“For many Pakistanis, their nuclear capacity has given them confidence that they can be more aggressive on Kashmir.”
by Harry G. Barnes, Jr.*
ET ME BEGIN WITH SOME personal recollections as a sort of scene setter. In the early 1980s, when I was getting ready to go to India, I made the rounds, as did any newly appointed ambassador, to talk to those who knew something about both U.S. interests and the challenges in the country concerned. One of the obligatory calls was on the head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. Policy Planning was where, in principle, long range strategic thinking was done, as compared to the day-to-day preoccupations which absorbed the rest of the Department.
Having talked about one thing and another I asked the director with which of his colleaguesI might talk further about the situation in India. My question seemed to have caught him by surprise, because he took a while to answer and then said that as a matter of fact he really didn’t have anyone focusing on India and that somehow “India must have fallen between the cracks.”
By the time I got to India a few weeks later, it was clear that at least one issue of potential strategic security importance had emerged from the cracks. That was the question of whether the United States would honor its commitment of two decades earlier to provide nuclear fuel for the power reactor located near Bombay at a place called Tarapur. The obligation was clear; the politics were much less so. Since the Tarapur agreement had been made, international concern over the risks of the spread of nuclear technology for weapons purposes had grown and led in 1968 to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) which neither India nor Pakistan has yet signed. (One needs to remember that in the early days of nuclear power there were such things talked of as peaceful nuclear explosions and how they might serve to promote economic development as labor saving devices for clearing the way for dams or canals.). India had tested a nuclear device in 1974 for what it called peaceful purposes That explosion intensified the concern in the United States and elsewhere about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
The Indian government of the early ‘80s, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was insisting that the United States live up to its treaty obligation to deliver fuel for Tarapur. Otherwise India would abrogate the agreement. That would mean the end of the safeguards regime to which Tarapur was subject, even though India was not a member of the NPT. The U.S. Government, fearful of the backlash from supplying the fuel even to a facility under safeguards, kept holding off. A solution was found in time through France’s being willing to replace the United States as the fuel supplier.
A further complicating factor in that period was the U.S. perception of India as being, if not exactly a satellite of the Soviet Union, at least strongly pro-Soviet. From a strategic standpoint, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was still the dominant U.S. concern at that point in that part of Asia. India had not been critical of the Soviet move, but rather critical instead of U.S. efforts to assist Pakistan as “a front-line state.” This difference, as a matter of fact, was only the latest in a series of arguments going back to the early l950s in which India and the United States tended to be on opposite sides and Pakistan and the United States on the same side in regional security questions. The one major exception was the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962 where the United States sided with India. But that exception did not last for many years.
To come to somewhat more recent times, the working assumption in the U.S. Government was that India, having demonstrated in 1974 that it could produce a nuclear explosive device, was probably continuing a research program. In principle, though, both countries were in favor of a nuclear-arms free world, and as recently as 1994 when then Prime Minister Rao came to Washington, he and President Clinton reaffirmed the importance of a comprehensive test ban treaty, that having been a long-standing Indian position since the days of Nehru. Yet in 1995, Rao ordered a test, but then scrapped the idea under U.S. pressure. When the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) negotiations were finally concluded inn 1996, India was one of the very few who opposed, this on the grounds that the treaty was discriminatory in favor of the five nuclear powers. In 1996 also the then-thirteen-day long Bhaharat Janata Party (BJP) government secretly ordered tests, but canceled the decision when it could not get a parliamentary vote of confidence. It was a new BJP government, in 1998, which again decided on testing and carried out the tests.
In the case of Pakistan, the U.S. role was more evident, because of the close relations to which I earlier referred. The event that precipitated the decision to start a nuclear weapons program was the 1971 war with India, which resulted in the establishment of the former East Pakistan as the independent country of Bangladesh. Then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched a secret nuclear weapons program that was continued under successor governments.
There were in the ‘80s increasing suspicions that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons and the U.S. Congress attempted to put roadblocks in the way through the adoption of the Pressler Amendment, which forbade American military assistance unless the President could certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device and that military aid would make it less likely that Pakistan would try to obtain such a device. Despite continuing suspicions that Pakistan did indeed have it already, Presidential certifications were routinely drafted until almost the end of the Bush Administration. But it took the 1998 tests to provide visible confirmation for all to see.
Why the tests in May 1988?
THE EASY ANSWER FOR PAKISTAN was that if India did it, Pakistan had to. The two countries have been enemies or at best unfriendly rivals for most of their existence. Part of it has to do with the nature of what Indians would call “partition” and Pakistanis, “achievement of independence” — in 1947 — with the accompanying massive uprooting of people and the massacre of so many.
