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June 2, 2022
Beyond the Nuclear Dimension: Forging Stability in South Asia
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Šumit Ganguly

As the United States has prosecuted its war against the Taliban, worked to destroy al Qaeda’s network and assets, and tried to get its hands on Osama bin Laden, the world has turned its long-overdue attention to Pakistan’s own stability and domestic order and to the risks inherent in the nuclear weapons on the South Asian subcontinent. Among the concerns that have been expressed are deep misgivings about the security and safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.1 Such concerns are entirely understandable: Pakistan, like India, remains outside the ambit of any multilateral nuclear inspection or non-proliferation framework. Yet, popular commentary to the contrary notwithstanding, Pakistan is not yet on a nuclear precipice, and South Asia is not on the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

This is not to reject the existence of nuclear danger in South Asia, where two adversaries with incipient nuclear arsenals face each other over a disputed border. But, to the extent that there is a nuclear threat, it lies not in the vulnerability of Pakistan’s arsenal to domestic discord but rather in the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over the fate of Kashmir. This problem has deep roots; to further its security goals and lower regional nuclear tensions, the United States must commit to a long-term engagement in the region—moving beyond its traditionally narrow focus on non-proliferation issues and encouraging fundamental political and civil reform that will permit a constructive dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Pakistan’s Precipice

Two fears about Pakistan’s nuclear control are most frequently expressed.2 The first suggests a breakdown of the politico-military order in Pakistan and the concomitant loss of control over the country’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. This scenario, although not completely implausible, is nevertheless unlikely. Unless the Pakistani military utterly fragments and a rogue element seizes control of the state, the likelihood of the unauthorized possession of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons infrastructure is extremely small.3 Personal and ideological differences do exist within the ranks of the Pakistani military. Nevertheless, unless a substantial number of the key corps commanders within the military challenge General Pervez Musharraf’s writ, the military’s firm grip on the state will remain in place. There is no evidence to suggest that such disaffection with Musharraf is rife, especially after his masterful, if not entirely ingenuous, performance during his November visit to the United States.

A variant of this scenario holds that radical supporters of the Taliban and of bin Laden within Pakistani society may seize control of these weapons. This possibility, too, is quite remote. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons infrastructure is quite dispersed and the facilities well guarded. Furthermore, even in the unlikely event that renegade groups managed to breach the security of one or more installations, they would, in all likelihood, lack the technical sophistication to use the weapons. Long before the events of September 11, about four months after his October 1999 bloodless coup against the civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf had established a National Command Authority under the aegis of the military to maintain control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities. He also created a special Strategic Planning Division within the nuclear program, which is headed by a three-star general, to oversee operations.

Today, he and his cohort remain acutely attuned to the potential dangers of the country’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of renegade individuals or groups. Shortly after the events of September 11, it is now believed, Musharraf quietly ordered the relocation of critical nuclear weapons, fearing possible strikes against them.4 Even key U.S. officials long associated with non-proliferation policy concede that the Pakistani military has done a creditable job of securing its nuclear weapons infrastructure.5

The other dire prospect that many fear remains equally unlikely. This scenario holds that Indian decision-makers, peering across the border and seeing a Pakistan in chaos, may decide to carry out a series of devastating conventional strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear installations. Quite apart from the existence of a bilateral treaty that explicitly forbids such an attack, India’s decision-makers themselves are acutely cognizant of the terrible diplomatic and political fallout that would result from such an attack. More to the point, they also lack the requisite military capabilities to carry out such a decisive, decapitating strike, and anything short of an all-encompassing strike would result in the worst possible consequences for India.

First of all, India would have to countenance the distinct prospect of a ragged but assured Pakistani retaliation on its nuclear facilities, not to mention its population centers. Even if that dire consequence did not by itself deter thoughts of a strike against Pakistan, Indian leaders know that such an attack would shatter beyond repair India’s recent and careful attempts to forge a new and robust relationship with the United States. Indeed, the opprobrium that India would face would be worldwide and harsh, especially from the Muslim states of the Arab world and beyond. Finally, India has a fundamental interest in Pakistan’s political stability, for India would be the country most saddled by a breakdown of political order and a flight of refugees from chaos in Pakistan.

A More Compelling Concern: Kashmir

The real nuclear danger in the region stems from the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan over the disputed status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This predominantly Muslim state abutting both India and Pakistan has been the locus of a dispute harking back to the partition of the British Indian empire in 1947. Since then, India and Pakistan have gone to war four times, in 1947-48, 1965, 1971, and 1999. Three of these four wars have broken out over the question of Kashmir. The first three wars were of limited duration, involved mostly set-piece battle tactics, and were marked by important tacit and informal restraints on the use of firepower. The fourth and most recent war, that of April-July 1999 in the mountainous region around Kargil in Indian-held Kashmir, was unarguably the most sanguinary.

The origins of the Kashmir dispute are complex and are rooted in the divergent conceptions of nation-building in South Asia. The Indian nationalist movement, which was predominantly civic and secular, sought the incorporation of Kashmir into its domain as a way to demonstrate its commitment to those principles. For the Pakistani nationalist leadership, which had instrumentally used Islam as a device for political mobilization, the control of an adjoining Muslim-majority province was also equally crucial. The two states have only partially managed to uphold and realize these principles in the post-colonial era. Despite the attempt to unify Pakistan on the basis of religion, the state split into two separate countries in 1971 with the civil war and the emergence of Bangladesh. Later, in the 1980s the failure of the Indian state to firmly uphold stated constitutional principles raised fundamental questions about the practical status of India’s secularism. Their respective determinations to control Kashmir, however, did not diminish.

