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Subcontinental Nightmares

Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons. By Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty

Robert M. Hathaway

Although tensions between India and Pakistan have ebbed over the past two years, South Asia remains a brew of festering national, religious, sectarian, communal, and ethnic animosities. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since the two countries achieved independence in 1947, and both tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Periods of “peace” routinely see artillery exchanges, cross-border infiltration, and the sponsorship of insurgency in the territory of the other. Many Pakistanis believe that India has unjustly occupied territory that rightfully belongs to their country. Kashmir remains a flashpoint, which as recently as 2002 contributed to the mobilization of one million heavily armed men along their common border.

It is unsurprising then that President Bill Clinton once famously called South Asia “the most dangerous place in the world.” Many South Asians view remarks such as those of Clinton as condescending and racist, implying that Asians, unlike Americans and Russians during the Cold War, cannot be trusted to manage their nuclear arsenals with restraint and common sense. These criticisms have come even as Pakistan has occasionally sought to play on U.S. nuclear fears to prod Washington into greater activity to help resolve the political disputes— Kashmir above all—that, left unchecked, might lead to war in the subcontinent.

After all, with the exception of the sharp but brief engagement on the heights of Kargil in 1999, India and Pakistan have not fought a full-fledged war since the Bangladesh crisis of 1971. So, how have these two bitter rivals, despite repeated crises and profound mistrust, avoided a major war over the past few decades? How crucial have the United States and other outside powers been in restraining such a conflict? Will this good fortune continue?

In Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons, Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty attempt what they describe as “the first comprehensive analysis of Indo-Pakistani crisis [behavior] in South Asia’s nuclear era.” They do not use “comprehensive” in the traditional sense of all-encompassing or exhaustive, but rather to indicate that their purview encompasses all the Indo-Pakistani crises, major and minor—six by their count—over the past 20 years. Short chapters offer concise but useful summaries of each of the six: the brief 1984 flurry when Islamabad (and Washington) worried that India might launch preventive air strikes against Pakistan’s nascent nuclear facilities; the 1987 “Brasstacks” crisis; the April 1990 war scare; the mutual fear of pre-emptive nuclear strikes that followed the May 1998 nuclear tests first of India, then Pakistan; the 1999 Kargil war, which may have resulted in nearly 2,500 battle deaths; and the 2002 standoff that followed the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament building in New Delhi.

The underlying premise of Fearful Symmetry is that Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons capabilities and the possibility that military conflict might escalate to the nuclear level have been the main deterrent to a major war in the six crises of the past 20 years. The authors quite sensibly place considerable emphasis on the “stability-instability paradox,” which holds that nuclear weapons can be simultaneously stabilizing and destabilizing. At the macro level, nuclear arsenals provide stability because both sides fear that full-scale hostilities could escalate to the nuclear level. However, the mutual possession of nuclear weapons also permits, even encourages, small-scale probes, such as that undertaken by Pakistan in Kargil in 1999, because decision-makers assume that their adversary’s response must of necessity be proportionate.

The study’s finding that nuclear weapons have been a force for peace in South Asia is plausible insofar as it goes, yet leaves the reader unsatisfied. The authors announce that they write from “a theoretical perspective” best described as “mere realism.” Still, one hungers for some tangible proof regarding the efficacy of deterrence, rather than its mere assertion. In this context, proof would probably require access to key internal documents central to the Indian and Pakistani decision-making process or unusually candid interviews with leading political and military actors who actually participated in the key decisions for war and peace. Ganguly and Hagerty are probably correct that a fear of escalation to the nuclear level was a factor in such decision-making. They may even be correct that it was the decisive factor. Nonetheless, they might have tempered their repeated assertions to this effect by conceding that the evidence leading to such a conclusion is lacking and their judgments are necessarily speculative.

