Uncertain future for nuclear detente between India and Pakistan

 Guest Post by Nyla Ali Khan

President-elect Donald Trump’s recent telephonic conversations with several foreign leaders, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, might seem cavalier and insouciant but, as Shakespeare said, “though this be madness, there is method in it.” In particular, Trump’s offer to Sharif to play any role that Sharif deems fit to “address and find solutions to the country’s problems” had raised hackles in India. Trump’s purported readiness to jump to Sharif’s rescue is being interpreted by some in India as an offer to resolve the long-standing Kashmir dispute between the two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, in the latter’s favor.

Pakistan had carefully wooed the US in the 1990s by making the argument that nuclear disarmament can be achieved in South Asia only if the Kashmir crisis is resolved. I turn to Senior Research Associate at Proliferation Research and Assessment Program, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Gaurav Kampani’s interesting inference regarding Pakistan’s strategic rationale for its nuclear capability and its constant attempts to foreground the Kashmir issue: “the political linkage between regional nuclear disarmament and the resolution of the Kashmir dispute appears to be an opportunistic attempt on the part of Islamabad to create nonproliferation incentives for US policymakers to intervene in the Kashmir conflict” (Kampani 2005: 167; also see Chadha 2005). The Pakistani military reinforced western concerns regarding nuclear proliferation in South Asia. In reaction to Pakistan’s aggressive transgression of the Line of Control (LOC) between Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 1999, India exercised political tact and restraint, winning international support for its diplomacy. Washington’s political volte face became apparent when it explicitly demanded that Islamabad withdraw from occupied Indian positions and maintain the legitimacy of the LOC in Kashmir. It was implicit in this demand that it saw Pakistan as the egregious aggressor.

The attempt by the US to mitigate Pakistan’s aggression also implied that it would not reinforce the status quo in Kashmir (Kampani 2005: 171). Washington’s incrimination of Pakistani aggression mitigated New Delhi’s fear that internationalization of the Kashmir dispute would spell unambiguous victory for Pakistan. India’s strategy of diplomacy and restraint increased the international pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its forces from Indian territory. India took recourse to limited conventional war under nuclear conditions, prior to President Clinton’s March 2000 visit to New Delhi. At this point in time, proliferation was relegated to the background in Indo–US relations.

Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta underline the further recession of this issue to the background during the Bush administration. The neo-conservatives in that administration zeroed in on India as a country in the Asia–Pacific region that would offset China’s burgeoning economy, which I see as an attempt to reconstruct the cold-war paradigm (‘US–South Asia Relations under Bush’ 2001).

US strategic ties with New Delhi were further consolidated in the wake of 11 September 2001, when the links between militant Islamic groups and Pakistan’s military and militia forces were underscored. As one of the consequences of the decision of the Bush administration to eliminate Al-Qaeda and its supporters in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharaff found himself with no option but to sever ties with the Taliban. Following this drastically changed policy decision to withdraw political and military support from the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Islamabad found itself unable to draw a clear line of distinction between “terrorists” in Afghanistan and “freedom fighters” in Kashmir. Islamabad’s quandary proved New Delhi’s trump card (Chaudhuri 2001). New Delhi was able to justify its military stance vis-à-vis Pakistan in the wake of the attacks on the J & K State Assembly in the summer capital, Srinagar, in October 2001, and then the attacks on the Indian Parliament, New Delhi, a month later, in November. New Delhi’s strategy was validated by US military operations in Afghanistan, and the deployment of US forces in and around Pakistan to restrain Pakistani aggression. India was assured by the US that it would stall any attempt by Pakistan to extend the Kashmir dispute beyond local borders, which might disrupt its operations against the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Also, deployment of the US military in Pakistani air bases strengthened New Delhi’s confidence that Islamabad would hesitate to initiate nuclear weapons use (Kampani 2002). The result of India’s policy of coercive diplomacy was that the Musharraf regime was pressured by the US to take strict military action against the mercenary and militant Islamic groups bolstering the insurgency in Kashmir (PBS interview with US Undersecretary of State, Richard Armitage, 30 August 2002). New Delhi was successful in getting Islamabad to both privately and publicly renounce its support to insurgents in J & K.

The Indian administration decided that in the event deterrence measures failed, the Indian army would have to fight a limited conventional wars under nuclear conditions. The possibility of fighting a war has driven the Indian government to contemplate a nuclear response to Pakistan’s deployment of nuclear weapons. But Indian leaders have threatened Islamabad with punitive measures if Pakistan resorts to nuclear weapons use (Tellis 2001: 251–475). India and Pakistan routinely brandish their nuclear capabilities to intimidate each other. The two countries have also resorted to direct nuclear signaling through ballistic-missile tests. Such strategies emphasize the military and political volatility in South Asia (“Delhi Positions Missiles on Border,” Dawn, 27 December 2001). Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has given its military the prowess it requires to exploit the disgruntlement of the Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley.

Pakistan’s military leaders are privately convinced that its daunting nuclear arsenal has dissuaded India from embarking upon a large-scale war. India’s cautious stance is, however, in all likelihood, dictated by multiple factors. Its primary concern is that a limited war will not enable it to accomplish substantive political or military objectives; that such a war might spin out of control and would be impossible to cease according to the wishes of the administration and the military; that India might find itself in disfavor with and spurned by the international community; and that a war might beef up nuclear armament. The impending menace of precipitative nuclearization has been one of the many factors underlining the necessity to maintain a quasi-stable regime in the South Asian region (Kampani 2005: 177). In effect, one of the ramifications of India and Pakistan climbing the ladder of nuclear proliferation has been a tottering stability, maintained amidst the continuing conflict in Kashmir. However, the overt support that the Pakistani government has lent to the insurgents in Kashmir has enabled India to tarnish Pakistan’s reputation by labeling it a terrorist state.

New Delhi managed to diminish the threat of internationalization of the Kashmir dispute in 2001–02 by threatening a nuclear exchange unless the US intervened to prevent Pakistan from fomenting cross-border terrorism (ibid.: 178). The ideological and power rivalry between India and Pakistan, however, transcend the Kashmir dispute (Tellis 2001: 8–11). Regardless of the possibility of nuclear restraint in South Asia, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would put a monkey wrench in the drive in both countries to beef up their nuclear arsenals. War is a lucrative business, and armaments manufacturers are not likely to metamorphose into pacifists and oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons anytime soon.

Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society, and Polity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), The Life of a Kashmiri Woman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Reprinted with permission.

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