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.

The Italian militants in Waziristan

Managing cognitive dissonance, the Rawalpindi way

In Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River, Alice Albinia’s chronicles her journey from the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan’s Sindh province to its source in Tibet. It is part-travelogue, part-history book, part-commentary on contemporary society and completely readable. Here she is on the Pakistani side, trying to get close to the Line of Control.

Engaged to be married, (the soldier) is being sent to Siachen once he has returned me to Skardu. The tone in which he utters that name betrays his dread. All the soldiers hate it: the glacier where nothing else lives, the high altitude, the inhuman living conditions. They shave off their heads before they go, then slam on their caps and do not remove them until they get back to Skardu, such is the danger of frostbite. In Baltistan, Siachen is known cynically as the army’s Kuwait: ‘the soldiers are paid double, they get very rich,’ a jealous resident of Skardu tells me. But the shiny-cheeked officer protests at the unfairness of this statement: ‘We spend all our extra pay just on rations to make life bearable.’ he says.

‘What is the point?’ I ask. ‘Why are you doing it?’ He looks shaken, and hesitates before answering: ‘To serve my country.’

(Ever since their first foray into the valley of Kashmir in 1947, the army has been labelling the incursions of its own soldiers ‘militant activity’). In 1999, the army once again called the soldiers ‘Mujahideen’, but in Skardu, I meet a man who was employed during the war to cross the border and collect these dead ‘martyrs’. ‘That’s when we Baltis knew there was a war going on,’ he says: ‘wen we saw the bodies of our relatives.’ Even after India captured some of the ‘Mujahideen’, and proved that they were army soldiers, Pakistan continued to insist that the men were not ‘regular army recruits’. This was semi-true: most of those sent to die in Kargil were soldiers local to the disputed Northern Areas, and thus not part of a standard regiment. Forbidden to wear uniforms, disguised instead in tracksuits as militants, the soldiers were ill-equipped for war.

Then there was the ordeal of fighting their co-religionists. The Northern Areas is predominantly Shia—as is Kargil in India. ‘Wo bhi kafir hain [They too are unbelievers],’ a Sunni officer was rumoured to have shouted at a reluctant Shia soldier.’Shoot’.

The Punjabi officers threat Shias as Kafirs, and lies are peddled to young recruits, to make killing fellow Muslims bearable. During the journey from Skardu to Hamzigon, my shiny-cheeked escort draws a parallel with army operations in Waziristan: ‘Ninety-nine percent of the militants killed there by the Pakistan Army were non-Muslim,’ he says. ‘So?’ I ask, amazed. ‘They were Russian, Spanish, Italian,’ he says; ‘internal army reports have confirmed this.’ [Alice Alibinia/Empires of the Indus pp248-250]

Related Links: The book’s official website; and Jai Arjun Singh interviews Ms Albinia over at Jabberwock

The other General Kiyani

An angry retired general on television

Lieutenant-General (retd) Jamshed Gulzar Ahmed Kiyani, who served as a corps commander of the Pakistani Army under General Pervez Musharraf had a lot to say about his former chief. And none of it charitable. General Kiyani has joined the ranks of a number of former general officers at the head of an ‘ex-servicemen’s movement’ against General Musharraf. Here are two of his recent TV appearances: first, on PTV’s Live with Talat, and a second, more beans-out-of-the-bag one on GEO TV’s Meray Mutabiq show with Shahid Masood (via UB). The latter is 90 minutes long, but is worth watching in full. (alternative link, report).

In the early stages of the interview with Dr Masood, he boasts that a Pakistani general is far superior to an Indian one. And then he blames the top leadership of the Pakistani army for the “debacles” in East Pakistan and Kargil. He points out that the Pakistani military leadership did not expect the “intense response” from the Indian side, that used air power and ‘state-of-the-art’ Bofors howitzers (when the latter were at least 15 years old in 1999). On the other hand, he does admit that “you can’t dictate terms to the enemy” and admits that the fighting was done by young Pakistani army personnel—that ‘mujahideen’ fig-leaf being fully dead.

While General Kiyani comes out as a harsh critic of General Musharraf, he is more sympathetic to Nawaz Sharif. He first absolves Nawaz Sharif as having knowledge of the Kargil operation, but then goes on the describe a meeting of leading figures where Sartaj Aziz, the foreign minister, opposed it on the grounds that it would be diplomatically indefensible, and General Majid, the minister of Kashmir and Northern Areas grilled the Rawalpindi corps commander on whether the army had the logistics capability to support the offensive. Mr Nawaz Sharif himself is quoted as saying that he would support it as long as the going was good, but would ditch them if things fouled up.

General Kiyani calls for an impartial closed-down inquiry into the Kargil debacle. It remains to be seen if Mr Nawaz Sharif himself would want that.

My op-ed in Mint : Ten years after Pokhran-II

The payoffs are clear, unambiguous and long-term

In an op-ed to mark the tenth anniversary of India’s second round of nuclear tests, I argue that they made India a far more credible international actor. And that while India is reconciled to the ownership of nuclear weapons but remains unclear what they are for. I also point out that the conventional military balance remains as important despite nuclear deterrence being in place; and that our political leadership needs an altogether different level of skill to translate the nuclear advantage into foreign policy outcomes.


“Real strength lies in restraint,” Sonia Gandhi said ten days after India conducted its second series of nuclear tests on May 11th and May 13th 1998, “not in the display of shakti.” She could not have been more wrong.

At the time of Mrs Gandhi’s speech, India had spent a decade fighting a proxy war against a Pakistan that China had brazenly armed – with American connivance – with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. India’s protestations that it is a victim of both cross-border terrorism and illegal nuclear and missile proliferation got nowhere. The nuclear powers had perverted the entire edifice of nuclear disarmament by legitimising their own nuclear arsenals in perpetuity. They were coercing India to constrain and give up its nuclear weapons programme. It was abundantly clear that India’s display of restraint was being exploited as a sign of weakness.

Pokhran-II changed that. Because it demonstrated to the world that India was ready to incur costs in the defence of its national interests. [Mint]

Thanks to Kedar Wagle, Anand Sampath & V Anantha Nageswaran for providing inputs and comments