Ganguly, a prolific scholar, has elsewhere argued[1] that Pakistani decision-makers have consistently and grossly underestimated Indian military prowess and likely Indian responses to military challenges, a theme to which he and Hagerty return in the current study. Nor has the record of Indian decision-making been exemplary; note the authors’ indictment of the misjudgments that left New Delhi unprepared to detect the Kargil incursion at an early moment. This being the case, then, one can draw little comfort from their confidence that nuclear deterrence, because it has succeeded in the past, can be relied on to save the region from large-scale war, conventional or nuclear. Indeed, the authors concede that India and Pakistan are each years away from adequate safeguards against the accidental launch of a nuclear armed missile. Nor do they give sufficient attention to the nightmarish scenario of a crazed fanatic or group of extremists deliberately throwing the region into nuclear Armageddon, a scenario that, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, one cannot absolutely dismiss.

A new, analytically sophisticated study by Indian scholar Arpit Rajain, Nuclear Deterrence in Southern Asia: China, India and Pakistan, reminds us that no consideration of nuclear deterrence in South Asia is complete if it focuses exclusively on India and Pakistan. China also is an integral element in the security equation of South, or, as Rajain prefers, “Southern,” Asia. To Rajain, this “triangular nuclear competition...is qualitatively different, has far more variables working simultaneously and remains geo-strategically more dangerous” than the Soviet-U.S. nuclear rivalry of the Cold War. Rajain also argues that the psychological attitudes of decision-makers at moments of crisis will perhaps influence their choices in irrational or at least unpredictable ways, which should further erode our confidence in deterrence theory predicated on a rational actor model. Decision-makers in Beijing, Islamabad, and New Delhi, Rajain warns, “should not lull themselves into thinking that a credible minimum deterrent posture would prevent crisis and outbreak of hostilities.” Ganguly and Hagerty would not disagree with this caution, but the tone of their study is considerably less emphatic on this point.

As for U.S. actions, Ganguly and Hagerty judge that in some instances, as during the 1999 Kargil war, the United States has played a constructive role in lowering tensions. On other occasions, however, especially during the 1984 and 1998 crises, Washington has been “inept,” “ineffective,” or “counterproductive.” The United States, they add, can and should do more to encourage forward movement on the contentious Kashmir issue, now as always the most likely trigger for a major Indo-Pakistani war. Washington must move from crisis management to conflict resolution, they contend. The book’s final chapter offers a step-by-step road map for Washington to encourage a more positive Indo-Pakistani relationship.

If all that were required was a more proactive U.S. policy. Yet, Ganguly and Hagerty acknowledge that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would undermine the dominance, even the legitimacy, of Pakistan’s major power brokers: the army, of course, but also neo-feudal landowners, the business establishment, and “Islamists of various sociopolitical hues.” A splendid new book by Husain Haqqani, Pakistani journalist, scholar, and former adviser to Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, makes much the same point. Continued hostility between India and Pakistan, Haqqani argues in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, provides the Pakistan army with a justification for retaining the reins of political power.

Haqqani offers a sobering exploration of the unholy alliance, historical and current, between the Islamists and Pakistan’s all-powerful army. Almost from the moment of Pakistan’s creation, he writes, the country’s leaders, not seeing the mullahs as a serious threat and believing they could use an Islamic ideology for their own ends, promoted the idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state. Ayub Khan, who seized power in 1958 as Pakistan’s first military ruler, “envisioned Islam as a nation-building tool, controlled by an enlightened military leader rather than by clerics.” The parade of generals who succeeded him, up to and including Pervez Musharraf, have followed the same course. Yet, by embracing the notion of an ideological state, the nation’s civilian and military leadership opened the way for a time when the mullahs would demand a controlling voice in the affairs of that state.

To this day, Haqqani writes, Musharraf views the country’s secular politicians, not the Islamists, as his principal rival for political power and regards the latter as useful political allies. This gives Pakistan’s Islamist parties a greater influence than they could hope to exercise in an open, democratic political system because, when given the opportunity to vote in free elections, Pakistanis have consistently opted for secular rather than religious leadership. Today, as in the past, military rule foments religious militancy in Pakistan with sweeping implications for important U.S. national security objectives. The alliance between mosque and military, Haqqani judges, “has the potential of frustrating antiterrorist operations, radicalizing key segments of the Islamic world, and bringing India and Pakistan yet again to the brink of war.” In the struggle against terrorism, he cautions, Pakistan is a U.S. “ally of convenience, not of conviction.”

