Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat no doubt has many qualities which have placed him in his current exalted position but he certainly cannot be accused of making irresponsible statements. He has praised and even decorated his officers for using human shields in Indian-occupied Kashmir, claimed that India can fight against Pakistan and China at the same time and most recently questioned Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence by boasting in a statement to the media on January 18th that “we will call the nuclear bluff of Pakistan.” Given the reality of the existing nuclear deterrence between Pakistan and India, such irresponsible remarks can only be described as ‘bluster’ — a word that the Macmillan dictionary defines as ‘to speak in an angry or threatening way, often because you do not want to show that you are frightened or nervous.’ This says it all: General Bipin Rawat is indeed frightened and nervous because he recognises the limits of Indian military might against Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.
It is now an internationally-accepted fact that even before Pakistan and India became overt nuclear weapon states following their nuclear tests in 1998, their latent nuclear weapons capabilities prevented the outbreak of war during several crises such as India’s Brass tacks military exercises in the late 1980s, and the mobilisation by both sides following the Kashmir uprising in 1990. After the 1998 nuclear tests, nuclear deterrence became even more credible, preventing conflicts in the wake of the Kargil crisis in 1999 and the Indian mobilisation after the attack on the Indian parliament in 2002. The underlying reason for restraint by both sides, and the primary reason for external, especially American, involvement to defuse these crises, was the possibility that any conventional war could escalate to a nuclear exchange. Therefore, nuclear deterrence based on the reality of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ prevented the outbreak of war, leading to a dangerous but credible strategic stability in South Asia.
The acceptance of this credible nuclear deterrence in the initial years also generated several Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) between Pakistan and India. These include the agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities and those contained in the Lahore Agreement of 1999, such as advance warning of missile tests, not to conduct military exercises close to each other’s borders among others. These CBMs continue to be respected for the most part even though Pakistan-India relations have been in a downward spiral for nearly a decade.
General Rawat’s bluster of “calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff” contradicts the existing reality of nuclear deterrence between the two countries for which there are several reasons.
Most importantly, Pakistan’s nuclear capability and the emergence of credible nuclear deterrence have neutralised the numerical advantage of the Indian conventional forces over Pakistan. It has been due to this frustration that the Indians developed their ‘Cold Start’ or ‘Proactive Doctrine’, which Rawat has now acknowledged, was designed to launch a short, integrated conventional strike against Pakistan despite the existence of nuclear deterrence. This has been an attempt by India to find space for war below the nuclear threshold, on the assumption that Pakistan would not risk using its nuclear weapons against Indian cities in response to a limited conventional strike since this would invite a ‘massive’ Indian nuclear retaliation. However, instead of falling in this trap, Pakistan has responded by developing low-yield nuclear weapons with short-range delivery vehicles like the Nasr missile, with the objective of stopping a Cold Start Indian attack. As has been famously stated this has poured Cold Water over Cold Start. Therefore, in order to keep the Cold Start doctrine relevant and seek the contained salience of the Indian numerical advantage in conventional weapons, General Rawat insists on calling Pakistan’s ‘nuclear bluff’.
The belligerence of the Modi government against Pakistan has no doubt encouraged General Rawat to make his irresponsible statement. Other Indians, including former officials, have also been emboldened to threaten Pakistan with massive nuclear retaliation or even advocated a ‘Splendid First Strike’ to destroy the entire Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Such boasts are meaningless since Pakistan too has massive retaliation capability and enough Pakistani nuclear weapons to blunt any Splendid First Strike.
The Indians also feel encouraged to adopt such a reckless and irresponsible posture by their strategic partnership with the US, especially under the equally reckless and irresponsible Trump administration. Having been accorded with nuclear exceptionalism by the US, such as the 2008 nuclear waiver, and the efforts to bring India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, apart from the discriminatory American approach towards Pakistan on nuclear and other issues, the Indians feel emboldened to question the very basis of strategic deterrence in the region. The fact that no American official, member of the US Congress, the media or academic has criticised Rawat’s statement underscores the tacit acceptance of Indian belligerence. Had such a statement been made on the Pakistan side, alarm bells would have started ringing from Washington to Tokyo with accusations of nuclear saber-rattling. On the contrary, US officials have again expressed praise for India’s ‘impeccable’ nuclear credentials, becoming blind-sided by their eagerness to contain China by using India as their surrogate, even though it is India and not Pakistan that is responsible for nuclearisation of South Asia since 1974.
No responsible person, even in India, can be taken in by Rawat’s bluster. It is in the interest of both countries, despite and because of their differences and tensions, that credible nuclear deterrence continues to operate between them. The essential reality is that nuclear weapons are meant to prevent wars, not fight them. Bluff and bluster do not add to strategic stability based on credible deterrence, instead they give rise to dangers of miscalculation and escalation.
Pakistani officials and commentators have responded responsibly to the Indian army chief’s provocations. But this should not be taken in India as reluctance on Pakistan’s part to use its nuclear weapons to ensure the security and territorial integrity of the country against Indian aggression — conventional or nuclear. They can test our resolve at their own risk.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2018.
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