Examining the US-Pakistan standoff

The Pakistani establishment is grappling with the consequences of underestimating the United States

There is a lot of commentary on how US-Pakistan relations are in crisis and “hitting new lows” each day. Much of this is indeed true—not because of what the Obama administration says or does not say, but because of how the US Congress perceives the situation. If US politicians, across party lines, have turned hostile towards Pakistan, it is because they are sensitive to public opinion. Until the public mood changes, it will be much more difficult for any US president to paper over Pakistan’s shenanigans for reasons of foreign policy expediency. Washington’s ‘South Asian’ commentariat is slowly coming to realise that both the Obama administration and public opinion has left their old Pakistan narrative behind.

The current standoff has come about due to two reasons: first, General Kayani overplaying his cards; and second, the Zardari government giving up manoeuvring room by passing the buck to the parliament.

The Pakistani army thought it had a trump card in choking the supply lines and played it. It didn’t work, not least because similar acts and threats in the past had caused US military planners to work out alternatives. Shutting down the supply routes backfired on Pakistan: it has been frozen out of the diplomatic scene, US Congress has cut financial assistance and it has ended up back in the doghouse of international public opinion. The Pakistani military establishment still doesn’t get it. Judging from views expressed by pro-establishment opinion makers, they still seem to believe that US and NATO desperately need the supply routes to get out of Afghanistan. They do not consider the possibility of an exit strategy involving a combination of airlifts, passage through the Northern Distribution Network, asset transfers to the Afghan security forces and destruction of the rest. Speed matters when troops are getting in. It matters less when they are going back home. However, the Pakistani military establishment’s blinkered smugness is bolstering intransigence. (Munir Akram, a former Pakistani diplomat, even advocated showing nuclear teeth to the US.)

Under attack from a stridently anti-American media, a populist Imran Khan and the galvanisation of militant politics, the Zardari government handed over the hot potato of US-Pakistan relations to Parliament. This was clever, because it passed the buck to parliament and diffused responsibility. However, it has tied down the government’s hands now, because it requires a lot more political capital for Mr Zardari to “give and take” on anything unless the US delivers on Pakistan’s maximalist claims—an official apology for the Shalala encounter and a complete cessation of drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

The United States is in no mood to yield on either of this. An official apology would not only weaken President Obama during his re-election campaign but will be very unpopular among the US military rank-and-file. For all the diplomatic contortions Washington has engaged in over the last ten years, it is the US military that has suffered the ground reality of Pakistan’s duplicity. So an apology is unlikely until after the US election season is over. Ending drone strikes is even less likely, as they remain the most important instrument the US has to combat the international threat to its national security.

This standoff will be hard to resolve. Even so, both parties have subtly changed the framing of the issue to enable a resolution. Note Washington’s public statements tend to be about supply routes—suggesting that if Pakistan offers a reasonable compromise on this issue, the process of rebuilding the relationship can start. Similarly, while Pakistan’s sentencing of the doctor who assisted the CIA in identifying bin Laden is surely a tit-for-tat response to President Obama’s snub at Chicago, it has done so in a manner that allows compromise. Trying him under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) allows the Pakistani government to arbitrarily change the sentence or acquit him without involving the judiciary. It is willing to trade.

Despite this negotiating room, the Zardari government is unlikely to be capable of grabbing the negotiating lifeline and arriving at a deal on the supply routes. Getting Sherry Rehman, its US ambassador and Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, the party co-chairman to reinforce the demand for a US apology was a mistake if they didn’t already know that the US was likely to yield. It has now only made it harder for Mr Zardari to compromise. Similarly, while the US is concerned about the fate of Dr Shakeel Afridi, it is unlikely to yield to a prisoner-swap deal.

Neither side is likely to blink. But one side is bleeding.

The utility of staying on at Siachen

Staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves extreme hardship and cost for a mere barren block of ice.

An avalanche buried 124 people, mostly soldiers but also some civilians at a Pakistani army camp at Gyari near Siachen. Even if the missing and the dead are soldiers who are lingering manifestations of an original invasion, repeated aggression and an long-drawn but still ongoing war against India, our humanity makes many of us lament the human toll.

The tragedy has triggered two understandable but misguided reactions among the public and in the media. The first blames the tragedy (and by extension, the costs, the injuries and loss of lives) on the rivalry between Pakistan and India, contending that both sides could avoid wasting blood and treasure if they were to avoid such futile confrontations, if not solve their all differences. The logical implication is that India is partly responsible for the loss at Gyari. Reasonable as it may appear to be, it is untenable. The Pakistani soldiers were deployed at Gyari on the orders of their military and government leaders. If the Pakistani leadership prized the lives of these soldiers than whatever they have at stake at Siachen then they could have ended the deployment. They can do so even today.

