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How real is Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail?

How real is Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail?
Nuclear weapons have changed the course of history in many ways. On one hand, it has changed the concept of state security and its lateral expansion makes the world an insecure place for humanity. On the other hand, its very existence deters states from indulging in military adventurism and prevents the escalation of crisis and wars. The concept of nuclear peace and nuclear deterrence played an important role in preventing an escalation of <g data-gr-id="61">crisis</g> and the outbreak of a major war during the Cold War period. The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and credible second strike nuclear capability forced both Cold War adversaries (America and the erstwhile Soviet Union) to avoid a direct military confrontation. South Asia, however, is a unique example of where two nuclear powered historical enemies defy all theories of nuclear stability and instability. 

South Asia has been constantly termed as a ‘nuclear flashpoint’ and the most dangerous place on earth because of a long-standing border dispute and the ‘nuclear nationalism’ of Pakistan. Pessimists have argued that nuclear war in South Asia is very much a possibility. On numerous occasions in the past, there were likely chances of a small conflict escalating into a full-fledged nuclear war. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is entirely India centric. India’s nuclear programme, however, started as early as 1944; and notably it was not initiated to counter or balance anyone. But the unfortunate experience of a border war and subsequent loss of territory to China has forced India to reconsider its position and explore the strategic utility of its nuclear weapons programme.

Historically, Pakistan has successfully manipulated its nuclear weapons status to thwart India from crossing the red line, even in critical conditions. On a number of occasions in the past Pakistan has threatened to deploy nuclear weapons in case of any military action on its soil by India. The primary motive behind this assertion was to deter India from taking punitive steps in response to Pakistan’s proxy war and support for terror-related activities in Kashmir. Pakistan was effectively able to check India’s military advancement even in case of intense conflicts. One such occasion was the Kargil War. 

The Kargil misadventure has dispelled many popular notions regarding nuclear weapons. Its occurrence within a year after India and Pakistan openly tested nuclear weapons has blasted off the assertion that nuclear-armed states will avoid initiating a direct military face off. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons status also largely remained successful in deterring India from escalating the situation. Nuclear weapons do have a deterrent impact, but it has its own limitations too. Pakistan probably understood this long ago, while India is yet to realise it.  

Pakistan has successfully used nuclear deterrence to support its aggression in border areas, covert operations, proxy war and terror-related activities in India. The Kargil War can be taken as a good example of an increased confidence, which propels its ability to inflict direct military confrontation with India. Pakistan has also demonstrated its confidence and willingness to take greater risks. Since then, India has started exploring the possibility of a nuclear risk-free option of limited war. The purpose of such action would be to teach Pakistan a lesson, and stop its proxy war against India by inflicting heavy causalities and economic loss. Some scholars have even argued that the fear of an intended nuclear war between India and Pakistan is not real. According to them, Pakistan is actually manipulating its position and testing India’s patience and prudence. The day Pakistan receives a befitting reply from India; its civilian-military establishment will fall in line and understand that its strategy of nuclear blackmail is failing. Under this particular scenario, there will be a possibility of a sharp decline in incidents of terror-related activities against India.  

At present, Pakistan is convinced that India will not take the risk of a full-fledged war with Pakistan for three key reasons: First, Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state. Initiation of a conflict would be coupled with the risk of a nuclear war. Second, India’s response towards its adventurism was historically preventive and protective, rather than punitive. And, third, its global projection as an impulsive and volatile state that can cross the limits of conventional wars will always deter India. The myth propagated by idealists that a stronger Pakistan will serve India’s long-term interests in the region further compounds New Delhi’s historically weak response towards its militant activities.

A few observations can be made with regards to the future of nuclear weapons in South Asia. The presence of nuclear weapons in South Asia is not going to deter Pakistan if India continues to respond to its adventurism in the same historical manner. India must realise that nuclear weapons have more of a psychological value; rather than practical utility. It can deter states from going to war with each other, but it can’t stop a state from manipulating the scope of its actual use.  Pakistan’s civilian or military leadership is not going to deliberately use nuclear weapons against India in any predictable conditions. The only possible use of nuclear weapons can be in the case of a miscommunication, lack of command and control system and its proxy use by terrorists. There is every possibility that even in times of a conflict; India can deter Pakistan from flexing its nuclear arms through the sheer force of diplomacy. 

In the face of growing incidents and rising threat perception, India has also adopted a realistic posture against Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail. During a lecture in April 2013 Shyam Saran, Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, had warned Pakistan that if it ever uses tactical nuclear weapons against Indian forces, it will be the target of an all-out Indian nuclear attack. This stand was further reiterated by different officials under the Narendra Modi government. Following its erstwhile policy against India of spreading terror, creating trouble in border areas and testing India’s reaction especially under its tough, a realistic leader is not just Pakistan’s wish; but also its compulsion. It has to keep its rhetoric alive and send a message across the border that nothing has changed in terms of its policy towards India. However, there is no denial of the fact that the future of nuclear peace in South Asia depends on a number of variables, unlike what we witnessed in the Cold War period.  

(The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Ramanujan College, Delhi University. The views expressed are strictly personal.)
Hari K Sharma

Hari K Sharma

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