New Nuclear Danger
Islamabad Playing with Fire
The Tribune, 7 June 1999
The situation could not have been more bizarre or surreal. Going
by what Defence Minister Fernandes officially told 32
representatives of political parties on May 29, the mighty Indian
Army only got to know about the Kargil infiltration as late as May 6
- through a shepherd! This, when intelligence agencies, including
the Border Security Force’s unit, had reported militant activity
weeks earlier and the Kashmir press did so throughout April. Then,
on May 8, two Army patrols disappeared in Kargil. What was Mr
Fernandes’s response? He flew not to Kargil, but to Bombay - for
the silver jubilee of the 1974 railway strike!
Mr Fernandes says the Army only informed his ministry of the
infiltration on May 12. On that day, he flew to Leh, but strangely,
gave Kargil a miss! By this time, the intruders had blown up a big
ammunition depot at Kargil and were in occupation of 200 square
km of territory. They had built many reinforced bunkers along the
Line of Control (LoC). They clearly constituted a menace to the
crucial Srinagar-Leh highway. Even so, on May 14, the Defence
Ministry blandly stated that they had only occupied 'some remote
and unheld areas'. During the many weeks - if not months - that
it must have taken the intruders to set up camps, Mr Fernandes
was busy politicking and splitting rival parties.
On May 16, when the Army finally acknowledged a threat to the
LoC, Mr Fernandes took off for Dhanbad. Even after 'Operation
Vijay' was launched, he sent the Army Chief on a courtesy visit to
Poland. The greatest diplomatic effort was needed just then. But
Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh went to Central Asia and Russia.
Just as the crisis escalated, Mr Fernandes gave a clean chit to Mr
Nawaz Sharif, and to the ISI, of all agencies. Equally inexplicably,
he offered 'safe passage' later denied to the intruders. We don’t
know if he unfairly blamed the Army for his own mistakes, but there
can be no doubt that he has acted irresponsibly.
Kargil is a story of irresponsibility and ineptitude rooted in the
absence of a coherent Indian policy towards Pakistan. It shows
this 'caretaker' government is incapable of taking care of the
nation’s elementary interests. Worse, Kargil highlights the dangers
of ad hoc, arbitrary decision-making in a conflict which has every
potential to escalate in our now-nuclearised subcontinent. This
government must be compelled by public opinion to act cautiously
and eschew the temptation either to play down the crisis, or to
recklessly escalate it. This means there may be no alternative to
sacking Mr Fernandes as Defence Minister.
It is shameful that the Kargil crisis was allowed to snowball. New
Delhi should have long ago launched diplomatic efforts to defuse it.
Instead, it left matters to the Army, wrongly assuming that the
intrusion was routine and small-scale. Even when it became
evident that the Army would take months to dislodge the intruders,
no effort was made to engage Pakistan diplomatically. It was not
until May 25 that Mr Vajpayee called Mr Nawaz Sharif. Suddenly,
the next day, he decided ad hoc, and without full deliberation - to
launch air strikes, for the first time in 27 years on that border. This
introduced a new high-risk element of speed and mobility. When
aircraft fly at the speed of sound, even a little deviation from the
set flight-path risks straying across the zig-zag border. Given that
the LoC provides wide scope for ambiguity about violations, air
strikes made escalation much more likely. This danger was starkly
highlighted when two MiGs were shot down on May 27.
At work in Kargil is a dynamic driven by India-Pakistan mutual
suspicion, bitter differences over Kashmir, insecurity about each
other’s military capacities and intentions, opacity in policy-making,
refusal to share relevant information with each other and with the
public and, above all, domestic politics, particularly the severe
crisis of legitimacy of both governments. Kargil highlights three
issues: the grave new nuclear danger in South Asia; further
internationalisation of the Kashmir issue; and the fragility of the
Lahore process of conciliation.
Kargil demolishes the rosy assumption that nuclearisation would
impart stability or maturity to India-Pakistan relations, or make
conventional conflict between them unlikely. The assumption stems
in the first place from Cold War dogma. In reality, nuclear weapons
make war and conflict more, not less, likely. They do not prevent
states from fighting conventional wars. The former USSR and China
fought bitterly across the Ussuri for years. Nuclear deterrence is
deeply flawed. Gen Lee Butler, who long commanded the US
nuclear arsenal, says it is not nuclear deterrence, nor calculation
of 'mutually assured destruction', that prevented a catastrophe in
the Cold War. It was luck, 'the Grace of God'.