The most visible symbol of the violent separation of what had been British India was the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir — a Muslim majority in its heart, the vale of Kashmir — and in several other Muslim areas, but with large numbers of Hindus in Jammu and a Buddhist population in Ladakh. The first post-independence war resulted in partition of the state, with the westerly and northwesterly areas going to Pakistan and becoming known as Azad Kashmir. The Vale, Jammu, and Ladakh went to India. Though there was a special provision in the Indian constitution for greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir compared to other Indian states, still the affairs of the state were often mismanaged from Delhi, as well as from Srinagar. By the early ‘90s popular dissatisfaction had taken the form of an insurgency which to this date the Indian authorities have not yet really brought under control. Pakistan has taken advantage of the insurgency to provide support, both moral and military, though denying it is doing anything more than moral backing. Pakistan has also insisted that there can be no solution to the strains between India and Pakistan until the government of India observes UN resolutions from the late 1940s calling for a plebiscite, and especially until India agrees that it will discuss the state of affairs in Kashmir with Pakistan. So at one level, Pakistan’s strategy is a sort of attention getting mechanism — to insist that Pakistan needs to be involved in deciding the fate of Kashmir.
I was not being entirely facetious about Pakistan’s “attention getting mechanisms.” Pakistan, as the weaker of the two, has always perceived itself as being subject to overwhelming force from India, and nuclear weapons are seen in Pakistan as an sort of “equalizing” device. Pakistan’s working assumption, in addition, has long been that if it can somehow get the world community into the act, then it will get their support as the underdog. It may also have been true that Pakistan saw no great further advantage in not demonstrating its nuclear capabilities and on the contrary some benefit to making sure India knew what it was up against. Probably the most important factor was a political one. The sense of rivalry with India, if not the fear that India aims to destroy Pakistan, is so great that it is hard to believe any Pakistani leader could have refused to respond to Indian nuclear testing with a test of their own. Not that that seems to have done Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif all that much good in light of subsequent developments. But in May 1998, no matter how persuasive President Clinton might have been with inducements of aid or how threatening with sanctions, Nawaz Sharif must have decided he had but one choice to make.
An understanding of India’s motivations is harder. The ambiguity policy would have seemed to have worked well enough over the years. And then there was the Nehru heritage of being anti-nuclear weapons. Particularly since 1971, India had been convinced that it could handle any threat from Pakistan. But soon after the explosions, Defense Minster George Fernandez cited China as the real threat to India. Not since the early 60s had it been common to worry publicly about China and there was no grievous action that China had taken that seemed to call for an India reaction of this magnitude. In fact, the relationship between the two countries had gotten easier over the past decade.
India’s governing coalition is headed by the BJP, often described by journalists as“Hindu nationalist,” although no one seems quite clear what that combination of words means. In any case, there is certainly an element of assertiveness of the importance of being India which could come out as “nationalist.” It is possible that from a “nationalist” perspective China would seem to be a much more serious rival to Indian ambitions than Pakistan was or could ever be. And given the fact that a previous government headed by the rival Congress party had been ready to conduct tests, there was no real domestic opposition to worry about. A third “naitonanlist”element could well have been to take seriously the implied message of the permanent five members of the UN security council — namely that it is possession of nuclear weapons that makes a country a great power. And the BJP’s ambitions for India are great.
India and Pakistan at times seem to agree, as a matter of principle, on not agreeing with each other. On one matter they see alike: They resent being treated as if they are “second class,” that they can’t manage difficult issues or deal with dangerous technologies, that they are being discriminated against. In India’s case at least, this was a major factor in its opposition to the CTBT and will reappear again in another two months when the review conference for the NPT takes place. They not only see the nuclear powers as arrogating to themselves the privileges of membership in the nuclear club, but as being unwilling to move seriously toward an overall reduction of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.
Hence there is a certain built in resistance to the preachings, the arguments, and even the pressures from the nuclear weapons states. Clinton’s efforts to dissuade Nawaz Shairf from proceeding with testing were probably doomed to failure. There has been an argument going on for some months now in Washington, particularly since the military coup that brought General Mussharaf to power, whether President Clinton should stop in Islamabad en route to Bangladesh and India. The arguments are the obvious ones: not stopping sends a clear message of disapproval for Pakistan-encouraged incursions last spring and summer in Kashmir and of the overthrow of the Nawaz Sharif government; not stopping loses the chance to establish some rapport with the new strongman which may come in handy some time later.
