Mutually Assured Destruction, South Asian Style

Monday, October 30, 2000


hen India and Pakistan exploded their nuclear bombs in May 1998, the U.S. government felt strongly that these tests made both nations (and us) less secure than before. India and Pakistan of course disagreed then and continue to disagree now, but when President Clinton was in South Asia in March 2000, he asked both countries, “Are you really more secure today than you were before you tested nuclear weapons?” The answer is complicated, not only because security is in the eye of the beholder but because the political context and security problems of India and Pakistan have changed often in their brief histories as nations.

Origins and Cold War

When India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, they had a number of things in common: cultural affinities, British institutions and traditions, and poverty. They were and are large: India’s population has just passed one billion; Pakistan now has the world’s sixth-largest population, larger than Japan’s. But what divided them was more important than what they had in common. India was liberated from Britain; it was extremely diverse ethnically and religiously, needing democracy with a strong secular state to stay together; and it had a strong political party, the Indian National Congress, to run it. In contrast, Pakistan was defined by religion: it liberated itself from the threat of Hindu domination that many Indian Muslims had come to see as inevitable in any free India. It was the world’s first intentional Islamic state, more than 90 percent Muslim. But it was also poorer than India, its elite class’s depth much thinner, its political parties much weaker, and its civil and military bureaucracies that much more important. Most of all, it was four or five times smaller than India in every significant category of resources and power.

Security decisions in India and Pakistan are largely determined by domestic political considerations, national pride, and a perverse urge to defy the world.

In their new state, Pakistanis transferred the fear of Hindu domination that Muslims in British India had felt over to state-to-state relations with India. This has become a powerful ideological status quo: Pakistan still sees itself primarily as a refuge for Muslims and defines Indian “hegemony” as the main threat to its security. But India sees Pakistan’s very self-definition as an Islamic state as a threat to its own very necessarily secular character. And these mutually exclusive threat perceptions crystallize in the dispute over Kashmir, with its heavy Muslim majority. Fighting began there almost immediately after India and Pakistan gained their independence, and it has proceeded intermittently ever since. (There were war-threatening clashes in the Kargil sector in the spring of 1999, even though both countries are now nuclear armed.) Pakistan’s own self-definition has meant it cannot help picking at India on Kashmir, whereas India cannot help fighting to keep Kashmir in India—Kashmir has poisoned everything between the two nations.

India and Pakistan have adopted opposing strategies for dealing with their security problems. India wanted to keep the rest of the world out of the subcontinent to let its natural superiorities turn into predominance over time. Precisely for that reason, Pakistan has always tried to bring the rest of the world in, as counterweights to Indian regional dominance.

In its first 15 years of independence, India under Nehru tried to put together a nonaligned movement that would stand above and outside the Cold War. Pakistan attached itself to the United States through Cold War alliances—the Baghdad Pact, SEATO, CENTO—that we were building along the Soviet Union’s southern rim. Regionally, that meant India versus Pakistan and the United States.

The 1962 Sino-Indian border war ushered in a new phase. It was a humiliating military defeat for India and added China to the threats it perceived. When the United States gave some help to India, Pakistan then tried to supplement its unreliable U.S. connection with close ties to China. In 1965 Pakistan started a war with India over Kashmir. After a military standoff, the return to the status quo ante was brokered not by the United States, which no one trusted, but by the Soviet Union. India formalized its quasi alliance with the Soviets in 1971, just as India was intervening in Pakistan’s civil war to help Pakistan’s east wing split off as independent Bangladesh. So Pakistan now had ties with China and the United States, and India had ties with the USSR.

Yet neither found these quasi alliances particularly reliable. To supplement them, both embarked on developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems. There were severe constraints: the rest of the world was adopting nuclear nonproliferation as a major goal, so their major partners disapproved of their programs and threatened sanctions. The programs were therefore covert and progress slow. But by the early 1990s both India and Pakistan had dozens of nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them to each other. These minimal nuclear deterrents, called “recessed” deterrents, were very much embedded in the Cold War.

The Road to 1998

What changed to make India and Pakistan bring these weapons out of the closet in 1998?

First, both countries were developing economically to the point where they had new middle classes susceptible to new ideological radicalism. By Third World standards each had done rather well in terms of growth: in Pakistan’s case, an average of 6 percent a year between 1960 and 1990. This produced people who had something to lose and the self-confidence to use politics to keep it, under new ideological banners. In India this meant the decay of the Congress Party and the rise of a new national party, the BJP, with a Hindu revivalist component that appealed to the new middle class. In Pakistan the middle class was much weaker, and the old civil and military bureaucracies tended to stand in for them; but both were susceptible to the appeal of Islamic piety and Islamist revivalism. By the 1980s Islamists were entering the higher education system and infiltrating the state apparatus.

If India hoped to blast its way into the great power club, it was bitterly disappointed. Instead the next months echoed with the sound of doors slamming shut in India’s face—such as the door to permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.

