Shooting ourselves in the foot

18 July 2005
Praful Bidwai

Shooting ourselves in the foot
Praful Bidwai
The News International, Pakistan, 15 May 2003

On the fifth anniversary of the Pokharan-II and Chagai nuclear tests this month, what does the India-Pakistan security balance-sheet look like? The honest answer must be: negative, ugly and frightening. The two countries have lost, not gained, in security and trust, as well as in global stature and prestige. The social, economic and political impact of going nuclear has been grim, in some respects, disastrous.

Supporters of nuclear weapons had made a number of predictions about their likely virtuous effects. Consider just five. They said both India and Pakistan would become more secure and self-confident in the knowledge that neither can now blackmail the other on the strength of conventional strategic superiority or covert support to militant groups. This new strategic equation would form the bedrock of "stability" in South Asia as a whole.

Second, the leaders of both Pakistan and India, they prophesied, would start behaving "responsibly" and "maturely". The destructive power of the Bomb would itself ensure that - regardless of the quality of leadership.

Third, even an India-Pakistan conventional war would become impossible, indeed inconceivable. Doesn't deterrence theory tell you that nuclear weapons-states do not go to war with one another? The low-intensity conventional skirmishes between the USSR and China in the late 1960s and 1970s across the Ussuri river were only an "aberration". By contrast, during the greatest confrontation of the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War, the main adversaries (US and USSR) never exchanged a shot. That same result should and would hold for India and Pakistan.

Fourth, the Bomb's supporters predicted, nuclearisation would greatly expand India's and Pakistan's capacity for political and diplomatic manoeuvre in world affairs. India would even gain a permanent seat on the Security Council.

And fifth, the adverse social and political impact of nuclearisation would be minimal, and its economic costs affordable.

All five predictions have proved false. India and Pakistan have both become edgy, nervously unsure about each other's designs and doctrines, and more prone to panic reactions - and strategically unstable. In May 1998, South Asia became "the world's most dangerous place". Since then, the nuclear danger here has increased, not decreased.

Nuclear weapons have not induced "maturity" and "sobriety" among our leaders. Indeed, they have promoted hubris and rank adventurism. Some of our generals genuinely believe that nuclear weapons can work as a shield or cover under which to indulge in grossly provocative or reckless acts against the adversary. The casual, cavalier, manner in which India and Pakistan have repeatedly exchanged nuclear threats is truly spine-chilling.

Evidently, the realisation has not sunk in among them, or the larger public, of just how horrific nuclear weapons are, nor of how vulnerable millions of people living in cities within the range of their missiles have become. Even a first-generation nuclear bomb dropped on Mumbai or Karachi will kill 800,000 or more people, flatten most buildings in the city centre, destroy all communications, and contaminate vast swatches of land with radioactive poisons, some of which will last for thousands of years.

There is no military, civil or medical defence against nuclear weapons. There is no cure for the health injury they cause. They are not weapons of war, but of indiscriminate killing, mass extermination, genocide.

As for "deterrence", Pakistan and India went to war barely a year after the Pokharan-Chagai nuclear tests. Kargil was a middle-sized conflict by international standards, involving 40,000 Indian troops, top-of-the-line weaponry and billions of dollars. Post-December 2001, the two rivals were again at each other's throats for 10 long months, with a million troops eyeball-to-eyeball.

The nuclear danger in South Asia is uniquely grave. The CIA's "Global Threat 2015" report says that of all the regions of the world, the risk of nuclear war is the highest in South Asia, and will remain "serious". Agency director George Tenet has said the chances of war between India and Pakistan "now are the highest since 1971". They are certainly much higher than the likelihood of a US-USSR conflict after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Take the issue of global stature. After Chagai, Pakistan became a virtual pariah state - until 9/11 gave it a chance to get into an "anti-terrorist" alliance with the US. India's profile in Washington rose somewhat around (and after) Bill Clinton's visit here in March 2000. But that was because of information technology and the success of Indian entrepreneurs living in the US - that is, despite India's nuclear weapons.

India's bargaining power and room for manoeuvre vis-a-vis Washington has shrunk thanks to its nuclearisation. India remains a middle or secondary league player in global affairs. For India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons were clearly no invitation to the world's High Table.

The economic costs imposed by nuclearisation, which are still unfolding, have proved harsh and extremely burdensome, especially on Pakistan. The run on the Pakistani rupee triggered by Chagai inaugurated a serious economic downturn. India has almost doubled its military spending over five years - at the expense of health, education and social welfare expenditure.

Military expenditure will spiral as the two build more and more nuclear warheads, and invest in delivery vehicles, command-and-control systems and other components of nuclear weapons programmes. This could prove ruinous.

Even if nuclear weapons are not used, making and deploying them will impose heavy costs upon India and Pakistan. India will have to spend anything from Rs60,000 to Rs100,000 crores to acquire a small nuclear arsenal, which is about one-fifth the size of China's. This will bankrupt the state and cripple public services. Their collapse would spell the failure of the state itself.

No less burdensome are nuclearisation's social and political costs. Nuclear weapons do not come on their own. Inseparably associated with them is ideological baggage - nuclearism" (or an almost mystical faith in the power of the Bomb, among other things, to produce security), legitimisation of the idea of mass destruction and unbounded militarism. All this is destructive of the values of humanity, peace and reason. It can only promote extreme intolerance and vicious male-supremacism. These are a recipe for the corrosion and destruction of democracy.

In the South Asian case, there is a strong correlation between militarism - both in the form of militarisation of society and daily life, and the rising weight of the military in state and society - and communalism or religion-based fundamentalism. Domestically, this is the gravest danger in both countries. It threatens to rend them asunder as nothing else does.

This lends great urgency to negotiating nuclear risk-reduction and restraint measures, leading to regional nuclear disarmament. A beginning can be made if India and Pakistan return to the unfinished agenda of the Lahore summit.

At Lahore, India and Pakistan made a commitment to measures "aimed at prevention of conflict", to meeting "periodically to discuss all issues of mutual concern, including nuclear-related issues", and "bilateral consultations on security concepts, and nuclear doctrines, with a view to developing measures for confidence-building in the nuclear and conventional fields, aimed at avoidance of conflict", as well as to "consultation on security, disarmament and non-proliferation issues within the context of multilateral fora". Will our leaders rise to the occasion?

Copyright 2003 The News International