There is nothing to stop either side from unilaterally pulling their troops out of the ‘world’s highest battleground’. Ergo, the moral responsibility for whatever happens to their troops lies solely with the leadership that sent them there. This applies as much to India as it does to Pakistan.

The second reaction laments an expensive confrontation over a remote, barren and uninhabitable region and sees it as useless and futile. But staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves avoidable expense and extreme hardship for a huge block of ice. It essentially tells the other side “if we can go to such lengths to keep a big, useless block of ice, imagine what lengths we’d go to keep something more valuable.” Again, this applies to both sides. Both India and Pakistan signal their commitment by staying in the region. (For more details, see this post from April 2006.) The difference is that Pakistan is signalling its strategic commitment to an invasion it started in 1947 and India is signalling its strategic commitment to defending against the same.

This difference makes all the difference. It is morally perverse to preach the “futility of war” to the side that has been invaded. In fact, if potential aggressors do not believe your commitment to defend your territory as credible, they are less likely to accept the futility of war. They might calculate that the benefits of aggression will outweigh the costs—and like General Musharraf in 1999—decide to try their luck. After the Kargil war, Indian troops are stationed in the Dras area, in conditions similar or worse than those at Siachen. The expense of defending the Line of Control in winter and the hardship Indian soldiers go through deters another Kargil-like war.

So, showing commitment to defend is one of the best ways of persuading potential aggressors of the “futility of war”. Yes, this causes others to suspect aggressive intent and act in ways that would further appear threatening to us, causing us to strengthen our commitment and so on. This “security dilemma” sets off arms races that raise the proportion of national income allocated to defence. Unfortunately, it cannot be wished away. It must be managed.

None of this is to say that demilitarisation of the Siachen area is a bad idea. Rather, it is to debunk the notion that India is engaged in a unnecessary, wasteful or futile exercise over the glacier. If the conditions on the ground change such that it is no longer necessary to show this commitment, then the Indian army can descend to warmer climes. The real question everyone ought to ask is what might those conditions be.

Schelling questions the abolition of nuclear weapons

First check if there is better than here

The professor has set the question paper. And it’s not an easy exam.

The desirability of a world without nuclear weapons, Thomas Schelling argues in a brilliant essay in Daedalus, is being treated as axiomatic, and “hardly any of the analyses or policy statements that I have come across question overtly the ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.” After pointing out that nuclear deterrence has prevented major wars on the scale of the Second World War, he warns that “this nuclear quiet should not be traded away for a world in which a brief race to reacquire nuclear weapons could become every former nuclear state’s overriding preoccupation.”


If a “world without nuclear weapons” means no mobilization bases, there can be no such world. Even starting in 1940 the mobilization base was built. And would minimizing mobilization potential serve the purpose ? To answer this requires working through various scenarios involving the expectation of war, the outbreak of war, and the conduct of war. That is the kind of analysis I haven’t seen.

A crucial question is whether a government could hide weapons-grade fissile material from any possible inspection verification. Considering that enough plutonium to make a bomb could be hidden in the freezing compartment of my refrigerator or to evade radiation detection could be hidden at the bottom of the water in a well, I think only the fear of a whistle-blower could possibly make success at all questionable. I believe that a “responsible” government would make sure that fissile material would be available in an international crisis or war itself. A responsible government must at least assume that other responsible governments will do so.

We are so used to thinking in terms of thousands, or at least hundreds, of nuclear warheads that a few dozen may offer a sense of relief. But if, at the outset of what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely, there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. And what then?

In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.[Daedalus/BNet]

It’s a brilliant piece—not only for the intellectual content—but also for its debating strategy. Prof Schelling challenges the proponents of complete nuclear disarmament to prove, analytically, that their desired outcome is actually better than a world where mutual deterrence keeps a lid on the outbreak of major war. In doing so, he exposes how the bandwagon of the Global Zero has gained momentum in the last two years—not because everyone on it believes that it is desirable even if it were possible, but because the perception that the world is negotiating complete disarmament is useful to many. For instance, as Prof Schelling himself points out—the possibility that the Global Zero project might be motivated by a need for the world to perceive that the nuclear weapons states are keeping their end of the NPT bargain. In addition to being consistent with its long held position, India will go with the new disarmament discussions out of pragmatism—there are tangible benefits to be had by being part of a nuclear technological mainstream. (See M Vidyasagar’s article in the January 2010 issue of Pragati)

The Acorn has argued that nuclear weapons are the New Himalayas—preventing the outbreak of direct military conflict between India and China. It is important that the new strategic barrier remain high. Perhaps China’s transformation into a liberal democracy, as K Subrahmanyam mentioned at December’s Takshashila event in New Delhi, might make the need for this barrier less salient. Perhaps, but it is unlikely to entirely eliminate the need for it.

