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Dangerous Games: The Nuclear Factor Adds an Alarming Note to the Game of Brinkmanship on the LOC

Op-Ed, Newsline, volume 10, issue 11, pages 32-33

Author: Samina Ahmed, Former Research Fellow, Project on Managing the Atom/Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, 1998-2002

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Science, Technology, and Public Policy; Managing the Atom

 

Dangerous Games: The Nuclear Factor Adds an Alarming Note to the Game of Brinkmanship on the LOC

Samina Ahmed

Ever since the May 1998 nuclear tests, the 720 kilometer Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir has witnessed sporadic artillery exchanges. Almost a year to the first anniversary of the Pakistani nuclear tests, the situation on the ground in Kashmir has taken an alarming turn for the worse. Claiming that a large number of militants have infiltrated from across the Line of Control into Indian-administered territory in the Kargil sector, India has launched a major military offensive which includes the induction of thousands of Indian troops and the use of helicopter gunships and aerial attacks. This latest crisis on the LOC has the potential of spiraling out of control. Indian accusations of direct Pakistani military involvement across the LOC, Pakistan's downing of a Indian aircraft intruding into its airspace, intensified shelling and artillery exchanges and even cross-border infantry skirmishes have led to a massive military build-up on both sides of the disputed border as casualty figures rise. Are Pakistan and India on the verge of war and will the brinkmanship in Kashmir lead to the first use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Military action has remained restricted since the beginning of May to the LOC. Despite accusations and counter accusations, both sides have pledged that they will exercise utmost restraint to ensure that border skirmishes do not escalate into a full-scale war. The use of a hotline between the two Prime Ministers and Pakistan's diplomatic initiative, which includes Foreign Minister Aziz's proposed visit to India, could defuse tensions before the situation deteriorates further. International concern about the potential escalation of a conventional war into a nuclear exchange could also play a major role in preventing the outbreak of war. However, brinkmanship, by both sides increases the dangers of a potentially disastrous exchange. In India, an interim government's desire to play to the gallery to gain votes in a scheduled general election and in Pakistan, a beleaguered Prime Minister's desire to divert domestic attention away from domestic debacles make it much more difficult for both sides to move quickly to defuse tensions. A legacy of adventurism, miscalculation and a misplaced faith in nuclear deterrence could also result in both sides blundering into war. Should an all-out conventional war break out, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out if either side assumes that it faces defeat, even if that defeat is restricted to the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The nuclear factor comes into play even in the decision by the two sides to up their bilateral stakes in Kashmir. India's resort to the very first peacetime use of aerial attacks close enough to the LOC to risk intrusions into Pakistani airspace and its massive build-up of men and arms near the disputed border could possibly be motivated by a risky desire to prove to Pakistan that a nuclear weapons capability is insufficient to deter an Indian conventional force. In the Pakistan context, the US and other concerned international actors have cautioned the Sharif government to respect the LOC and to abandon a policy of supporting cross-border intrusions into Indian-administered territory. Even if there is no substance in these claims, an apparent Pakistani belief that nuclear weapons act as a bar to conventional conflict is sufficient cause for concern in the changed post-test South Asian nuclear environment.

Despite claims to the contrary by regional and extra-regional proponents of nuclear deterrence, the nuclear tests of May 1998 have heightened bilateral suspicions and hostility, increasing the chances of yet another conventional war between the two South Asian adversaries. In the wake of the tests, both Pakistan and India have rejected external pressures to abandon their nuclear weapons programmes, claiming that they are determined to retain a minimum nuclear deterrent. However, neither side has spelled out what such a posture would entail, for example, in terms of force postures. In fact, their nuclear doctrines are vague at best, command and control regimes have yet to be put in place, and communications and intelligence capabilities are rudimentary, Given geographic proximity, short warning times, inadequate safeguard mechanisms and uncertainty about the intentions of the adversary, there is grave danger of an intentional pre-emptive nuclear exchange by either side in the event of an impending conventional military defeat.

Even if Pakistan and India succeed in defusing or at the very least containing their bilateral tensions in the context of the present conflict in Kashmir, there is a real possibility that their nuclear rivalry could translate into an expensive and destabilising nuclear arms race. The BJP leadership has repeatedly reiterated its intention to weaponise and to deploy nuclear weapons. An Indian decision to implement this policy, particularly in the context of nuclear-tipped missiles, however, remains shrouded in ambiguity. Indian caretaker Defense Minister, George Fernandes, for instance, states, "We have created a situation where missiles can be operationalised," but refuses to disclose whether a decision had been made to mate nuclear warheads with missiles. If a new Indian government opts to weaponise and deploy nuclear weapons either overtly or under the guise of ambiguity, Pakistan is bound to follow suit. And as both states proceed further up the nuclear ladder, the clouds of nuclear war will become an integral feature of the South Asian landscape.


 

For more information about this publication please contact the STPP Web Manager at 617-496-1981.

For Academic Citation:

Ahmed, Samina. "Dangerous Games: The Nuclear Factor Adds an Alarming Note to the Game of Brinkmanship on the LOC." Newsline, July 1999.

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