India and Pakistan are especially vulnerable to a nuclear
catastrophe. They have enough hotheads - Mr Fernandes not
excluded - for whom one crucial assumption of deterrence (refusal
to risk 'unacceptable damage') means little. Neither state has the
command and control structures to prevent accidental, unintended
or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. Their history is replete
with conflict escalation through war-mongering and pressure from
fanatics, as well as misperception and miscalculation. In 1965,
Ayub Khan thought that merely parachuting troops into Kashmir
would trigger a popular anti-India rebellion. This started a bitter
war which he did not win.
In 1986-87 India’s exercise 'Brasstacks' went out of control.
Pakistan read its manoeuvres as deeply threatening. An
eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation ensued. The most serious such
crisis was in 1990 when another exercise spun out of control.
Islamabad felt threatened and 'brandished the nuclear sword.' It
lined up trucks at the Kahuta enrichment plant to indicate its
willingness to use the nuclear option. The crisis was defused only
when the USA. sent Mr Robert Gates to New Delhi and Islamabad.
To believe that something like Kargil, in which the strategic stakes
are much higher than in routine exercises, cannot escalate to the
nuclear level, is to live in a fool’s paradise. If even a quarter of the
stories put out by our own officials - Mr Brajesh Mishra, about the
Pakistan army’s deep involvement in the months-long preparations
for the infiltration are correct, we must be doubly alarmed at the
possibility of nuclear adventurism.
As far as Kashmir goes, New Delhi has failed to defeat Pakistan’s
effort to put the issue on the global agenda. The air strikes have
added visibility to the conflict which has cruelly displaced civilians.
The world sees Kashmiris as hapless victims of Indo-Pak rivalry.
The Kosovo-like images of wretchedly poor refugees fleeing the
bombed-out moonscapes of Kargil and Dras are unlikely to vanish.
A year ago the BJP internationalised Kashmir, linking it with nuclear
weapons: Mr Advani famously warned Pakistan of a 'pro-active'
approach in the changed 'geostrategic' situation. Kargil has taken
the process further.
The Kargil crisis exposes the limitations, even the flimsiness, of
'bus diplomacy'. The Lahore accord was not about serious arms
control. It was about the intent to improve relations, and about
limited transparency - transparency through a very dirty looking
glass. India and Pakistan did not agree bilaterally to reduce the
nuclear danger, but only to 'national measures' to reduce
'accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons.' They agreed
not to suspend nuclear and missile programmes, only to inform
each other of test flights, etc. They did not sign a no test pact.
They agreed 'to abide by their respective unilateral moratorium on
conducting further nuclear test explosions - unless either side'
decides otherwise in 'its supreme interests'. This is taking back
with the left hand what is given with the right.
The Lahore MoU compares poorly with confidence-building
measures between the USA and the former USSR even in 1971. We
have to go much, much further than that. That means we must
stop being rosy-eyed about Lahore. Lahore was welcome as a
symbolic gesture. But substantively, it was no 'historic'
breakthrough involving a radical reordering of India-Pakistan
relations or a sea-change in mutual perceptions.
India must, of course, resolutely vacate the intrusion in Kargil. But
it must do so without escalating and extending the conflict. It
must use all available diplomatic-political means and leave room for
further conciliation, for a Lahore-II. That means that the force
deployed in the air strikes must be measured, with strict
confinement to our side of the LoC. New Delhi must not resort to
communal and jingoistic propaganda to boost its forces’ morale.
The ruling coalition knows its actions do not command a national
consensus. A majority of our parties have been sharply critical of
it. There is widespread suspicion that it has not been above using
Kargil to shore up its collapsed credibility. It must not play ducks
and drakes with security any longer.
The citizens of both India and Pakistan must wake up to the new
nuclear danger. After the Pakistan Foreign Secretary’s May 31
threat to use 'any weapon', this is no longer a remote possibility
or a fantasy. India’s and Pakistan’s future as nuclear rivals is grim,
shadowed by potential devastation. As non-nuclear friends,
however, their future may be bright.
Copyright 1999 The Tribune