Related Post: A modest proposal to create disincentives for the usage of nuclear weapons

When Bill Clinton had to be scared

Being prepared to press the red button ensures that it doesn’t have to be pressed

So Bill Clinton has revealed that “Indian officials spoke of knowing roughly how many nuclear bombs the Pakistanis possessed, from which they calculated that a doomsday nuclear volley would kill 300 [million] to 500 million Indians while annihilating all 120 million Pakistanis. The Indians would thus claim ‘victory'”. This is from Taylor Branch’s new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, and is presumably in the context of the 1999 Kargil war. (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony)

In her report, DNA‘s Uttara Chowdhury leads readers to thinking that this should anger the Indian government. “New Delhi,” she writes, “is likely to be furious with the observation, which portrays it as a government willing to play fast and loose with its citizens lives to notch up a bizarre win against Pakistan.”

Why should New Delhi be furious when Mr Clinton’s words show that Indian officials ensured that the psychological aspect of nuclear deterrence was maintained during the crisis? For a country with a no-first use policy, it is imperative that there is no ambiguity in the minds of adversaries and observers with regard to its commitment to a retaliatory strike. If Mr Clinton was convinced that the red button would be pressed in retaliation, regardless—and perhaps more importantly, in spite of knowledge of the damage assessments—New Delhi should be pleased. Given his subsequent actions, this might have well been the case.

It is unclear who made these statements to the Clinton administration—whether they were made by government officials or by interlocutors outside the government. Also, the damage assessment of 300 to 500 million Indian casualties appears overstated (given the state of Pakistan’s arsenal in 1999, at least)—it is unclear if this was a case of Indian officials deliberately overstating it to signal how much damage India was willing to accept; or indeed, a case of Mr Clinton exaggerating the numbers to show how abominable the Indian position was. (See an earlier post on MUD or mutually unacceptable destruction).

The paradox of nuclear deterrence requires India to credibly demonstrate the unflinching resolve to cause mindless destruction in order to forestall it. To see this as playing “fast and loose” to notch a “bizarre win” is an uninformed, superficial and incorrect way to look at this issue.

In fact, these revelations highlight an important aspect germane to the current public discussion over the minimum credible deterrent. Much of it revolves around the adequacy of the nuclear arsenal—despite broad consensus that the garden-variety 20kT fission warheads are deployed on multiple platforms. The crucial question is: can Indian officials continue to convince the Clintons of the world, like they did in 1999? The business of convincing cannot be left to serendipity—it must be institutionalised.

On minimum credible deterrence

It’s not so much about bigger bombs. It’s about improving command & control.

In an op-ed in The Hindu today, K Santhanam & Ashok Parthasarathi make a compelling case that the thermonuclear bomb tested in May 1998 at Pokhran was not only fizzled, but “actually failed”. They also go on to conclude that “no country having undertaken only two weapon related tests of which the core (thermonuclear) device failed, can claim to have a (CMD or credible minimum deterrence).” They arrive at this assessment despite observing that “the 25 kiloton fission device has been fully weaponised and operationally deployed on (multiple) weapon platforms.” You will be forgiven for reading this article and believing that unless India has a 300kT or megaton thermonuclear bomb fitted on a 3500-km range missile, India’s nuclear deterrence capacity is not credible.

But back in July 2007, you would have reached the opposite conclusion. “On the national security front,” Dr Santhanam then wrote in Mint “there are reasons to believe that India’s Minimum Credible Deterrent (MCD) would not be affected by turn-key power reactors built by other countries. The accumulated weapons-grade plutonium in about 40 years of operating the CIRUS reactor (40MWt) and the relatively new Dhruv reactor (100MWt) has been estimated to be sufficient for the MCD.” What he didn’t say then, and is saying now, is that yes, we have accumulated sufficient weapons-grade plutonium for minimum credible deterrence, but was half the story. The other half is that we need to build more powerful bombs, which requires more testing.

Dr Santhanam’s 2007 intervention was in support of the India-US nuclear deal. His 2009 intervention is an initial salvo in the renewed domestic debate on India’s signing the comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT). His silence from May 1998 till this month was perhaps due to a combination of the official secrets act, loyalties, exigencies of service and regard for the national interest.

