The author is former director general military operations and currently director, Delhi Policy Group
General Pervez Musharraf is again in the news for having threatened a nuclear strike on India. The good general is said to have told a group of retired air force officers that the nuclear message had been conveyed to Atal Bihari Vajpayee through reliable sources. As is normal in Pakistan, there was a spin put on the matter quickly. The generalís public relations general moved quickly to say that the senior general really did not say so. What General M really said was that if Indian forces crossed the border, Pakistan would provide an unconventional response. Indian official circles have used all this as reconfirmation of their earlier claims that the general did in fact use the nuclear threat. Who deterred whom is the question doing the rounds in New Delhi, Islamabad and other nuclear capitals. Therein rests a dangerous reality.
Vajpayee had been reported in Indian newspapers as having said that he was at one stage prepared not only for war but also the possibility of a nuclear strike by Pakistan. That was, if true, a demonstration of fortitude in the willingness to lose tens of thousands of Indian citizens in one vaporizing moment. That a political leader could contemplate an Armageddon should be a sobering thought. The prime minister is of course fully in the know that India has the capability and would have had the option to devastate the whole of Pakistan with nuclear strikes. This is what some strategic analysts in India believe would prevent Pakistan from making the nuclear strike in the first place.
A leadership which talks of and contemplates a nuclear weapons exchange must be worried about defending something without which its nation would cease to exist. What would that entity be for India or Pakistan to defend for which masses of civilians can be sacrificed to a nuclear holocaust' Is it national honour, or pride or freedom or democracy or religion' Could it be a political argument to prove' Or an election to win or the costs of political economy to bear' It is apparent that no one wants a nuclear strike but every one wishes to use the fear of its happening. It is however one thing to warn of the risk but quite another to create conditions in which the risk becomes a reality.
Nuclear weapons, by their very presence, influence warfare. India and Pakistan, having obtained nuclear weapons, cannot ignore their impact on warfare. Neither country can go to war in the confidence that they would not be used. If India had gone beyond threatening war it would have been to force Musharraf to change his policy. That would not have been possible without imposing on him conditions of submission, defeat and conquest of his territory, or of being overthrown by his own side. That outcome would only have been made possible by a major military defeat or its imminence. The general would not have waited for that to happen while nuclear weapons were available to him. Even the risk of losing nuclear weapons in a war with India would have tempted him to use them. The question therefore is should India have forced such choices on him, and accepted the loss of a major Indian metropolis and its people'
The nuclear rhetoric by the general in Pakistan and by the Indian leadership is not being undertaken through ignorance of the risks. It is deliberately undertaken to retain advantages which the leaders wish to retain. One such advantage is of public support and confidence in the leaders. More important, it is to obtain the involvement of major powers on their side in the disputes and conflicts which defy a solution. If Musharraf visualizes an unconventional war against an Indian military advance into Pakistan, will it be on the lines of Maoís peopleís war' That would involve giving up large tracts of territory to gain time, or to draw in the enemy deep before striking at him. This is not a choice the general can contemplate. He would be quickly removed by his own generals. Will the unconventional take the form of a suicidal military offensive against India without regard to costs' That choice would effectively destroy the fine military machine which has ruled Pakistan for four decades and more. He could not have launched armies of jihadis against the Indian military advance. They would neither have gone to their deaths willingly nor are there enough of them in Pakistan. Obviously General M means a nuclear strike when he refers to an unconventional response.
Indiaís leadership, of whatever political party in power, would have to seriously think about the implications of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent. Nuclear weapons influence every choice related to war. They are like the queen on the chess board. Even if it is not directly in play, it influences every move to be made by a bishop or a pawn attempting to advance. Nuclear weapons cannot be disregarded even in contemplating a small operation, since the small action can snowball into an avalanche that cannot be halted.
How is India to face up to the nuclear challenge from General M who has shown that he knows a thing or two about the role his nuclear weapons can be made to play' It needs first to understand if nuclear weapons have enhanced the generalís ability to manage his disparate country, bedevilled by fundamentalist elements and international terrorists. It is clear that nuclear weapons have not made his ability to govern any better. In that case he is more likely to be working from higher levels of internal and external uncertainties. The greater his uncertain position, the stronger would be the nuclear rhetoric. The other side of the nuclear coin would show a higher probability of irrational choices when faced with existential dilemmas. Either way the probability of his misjudging intentions and making wrong choices would remain high.
The conflict scenario for Pakistan is loaded with wild cards like uncontrollable terrorists, domestic violence and an undercurrent of anger over American military operations in Pakistan and a new turn of events in Jammu and Kashmir with a new government in place. The combined effect of these factors is already evident in the reported comments by the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir leader, Abdul Qayoom Khan, that Pakistanís Kashmir policy is beginning to unravel.
An uncertain leader with a penchant for nuclear sabre-rattling is best tackled by denying him the nuclear choices rather than forcing them upon him. What is needed is to optimize on Indiaís unquestioned secular and democratic credentials, combined with its economic potential. That will show up the Pakistani military leadership for what it is ó a force which seeks to control Pakistan through conflict with India. Giving the Pakistani military the opportunity to indulge in nuclear threats only helps its conflict agendas.