Playing Nuclear Chicken


India played nuclear chicken with Pakistan and the world blinked. The President’s swift decision to go with the Coalition against terrorism, and thus against the Talibaan in Afghanistan, gave the world (and many of our countrymen) a wrong perception that under pressure he was a pushover. Bureaucrats have it right when they caution new entrants from taking decisions expeditiously. You will be called “hasty”, they say, delay the decision-making, be “deliberate”. Pervez Musharraf was right in opposing terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s backyard and he was not going to allow hell to freeze over before taking a decision. The vast middle ground among the intelligentsia and the masses supported him then, and still supports him on this issue. The President gauged the west’s mood after 9/11 very correctly and he confounded friend and foe alike by being decisive for Pakistan’s sake at a moment of world truth. The religious parties took to the streets and even though the country waited with bated breath the fanatical lot failed to excite the masses, who while plainly aggrieved at the abandonment of the Talibaan to their fate, knew that the President had done right by the country. A sustained Indian media and diplomatic campaign thereafter has successfully blurred “freedom fighters” from “terrorists”. One can only imagine to what lengths India would have gone to if Pervez Musharrraf had delayed even by a few days. Putting it bluntly, we can resist and even counter an Indian offensive, would we have been able to simultaneously resist concentrated US and allied airpower? And to what purpose?

The illusion that the President was a pushover was reinforced by a rare combination of the liberal Press on the left and the conservatives on the right. Hemmed in by catcalls of a sellout, he got us the best deal he could under the circumstances. What is now clear is that he was buying time for Pakistan, and that he did at great personal cost. Musharraf is a person who wants to be liked, he put his own popularity on the line. Some of our pseudo-intellectuals went to town in print on why our leadership lacked the necessary spine to stand upto the US, they failed to inform their readership in the same breath about the consequences of such a refusal. The ability to write good English corrupts the soul of many scribes, very good English corrupts absolutely.

Realizing that the west was enamoured, however fleetingly, of Musharraf, the Indians changed their strategy but bided their time before putting their next ploy into operation. Looking back at the Dec 13 attack on Indian Parliament dispassionately and the “evidence” being put on the back-burner for all purposes, one comes to believe that it was a stage-managed State-sponsored drama that used unknowing militants as cannon fodder to provide an excuse to bully Pakistan. Moving its entire war machine to the Pakistan borders, India threatened Pakistan with extinction unless Pakistan complied with India’s demands. When Pakistan refused to roll over and play dead, their bluff was called and the bankruptcy of their hollow threats exposed. With the brief Gujerat hiatus over, in which over 2000 muslims lost their lives in a virtual progrom, the Jammu incident become the new reason for India’s threats to go to war. India continued whipping up war hysteria within India. Having failed to cow down Pakistan, the Indians proceeded to involve the world by building up a nuclear war scare internationally, using the west to put pressure on Pakistan.

While Pervez Musharraf was playing “Johnny Cool”, a perception was built up by Indian-orchestrated propaganda that he was not able to take the heat. The Indian strategic planners came to believe the lie they themselves had fostered. When Pakistan refused to again knuckle down to demands, indeed made known its resolve for a fight to the finish, the Indian strategy went bankrupt and they called in their western friends to bail them out of a no-win situation. Obviously the Indians cannot remove their war machine without causing severe domestic heartburn, acute enough to bring the BJP-led coalition to grief politically. They badly need a face-saving gesture, despite western pressure Musharaf is refusing to oblige. Riding to the BJP rescue, the British came first with Chris Patten (of Hong Kong fame), and then Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary. Both were more loyal than the king, parotting the Indian line without batting an eyelash but they did not manage to browbeat Musharraf either. Richard Armitage, the US Under Secretary of State, was more even-handed and things started to move. Now that US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield has come and gone, the ice seems to be melting. Very generously India has “allowed” overflights of Pakistan aircraft and recalled the Indian fleet back to port. They failed to mention that it is many times more costly for Indian aircraft to circumvent Pakistani territory and they have 20 times more flights every week. As for the grand gesture of the Indian Navy returning to port, what a coincidence that with the monsoon season imminent the Indian Ocean makes for very sea-sick sailors in the months of June and July.

Indian Armed Forces are very much on the borders without any signs of any reduction in either their strength or their offensive posture. The steps taken do not represent de-escalation by any measure, they are simply propaganda points the Indians wanted to score with the world. Already they have used nuclear blackmail to good effect to get significant concessions from the west. In the process they have inadvertently brought international focus on Kashmir and this won’t go away easily even though their surrogates within the Pakistani media are all for Pakistan forgetting Kashmir. One must know how to deal with Quislings, and the State need not get involved in it.

Pakistan did not play the nuclear card, the Indians did and it has significantly backfired on them. In a blatant piece of misinformation the Indian spokesperson Ms Rao has been putting out that we have acted immaturely in brandishing our nuclear weapons, one may well ask her, who and when? The Indians conveniently forget that it is their own surmise that Pakistan conventional forces will be forced to fall back on the tactical nuclear option when faced with being overwhelmed. Pakistan does not subscribe to this theory, this can only be tested on the battleground. If the Indians could, would they ever have restrained their urge to cut Pakistan down to size? The Indians have 4:1 conventional superiority, why have they not attacked Pakistan during the last six months? In fact, the threat of a limited strike in Kashmir is a myth. If the world guarantees that Indians and Pakistanis both won’t cross the international border, let there be a war in Kashmir with the world also guaranteeing that they will stay out of the fray as long as the fighting is confined to Kashmir. Then we will see whether or not India will be the one to threaten first nuclear strike or cross the international border like they did in 1965.

After the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Pakistan-Indian nuclear confrontation is the closest to a nuclear catastrophe that the world has ever faced. The question arises, what has brought us to this flashpoint? If the world agrees with India that they had a valid reason to play nuclear brinkmanship and bring the world so perilously close to a holocaust because of these “terror” attacks, is there not a case to address the core issue of Kashmir that these attacks are the cause of? You may block the LOC, you may put the world’s most sophisticated sensors, you may monitor from satellites, the indigenous revolt within Kashmir will continue to fester, as night turns to day and day turns to night, these will go on and on. History is replete with numerous instances of successful indigenous uprisings against repression. What then? With India having no one but to blame themselves, Pakistan will again become a convenient scapegoat. Sooner rather than later, the Indians will force us into another round of playing nuclear chicken.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).