Pakistan Should Stop Nuclear Saber Rattling: Nuclear Deterrence in the Subcontinent Still Strong

Nirmal Jindal
September 8, 2019


Image Courtesy: Keshav; The Hindu

Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s statement (after Modi-Trump meet) that Pakistan can go to any extent including the possible use of the nuclear option is nuclear saber-rattling at best. Pakistan’s recent testing of its first surface-to-surface missile Ghaznavi and various Pakistani leaders’ appeal to the public to be ready for war has horrified the whole world. If Pakistan indeed acts on this rhetoric, Kashmir could witness a nuclear exchange. The seventy years of history of nuclear weapon powers has clearly demonstrated that nuclear weapons cannot be used in warfare and that these are only weapons of deterrence. Therefore, it is intriguing that Pakistan is openly demonstrating its nuclear capability and hinting at its possible use. 

Since 1947, Pakistan has been trying to internationalize the Kashmir issue. It became quite successful in its efforts during the Cold War. The US and other western allies favored Pakistan due to its strategic significance in Cold War politics. Since 1989, Pakistan has been fighting a proxy war in Kashmir which has been intensified after Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons in 1998. Pakistan could successfully carry out its proxy war by deterring India’s conventional response by its doctrine of first use of nuclear weapons and full-spectrum deterrence. India, however, adopted a ‘no first use’ doctrine that which seems to have emboldened Pakistan. 

In recent years, India has changed its strategy to deal with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism with some new measures. Pakistan has failed to mobilize international support for its cause on the recent changes announced by India in Jammu and Kashmir due to the changing dynamics at the global level apropos India’s economic clout. India’s changing power position and tough bargaining capability has clearly warned third parties from attempting to mediate in the Kashmir issue. Since Pakistan feels isolated on the issue, it is trying to draw international attention by escalating the probability of nuclear war with India.

Imran Khan, in his statement in August 2018, clearly stated, “If Kashmir moves towards war then remember both nations have nuclear weapons and no one is a winner in a nuclear war. It will have global ramifications. The superpowers of the world have huge responsibility … whether they support us or not, Pakistan will do everything possible”. The statement clearly suggests that Pakistan’s political and diplomatic strategists understand the implications of nuclear war.

In many ways, the current situation between India and Pakistan reminds us about the Cold War between the US and USSR. Both the US and the USSR had deep issues of conflict and had enormous nuclear warfighting capabilities, but they acted very cautiously to prevent the possibility of nuclear war. The two sides resisted the nuclear option in their various encounters, but most significantly during the Cuban Missile crisis (1962), as both sides were aware of the destructive capability of the nuclear bomb. Both realized that a nuclear war would be suicidal, leading to what is popularly called MAD or ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. The instinct for survival itself became the top priority of these nations and prevented them from using these weapons. Even countries like China, where Mao considered the nuclear bomb a ‘paper tiger’, had learned its utility after acquiring it and never dared to use it to achieve any of its objectives.

It is quite intriguing that despite knowing the destructive capability of the nuclear force, Pakistan is trying to hint at the possibility of its use. The first and foremost reason for such a stand by Pakistan is a desperation that seeks to draw international attention to its agenda in Kashmir, something on which it has lost all international sympathies. The fact is that Pakistan is unlikely to initiate nuclear war because it will lead to total annihilation and will affect itself more than India if India goes for a ‘Massive Retaliation’ second strike on Pakistan.

Pakistan has been unilaterally claiming Kashmir based on it being a Muslim majority area whereas the number of Muslims in India is more than the number of Muslims living in Pakistan. Religion should not be the basis of Pakistan’s hate against India. A nuclear exchange in the subcontinent would not differentiate between religions and people. Any thought of nuclear attack will defeat the very purpose of Pakistan – championing the cause of Muslims.

It is also believed that Pakistan will not initiate nuclear war because China’s interests are at stake in the region. China has invested an enormous amount of money in creating the CPEC, which passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir – close to the border areas. Any war, more so a nuclear war, is likely to stall economic development and take a significant toll on human lives in the region on either side. Therefore, China is likely to force restraint on Pakistan against any possibility of nuclear war.

It is perceived that Pakistan has escalated nuclear hype to intensify its activities on the LOC under cover of the narrative and deter India’s conventional response. Pakistan has intensified ceasefire violation across LOC and is trying to intensify terrorism through the Kutch waterways by LeT-trained commandos. Pakistan, therefore, aims to deter India’s conventional response to any of its unlawful activities under the umbrella of a possible nuclear war. 

This is a deliberate drum-beating to weaken nuclear deterrence in the subcontinent. However, the likelihood of the failure of nuclear deterrence is very bleak. Pakistan’s threat of use of nuclear weapons against India is only a propaganda and a gimmick to attract international attention and keep its fading Kashmir claims alive.

*** The author is an Associate Professor at Satyawati College, Delhi University ***