Now, unless Dr Santhanam has another twist in the tale to be revealed at a later date, the fact that he admits that there are 25kT fission bombs “fully weaponised and operationally deployed on multiple weapon platforms” should end the debate on whether India’s deterrence is credible. As argued earlier, India’s strategic adversaries are unlikely to rest any easier knowing that their cities are threatened by mere 25kT fission bombs. They are, with India, in MUD. In a two part essay in the Indian Express, K Subrahmanyam explains the logic of India’s nuclear doctrine and why a minimum credible deterrence can be had without the need for a thermonuclear bomb.

Developing, testing and deploying a thermonuclear bomb involves grand trade-offs. But those who are interested in ensuring that India’s deterrent capacity is robust should focus on an issue that is right in the backyard. Mr Subrahmanyam points out that “a continuity in respect of succession in both political and military commands” is the “most effective way of ensuring that the adversary will not succeed in his objective in carrying out such a decapitating strike.” Why is there no pressure on the UPA government to come clear on the lines of nuclear succession?

MUD, not MAD

A metaphor the the India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence relationship

It is not unusual for commentators to use the term “mutually assured destruction” or MAD while discussing nuclear weapons in the India-Pakistan context. This is a direct reuse of a Cold War-era metaphor to describe the nuclear game in the subcontinent. It is also an inaccurate and inappropriate description.

What’s MAD? According to Wikipedia:

MAD is a “Poison Pill” strategy. The doctrine assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate with equal or greater force. The expected result is an immediate escalation resulting in both combatants’ total and assured destruction. It is now generally hypothesized that the nuclear fallout or nuclear winter resulting from a large scale nuclear war would bring about worldwide devastation, though this was not a critical assumption to the theory of MAD.
The doctrine further assumes that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side will launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with secondary forces (second strike) resulting in the destruction of both parties. The payoff of this doctrine is expected to be a tense but stable peace. [Wikipedia]

In other words, both the United States and the Soviet Union had enough warheads and delivery mechanisms to completely destroy each other. Just how big was the stockpile? In 1986, the global stockpile peaked at 65,056 warheads, with the United States having 23,254 and the Soviet Union 40,723. The total number of warheads has been over 10,000 since 1958. Yields, delivery mechanisms and targeting apart, the arsenal was enough to cause total annihilation—in Churchill’s words, “to make rubble bounce.”

Despite Pakistan being the nuclear hare of the last two decades (and India the nuclear tortoise) the stockpile in the subcontinent—both actual warheads and those that can be assembled at short notice—is not greater than a hundred each. As INI co-blogger Dhruva Jaishankar notes, the actual numbers in India’s case at least might be much smaller. At such levels the impact of a nuclear exchange—even a total one—will no doubt cause widespread destruction and unprecedented misery. It is, however, highly unlikely to completely destroy India. It might not even completely destroy Pakistan.

Gregory S Jones, an analyst at RAND Corporation, estimates that Pakistan will need as many as twenty 10 kT warheads to destroy New Delhi alone, killing 1.5 million people and injuring another 3 million. (New Delhi has a population of around 12 million). You can read Mr Jones’s article for how the destruction would change under various conditions, but the general point is that Indian cities have huge populations and geographical spreads, and it is unlikely that Pakistan can completely annihilate India. Similarly, the Indian arsenal is likely to be sufficient to severely damage half-dozen Pakistani cities. If both countries empty their nuclear arsenal on each other, then the net result will be a badly damaged India, and an almost totally crippled Pakistan.

This is not to say that India should increase its stockpile to even the levels deployed by United States and Russia today. Far from it. Even these levels of destruction are unacceptable to India, and in all likelihood should be unacceptable to Pakistan too. In fact, as The Acorn has argued, even a single nuclear explosion is unacceptable destruction, and as such, rightly forms the bedrock of deterrence in the India-Pakistan context. While such a scenario is certainly not MAD, it is mutually unacceptable. It might, therefore, be more appropriate to characterise it as Mutually Unacceptable Destruction (MUD).

Surgical is only the beginning

The idea of ‘surgical strikes’ has gained popularity in drawing room and public house conversations after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Srinath Raghavan & Rudra Chaudhuri explain why they are not such a good idea (linkthanks Dhruva).

