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‘Unconventional’ Pak forces Delhi rethink

New Delhi, Dec. 31: The Indian security establishment’s interpretation of Pervez Musharraf’s claim yesterday that Pakistan’s threat of an “unconventional” response had staved off a war can mark a change from the position New Delhi has held on the fear of a nuclear conflict in the subcontinent.

Strictly speaking, Musharraf did not categorically say he had threatened a “nuclear strike”. His words — to a gathering of Pakistan Air Force officers — were: “I personally conveyed messages to (Indian) Prime Minister (A.B.) Vajpayee through every international leader who came to Pakistan, that if Indian troops moved a single step across the international border or the Line of Control, they should not expect a conventional war from Pakistan.”

In Delhi, the feeling in the security establishment is that belligerence of this sort is not wholly unexpected when Musharraf, supreme commander of Pakistan’s armed forces, is addressing a domestic audience of military men.

However, Delhi has also decided to use the statement to paint Islamabad as an irresponsible state incapable of handling its nuclear status.

Late last night, the Pakistani spokesman responded by saying Musharraf’s use of the word, “unconventional”, should not be interpreted as a synonym for “nuclear”.

Strategists say there is little doubt about what Musharraf actually meant. “This (Pakistan’s retraction) is a deliberate technique of making a statement and them backtracking,” says Lt General (retd) V.R. Raghavan of the thinktank, the Delhi Policy Group.

In military jargon, “unconventional” wars are conflicts such as guerrilla tactics and/or war by proxy. A nuclear exchange in a war would also make it unconventional.

But there has never been a nuclear exchange — such history is the handmaiden of the idea of nuclear deterrence — and military theorists believe that limited wars are possible even under the nuclear shadow.

Defence minister George Fernandes expounded in a seminar at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi early last year that despite India and Pakistan’s nuclear status, a “limited, conventional war” was actually possible. He meant a war limited by confines of space (such as in Kargil in 1999) and also in terms of use of weapons.

The doctrine has come to be adopted by the security establishment in India. But just as the Kargil operations were a “limited, conventional war” for India, it was an “unconventional” war by Pakistan. Pakistan had used mujahideen and army irregulars to hold strategic heights in Kashmir.

But Operation Parakram — the 10-month-long military standoff — and Pakistan’s frequent brandishing of nuclear-capable missiles and repeated threats from its establishment to use the nuclear option can gradually redefine the Indian military doctrine of a “limited, conventional war”.

Now that Delhi is saying Islamabad can be careless with nuclear weapons — raising fears that weapons of mass destruction can also be acquired by non-state actors (e.g. militants) — the Indian security establishment’s response to Pakistan can go through a shift. It will be a shift from the belief that both New Delhi and Pakistan are conscientious with nuclear arms.

So far, Delhi has held that fears of a nuclear exchange in South Asia are totally unfounded. The defence ministry and Fernandes have been vocal on this. In June, the defence ministry said in a statement: “(The) government makes it clear that India does not believe in the use of nuclear weapons. Neither does it visualise that it will be used by any other country.”

Fernandes further elucidated in an interview to The International Herald Tribune: “I don’t agree that India and Pakistan are so imprudent and excitable that they will forget what nuclear weapons can do.… I think it should be accepted that in South Asia, there are responsible leaders. They may be belligerent and not fulfil their promises.

“But on nuclear matters, the subcontinent is alive to the implications.… If the western powers and China know how to keep their nuclear capabilities under control, the same holds good for India-Pakistan.”

Musharraf’s utterances on Monday is the latest in a series of statements from Pakistan that Islamabad was ready to flex its nuclear muscle. Earlier, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, Munir Akram, too, talked of using the nuclear option in the event of an Indian strike.

Sources in the security establishment say that during the military standoff, Pakistan had deployed its nuclear-capable missiles. But whether its nuclear warheads were “coupled” with the missiles was a matter of conjecture.

In different wargame scenarios, Pakistan — which rejects the policy of “no first strike” — can be projected to use a tactical (small) nuclear weapon on attacking troops if it is afraid of losing crucial ground, or on narrow tracts to sever large chunks of territory from the mainland.

Indian military officials and security leaders refuse to speculate aloud on nuclear scenarios and say the very airing of such views in public is the sign of irresponsibility.

In January 2002, even after army chief General S. Padmanbhan made clear the Indian policy to only retaliate, Fernandes thought it fit to issue a clarification only to drive home the point more forcefully.

“Non conventional war — the words Musharraf used — can mean a range of things like use of special forces. But there is no question that what Musharraf mean was a nuclear strike,” says Bharat Karnad, author of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security (Macmillan 2002).

“He has to talk in this manner. For a small country like Pakistan it is crucial that credibility is injected into its deterrence. I call such exchanges ‘rhetorical nuclear wars’. It is no big deal. I believe that in South Asia, we are at the initial stages of arriving at a nuclear modus vivendi.”

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