Second, the Cold War ended and the outside world went away. The Soviets marched out of Afghanistan in February 1989; that summer an indigenous insurrection began in Indian-held Kashmir. A surge of Islamist crusading spirit in the Pakistani establishment resulted in the transfer of resources from Afghanistan to Kashmir and accelerated the nuclear program. In response, in October 1990 the United States ended its aid program; Pakistan was the third-largest U.S. aid recipient in the world at the time. The loss of aid was a body blow to Pakistani self-confidence, and China could not compensate for lost U.S. support. The balance with India did not shift, however, because India was also in trouble at this point: its state-led economy was a shambles, and then it suddenly lost its main foreign supporter when the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991.

Both countries were therefore basically left at home alone with their recessed nuclear deterrents in a world that cared less about them than ever before. Both started economic reforms that got growth back on track and gave them some policy breathing room. And as the years went by, security decisions were made more and more on the basis of domestic political considerations. It was not that old adversaries were more threatening, but that the outside world was less of a restraining factor. What increasingly counted in decisions were national pride, status, and the willingness to stand up and defy the world.

The actual road from 1991 to 1998 was complicated in both countries. A large factor was what the rest of the world considered major progress on arms control. Indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995 and negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1997 left India isolated and angry and rubbed salt in old Indian wounds, which had become more painful as the status-oriented middle class grew. Nuclear testing was an election plank for the BJP, so when it came to power in March 1998 one of its first decisions was to test. In Pakistan the decision to respond was also taken on domestic grounds: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convinced that if he did not test he would be kicked out of office. Except in domestic terms, security had little to do with either India’s or Pakistan’s decision.

Nuclear South Asia

The results have been very mixed in both domestic and security terms. Not only did the political bounce soon dissipate in both countries but nuclear weapons are mysterious—they have paradoxical and unexpected effects.

First, if India hoped to blast its way into the great power club, it was bitterly disappointed. Instead there were sanctions, and the next months echoed with the sound of doors closing to India, such as the door to permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council

Second, if India tested to defy the West and the United States, the tests brought the United States back into South Asia as the necessary negotiating partner for the region’s two main countries. We are no longer fighting a Cold War against anyone; instead, we are trying to stabilize the global nonproliferation regime that is so important for our security. That requires stabilizing the security situation in South Asia, and to achieve that we have defined a short list of steps that we need to pursue with each country: signing the CTBT; fissile material cutoff negotiations; limits on production, testing, and deployment; export controls; and bilateral dialogue. But we also know that we will need to situate security within broader agendas, and fashioning such agendas was the reason for President Clinton’s visit to South Asia in March.

Third, if Pakistan thought the testing crisis would bring the world in on its side over Kashmir, it managed to destroy the prospect by its own blunders. Precisely to avoid outside intervention, Indian prime minister Vajpayee reached out to Pakistan in February 1999 with his extraordinary bus trip to Lahore that could have laid the basis for bilateral dialogue. Pakistan, however, blew the opportunity with its incursion into Indian-held Kashmir at Kargil. All the facts are not yet in—the deposed Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has claimed he was not informed of the action until very late. The planners may have thought India would not dare retaliate because Pakistan had the bomb. But India proved them wrong, and the internal tensions the fiasco generated in Pakistan led Nawaz to pick the fight with the military that lost him his job last October. Pakistan handed India back the credit for being the responsible regional power that India had lost by testing.

Fourth, India may well be in the process of wasting that credit. Pakistan may look unreliable and unwilling to discipline its Islamists, but India is not looking statesmanlike either. Instead, India has tried to isolate Pakistan, refused dialogue until Pakistan takes politically impossible steps, campaigned to get Pakistan placed on the U.S. terrorism list, and sought to tell President Clinton where he could travel. It looks as if India is choosing to fight at Pakistan’s level, rather than operating at the higher level to which it aspires.

In negotiations with the United States, India still has difficulty accepting what every other nuclear power has had to accept: a framework of constraints that alone can make nuclear deterrence stable and predictable. It is not that India has no real security problems—just as Pakistan points at India, India points at China as a threat that must be dealt with, and China will probably have to be included in some way in the South Asia security calculus. But conflict between China and India is becoming very unlikely indeed, and yet India still wants to keep all its security options open—to make all its decisions unilaterally. And as long as it does, it will not be accepted as a responsible great power because it will not be acting like one.

So the future is open. The answer to the question President Clinton posed to India and Pakistan must so far be mixed. India is probably not less secure, but it could be more secure if it understands that security and status in today’s world are gained by responsible international behavior and that it cannot be secure if Pakistan turns into a nuclear-armed Somalia. Pakistan is less secure but not just because it tested. It is insecure because the poor structures of governance that led it to test have since gotten even weaker and shakier.

It is a hopeful sign that both countries are concentrating on economic development and growth because over time this can grow their middle classes past the phase of ideological radicalism into constituencies for a moderate nationalism that includes democracy and rational decision making. The trouble is that this process takes a long time, with much scope for turbulence and volatility along the way. The United States will have a role to play, and we will need to be patient, creative, and on occasion tough—and the president was very tough with Pakistan. Most important, we will also need to stay engaged.