‘Surgical strikes’, we are told, could go a long way in destroying terrorist camps and infrastructure located in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Precision munitions or ‘smart bombs’ would minimise the collateral damage, so making it clear that these attacks have been designed to target terrorist groups and not the Pakistani state. Surgical strikes are thus presented as a via media between disastrous war and debilitating peace. However, past experiences demonstrate both the conceptual fallacy and the practical problems of this strategy.

Indeed, any Indian attack will draw a proportionate response from Pakistan. The Pakistani army chief has openly stated as much. This would leave India to decide whether it wants to escalate further or pull back with resultant loss of face — both equally unattractive options. The pressure at that point would likely force New Delhi to raise the stakes; Pakistan will respond in kind. Escalation is, therefore, inherent in this situation.
The assumption that a surgical strike will enable India to pressurise Pakistan without risking war is gravely mistaken. John Kennedy’s advisor, McGeorge Bundy, put it well: a surgical strike, like all surgery, will be bloody, messy, and you will have to go back for more. [DNA]

Hurting the Pakistani economy

…shouldn’t be an objective in itself

R Vaidyanathan, a professor of finance at the Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore, suggests twelve steps to shock and awe the Pakistani economy. Many of them are, in and of themselves, powerful instruments to destabilise Pakistan. Many of them can make credible threats, because carrying them out will hurt India, albeit to a much lesser extent that they hurt Pakistan.

The problem, though, is that Prof Vaidyanathan’s arguments are premised on a stable Pakistan not being in “the interest of world peace, leave alone India” and that if “Pakistan is dismantled and the idea of Pakistan is gone, many of our domestic (religious) issues will also be sorted out.”

The counter-argument is that it is an unstable Pakistan—unstable since 1947—that is the cause of much of India’s, and the world’s security problems. It is the lack of an internal reconciliation, a sense of purpose beyond being India’s doppelganger and a lack of stability that lies at the root of its ending up as an “international migraine”. Plus, unless it is possible to be very sure that the post-Pakistan set-up will somehow be more stable, and less jihadi export-oriented, dismantling Pakistan cannot be in India’s interests. [See this article]

So while attempting to bring about a collapse of Pakistan is undesirable, many of Prof Vaidyanathan’s prescriptions lend themselves for coercive diplomacy. They allow India to pursue a variety of punitive and coercive policies in a calibrated manner, without raising military tensions. For instance, it would be untenable for the international community to disagree that all economic aid to Pakistan must be made contingent on its government meeting concrete deliverables, like extraditing terrorists that live in the open in its territory. In fact, The Acorn has long argued that the greatest failure of the “peace process” was that it distracted attention from the important objective of creating a range of flexible policy instruments that could not only be turned on and off, but also fine-tuned and targeted.

To modify B Raman’s words a little, the capability to cause “a divided Pakistan, a bleeding Pakistan, a Pakistan ever on the verge of collapse without actually collapsing—-that should be our objective till it stops using terrorism against India.”

Is a Zardari NFU policy a Pakistani NFU policy too?

That is now a very important question

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, used a Q&A session at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit to announce that Pakistan “will not be the first country ever to use (nuclear weapons). I hope that things never come to a stage where we have to even think about using nuclear weapons”.

On the face of it, it is a welcome development. If only, that is, Mr Zardari is anywhere close to having an influence, let alone control, over his country’s nuclear arsenal. When his wife was prime minister, the Pakistani army didn’t even allow her to visit the facilities where nuclear weapons were being developed. As president, the National Command Authority is nominally under him, but the Strategic Plans Division—the organisation that is supposed to be in actual control—de facto reports to the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. (Technically, the SPD reports to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, but try explaining that to the army chief.)

It is unclear if General Kayani and the SPD agree with Mr Zardari’s declaration of a no first use policy. So we’ll have to wait for clarifications, retractions and suggestions that Mr Zardari was misquoted. If Pakistan indeed seeks to adopt a no first use policy, then a platform more credible than a Q&A session should be used to reiterate the commitment. Until either of this happens, Mr Zardari’s statement is non-credible at best, and ‘noisy’ at worst.

It is best that Pakistan clears the air promptly.

Update: Well, Mr Zardari himself was only playing with words to the galleries. It was noise.

When asked if Pakistan would adopt the policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, he said, “Most definitely, yes, we hope we will never get into that position (of using nuclear weapons). I am for a South Asian Non-nuclear Treaty.”

“I can get my Parliament to agree to it right away,” he said. “Can you (India) get your Parliament to agree to it?” [IE]

He should understand that such flippancy ultimately damages the credibility of Pakistan’s civilian leadership. And Karan Thapar, who moderated the session, should be less credulous and more probing, especially on such matters.