Ever since the tests the United States has been attempting to undo some of the damage or at least reduce the prospects for the already confrontational relationship taking on a still more dangerous cast. Washington laid out five conditions in 1998-99 for being able to drop some of the sanctions that had been imposed:
- signing the CTBT;
- taking part in the Geneva negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty;
- strengthening export controls on dangerous materials and technologies;
- exercising restraint in the deployment of nuclear weapons; and
- resumption of diaglogue between the Indians and Pakistanis on contentious issues (i.e. Kashmir).
Actually, the last item for a while looked the most promising when Prime Minister Vajpayee went to Lahore just a year ago in an exercise of “bus diplomacy.” But that hope was dissipated with the military action in Kargil (Kashmir). And little headway has been made on the other issues, as well.
Though the other members of the nuclear club (P5) joined in condemning the test in 1998, it has been only the United States (and Japan of the G-8) that applied sanctions. It is the United States that has taken the lead in trying to get the two countries to take actions that reduce tensions or potential hazards. So without necessarily becoming the cop, America may be closer to the Lone Ranger than anything else.
So what is there to worry about?
BOTH INDIAN AND PAKISTANI LEADERS after the tests talked about their limited needs for nuclear weapons capability. More recently General Musarraf of Pakistan said that all Pakistan needed were a few missiles that could reach anywhere in India and destroy a few cities; the Indian prime minister has disclaimed any desire to engage in an arms race and spoken only of needs for self- defense. It is true that during the fighting last year in Kargil, neither side started flaunting their nuclear capabilities. Some use was made in fact of the hotline communications facilities and each side gave notice to the other of planned missile firings. Still on the books too are agreements from the early nineties about notifications of troop maneuvers and procedures for overflights of military aircraft.
At the same time, both already have a limited missile capability and are developing missiles of ranges up to 3,000 and even 5,000 kilometers. There are in fact no signs of either country exercising the restraint in the direction of slowing down deployment for which the United States has been calling. India has published an ambitious draft nuclear doctrine statement which posits a triad of weapons, along the lines of the U.S. and Russian strategic forces, and the draft doctrine is now under review. It appears that neither country is looking at ways to slow things down, and neither has yet decided, at least publicly, what is enough for minimum deterrence. For example, Pakistan is probably still seeking, as it has for some time, Chinese help to upgrade its systems; and China, international agreements not withstanding, has in the past been willing to assist Pakistan in the missile area, as had North Korea.
There are psychological factors at play as well. The present government of India is probably the most stable the country has had for some years. Though the prime minister played a significant role in the late 1970s, when he was foreign minister, in trying to improve relations with Pakistan and though he took the risky step of going to Pakistan in February 1999, he will hesitate to take new initiatives because of what is seen in India as weakness in the face of blatant Pakistani aggression in Kargil. In fact, there are already signs that Indian forces may take a more aggressive posture over the next months in Kashmir, including mounting operations across the line of control. This is part of a feeling that India has to teach Pakistan “a lesson.” At the same time, India is not willing to engage in new talks with Pakistan until Pakistan stops its support of the Kashmir insurgency.
For his part Musarraf, who is generally credited with having directed the Kargil operations, feels that he and the army were “sold out” by Nawaz Sharif. In addition, like many Pakistanis, their nuclear capacity has now given them confidence that they can be more aggressive on Kashmir because of their nuclear “cover.” Some have described Pakistani policy as being one of “bleeding India” to the point where India has to make major concessions on Kashmir.
If these judgments are correct, Pakistan will be bleeding India and India will be teaching Pakistan lessons. It is easy to imagine new clashes, new incidents escalating. If there were mechanisms in place — such as those already agreed upon by the two sides, including periodic talks at the senior official level — then there would be some available means for containing incidents.
A second worry is that despite protestations to the contrary and despite the heavy economic costs, both countries will in fact become involved in an arms race. The experience to date of the recognized nuclear powers having much influence on either India or Pakistan in the direction of restraint is not encouraging. By insisting that nuclear weapons are vital to their security and by moving slowly and sometimes not at all toward the promised dismantling of their own nuclear arsenals, the message from the five is clear: nuclear weapons are OK. In such a situation one of the few hopes has to be that the five nuclear powers the NPT recognizes will see it in their interest to invest as much in denuclearizing the world as they have and still do in maintaining deployed and stored weapons and weapons grade material and missiles capable of delivering it on seconds’ notice.
Beyond that, at the moment, one can only wish the Lone Ranger well.
* Harry Barnes served as a career U.S. diplomat from 1951 to 1988, holding such senior positions as ambassador to India (1981-85), to Romania (1974-77), and to Chile (1985-88). He was director general of the Foreign Service from 1977-81. Since retirement, he has been active in the human rights field.