The Pakistani army for 50 years has been guided by a national security policy tripod, the three legs of which emphasize Islam as the national unifier, rivalry with India as the principal objective of the state’s foreign policy, and alliance with the United States as the handy means to defray the costs of Pakistan’s massive military expenditures. All three policy legs, Haqqani stresses, have served to encourage extremist Islamism. So long as this policy tripod continues to dominate the mindsets of Pakistan’s leaders, genuine peace with India will remain impossible.

Almost from the beginning, U.S. thinking about Pakistan has been characterized by willful self-delusion. Washington wrongfully assumed a similarity of U.S. and Pakistani aims during the Cold War. A Republican White House and a Democratic Congress thought they could use Pakistan’s intelligence services to unleash jihad in Afghanistan without having to worry about how else Islamabad might employ the jihadis. The United States allowed itself to believe that generous military assistance during the 1980s would give Pakistan the confidence to forgo the development of a nuclear weapons capability. Even in the face of compelling evidence that Pakistani officials at the highest levels have peddled nuclear secrets to anyone with cash, Washington has pretended that Islamabad shares its nonproliferation agenda. Successive U.S. administrations have seen the army as a bulwark against the Islamists and have viewed Pakistan as a force for moderation in the Islamic world. All comforting pipe dreams divorced from reality.

Today, the argument takes the form that abandoning Musharraf opens the door for religious extremism. This line of reasoning fails to recognize how responsible the army is for the rise of religious zealotry in Pakistan. Washington professes to see the army as the only realistic alternative to Islamist radicalism, but given the alliance between mosque and military, sustaining the military’s right to govern Pakistan has the effect of perpetuating the influence of radical Islamists. Continued U.S. support for the Pakistani military, Haqqani warns, “makes it difficult for Pakistan’s weak, secular, civil society to assert itself and wean Pakistan from the rhetoric of Islamist ideology.” The United States, in this analysis, becomes an enabler of the very extremism it opposes.

It is a lamentable fact that Pakistan’s civilian politicians have failed their country badly. Haqqani’s study reminds us, however, that the army has never permitted the politicians to govern nor allowed politics to take its course. Here as well, Washington has been something of a co-conspirator, making but meek protest as the military and the intelligence services manipulate elections, harass civilian politicians, and support Islamic parties that promote extremism and spew anti-American hatred. A senior U.S. official recently observed that Musharraf is a “hero in our eyes.”[2] Little wonder the general does not take Washington’s periodic comments about democracy seriously. Little wonder that the Pakistani man in the street finds it difficult to accept the sincerity of America’s fine words about promoting democracy in the Islamic world.

The United States, Haqqani writes, can no longer afford to ignore “ Pakistan’s state sponsorship of Islamist militants.” This dark picture of Pakistan contrasts starkly with the image of Pakistan as a moderate, tolerant, progressive state that Musharraf evokes when addressing Western audiences. Perhaps closer to the truth were his 2004 remarks to Pakistani editors, when he declared that “ Pakistan has two vital national interests: Being a nuclear state and the Kashmir cause.” Each, notably, brings Pakistan into conflict with the United States and with India.

So, what might be done to reduce the dangers inherent in the region? Rajain worries that deterrence may not suffice and urges all three Southern Asian nuclear powers to negotiate transparent confidence-building measures and to guard against miscommunication, misperception, and misinterpretation. Ganguly and Hagerty display greater faith in the efficacy of deterrence but call on the United States to be more proactive in brokering a political settlement in Kashmir. Haqqani believes that the Kashmir dispute will not be resolved nor peace between India and Pakistan ensured until Washington severs its support for military regimes in Islamabad. For starters, perhaps we can have a little less talk of Musharraf being a “hero in our eyes.”


Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


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ENDNOTES

1. Sumit Ganguly, Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947 ( New York and Washington, DC: Columbia University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001).

2. Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright, “Earthquake Aid for Pakistan Might Help U.S. Image,” The Washington Post, October 13, 2005.

 

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