India is to asymmetrically escalate a conflict by threatening first use of tactical nuclear weapons on advancing Indian forces once they cross the border into Pakistani soil — deterrence by denial.”
This is a fair summation (by an Indian analyst) of the rationale behind development and deployment of the Nasr, and it is apparent that India relies on the supposition that should it strike Pakistan in a limited fashion — a cross-border foray, for example, by a brigade that is intended to create havoc and withdraw as speedily as might be possible — then Pakistan would counter it, if at all, by use of conventional forces. But how is Pakistan to assess the strength and intent of any invading force?
It is highly unlikely that India would provide advance warning of a “limited” operation or even, once an incursion across the international border or the Kashmir Line of Control was detected, that it could then convey a credible message to Pakistan that the operation had only modest objectives on the ground. There is not a soldier in the world who would believe any such assurance. The only possible military reaction to an attack is to respond with all available fighting power in order to defeat the enemy. That is what armed forces train to do, and if their planning involves employment of tactical nuclear weapons, then that is what will happen.
General Rawat is perfectly aware of this principle of war, and his decision to “call their nuclear bluff” is irresponsible to the point of terminal folly. There would be no winner. Pakistan’s employment of Nasr would be met instantly by an Indian nuclear response and there would be an all-out nuclear war. The sub-continent would be destroyed.
The governments of India and Pakistan must draw back from confrontation. The time is overdue for a bit of pride-swallowing and a dose of pragmatic reflection. The countries should begin to talk with each other at the highest level, without any preconditions save the aim of reducing tension. They owe it to their citizens to withdraw the threat of nuclear Armageddon.