Nuclear Deterrence

THE possibility of a civil-nuclear deal between the US and Pakistan may have been prematurely leaked to the media, but with the joint statement following Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the White House emphasising nuclear matters and Gen Raheel Sharif expected to visit the US this month, Pakistani officials have noticeably stepped up their public comments about nuclear-related matters in South Asia. Led by the Foreign Office, the official Pakistani comment is on the Indian conventional arms build-up and the emphasis that Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is defensive and shaped by destabilising moves by India. To be sure, the massive Indian investments in its military and weapons-buying spree are of concern and do have implications for peace and stability in South Asia. Yet, it is the increasingly explicit connection between India’s weapons build-up and the Pakistani nuclear doctrine that is also worrying.

The adoption of so-called full-spectrum deterrence has been projected by the Pakistani security establishment as a strategic guarantee that Pakistan will be safe from an Indian attack, either small-scale or large-scale. But is that true and at what cost, particularly in terms of risk, is full-spectrum deterrence being pursued? Within the strategic community and at least among senior retired military officials, there are questions quietly being asked — if the Indian arms build-up is unwelcome, isn’t the Pakistani counter-response of full-spectrum deterrence exacerbating the dangers and increasing the risk of catastrophic conflict in South Asia? There are serious questions at both ends of what can effectively be termed a new deterrence strategy. Does Pakistan fundamentally need long-range missiles to hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to deny India a secure second-strike capability when Pakistan is not known to have the technology to track Indian land-based missiles? At the low end of the spectrum, which is where the main international concern appears to be, is Pakistan really committed to the idea of launching small nuclear missiles on its soil, even if against rapid Indian invasion forces?

Unhappily, even asking questions of the country’s evolving and more muscular nuclear policy is considered problematic by the security establishment. But does the use of seemingly scientific language and the adoption of exotic strategies really make Pakistan safer and better protected? Time and again, be it 1965, 1971 or 1999, the country has woken up to disasters that were created by what were argued to be the most robust of assumptions and infallible of theories. There is surely a case to be made that Indian military build-up is a problem for Pakistan’s security and peace in South Asia. But must the answer to those new challenges increasingly and automatically be a nuclear response by Pakistan? Perhaps the more uncomfortable truth is that twice in the new century, the threat of war between India and Pakistan has been triggered by terrorist attacks. To what extent will Pakistan go to neutralise that threat?

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2015


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