In 1989, Indian misgovernance coupled with the rise of a new generation of politically sophisticated Kashmiris contributed to the outbreak of an ethnoreligious insurgency in the state.6 Sensing an opportunity to deliver a coup de main to its archenemy, the Pakistani regime of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in concert with the army, entered the fray in Kashmir, providing sanctuary to the insurgents, training them in guerrilla tactics, and giving them substantial material support.7 As the Pakistan-backed insurgents increased the levels of violence, Indian security forces responded with considerable fury. Kashmir became caught in the vise of a vicious civil war. Indian forces, despite their harsh tactics, could not militarily defeat the insurgents. By the same token, the insurgents, while wreaking havoc in Kashmir, could not wrest it away from Indian control. Ironically, by the early 1990s, owing to Pakistan’s increasing control over the bulk of the insurgent groups, the only genuinely indigenous and pro-independence organization, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, found itself militarily marginalized. Indeed, by the mid-1990s the insurgency had taken on a marked different character: no longer the spontaneous uprising of a victimized people, it had become a Pakistan-sponsored protection racket designed to bleed India.

Despite fitful efforts on the part of various Indian regimes to hold state-level elections and thereby restore some modicum of normalcy to Kashmir, Pakistan’s feckless support to the insurgents undermined most such endeavors. Consequently, tensions continued to wrack Indo-Pakistani relations throughout the last decade of the 20th century. Even after both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in May 1998 and outside pressure increased for the two states to improve their relations, all attempts at bilateral negotiations failed. The Kashmir question, which has dominated and poisoned Indo-Pakistani relations for more than half a century, is now much more than the danger of nuclear war, the precipice on which the two countries are poised.

A Nuclear Danger in South Asia?

The prospects of a full-scale war between India and Pakistan in the immediate future are remote, despite recent tensions along the Line of Control (the de facto international border) in Kashmir. Nevertheless, dampening Indo-Pakistani tensions over the longer haul remains a significant strategic interest of the United States.8 Unless the underlying sources of Indo-Pakistani discord, which are largely centered around Kashmir, are addressed, the problem of terror—aimed at both India and the West—emanating from South Asia and particularly Pakistan will remain an ongoing problem.

Consequently, the Bush administration and its allies must eschew the temptation to walk away from South Asia and Afghanistan once the goal of demolishing al Qaeda is achieved. The full dimensions of a new South Asia policy cannot be articulated here, but it is possible to provide a set of guideposts for a new policy that addresses the goal of “draining the swamp” that spawned the terror network that struck New York City, Washington, and western Pennsylvania on September 11. Such a policy must first dispense with much of the conventional wisdom that has undergirded decades of U.S. policy toward South Asia. During much of the Cold War, thanks to India’s ambivalence about Washington’s anti-communist crusade, the United States sided with and propped up a series of unsavory regimes in Pakistan. Later, from the mid-1970s onward, as part of the same enterprise, the United States forged a strategic relationship with Beijing, overlooking the latter’s dismal domestic political arrangements. After the end of the Cold War, the United States forged even closer ties to Beijing as the prospect of access to China’s burgeoning markets beckoned American corporations. Various U.S. administrations publicly hectored Beijing for its abysmal human rights record and for its willingness to breach non-proliferation norms and commitments routinely, but these rhetorical flourishes were rarely backed up with any significant sanctions on Beijing’s behavior.

Such American hypocrisy had significant strategic consequences for South Asia. Throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century, various regimes in India haplessly watched the deterioration of their security environment as their principal military guarantor, the Soviet Union, collapsed and as China irresponsibly provided nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile technology to Pakistan.9 Indian expressions of concern to the United States and China went unheeded. Worse still, the United States dismissed India’s legitimate security concerns about China and sought to induce India to join every conceivable multilateral non-proliferation regime. Ironically, these U.S. policies eventually helped propel India to conduct nuclear tests in May 1998.10 Almost inevitably, Pakistan, which had long chafed under India’s conventional military superiority, followed suit.

Today a somewhat tenuous nuclear peace exists on the subcontinent. Despite the fragility of this peace, however, it is unlikely that full-scale war between India and Pakistan will erupt and bring on the possibility of a nuclear confrontation. Both sides, though acutely ill-disposed toward one another, clearly recognize the consequences of their nuclear revolution. This recognition was amply demonstrated during the Kargil war of 1999, when units of the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry, in concert with Afghan and Kashmiri irregular forces, breached the Line of Control. The bold Pakistani incursion across the Line of Control initially caught the Indian forces unprepared, but once the infiltration was discovered, India responded with considerable vigor, repulsed the intruders, and restored the status quo ante by early July. In their military operations, the Indians were forced to use airpower to dislodge the Pakistanis from well-entrenched mountain redoubts, but they carefully refrained from crossing the Line of Control at any point during the air strikes. India also specifically chose not to expand the scope of the conflict by horizontally escalating along other parts of the international border with Pakistan, despite the fact that such a move would have relieved pressure on its troops in Kargil.

The Indian restraint during the Kargil war was striking. Within the first week of its previous war with Pakistan over Kashmir in 1965, India had sent its forces to strike along other salients of the international border to relieve the military pressure in Kashmir. And India was and is hardly without grievances against Pakistan. The decade-long indigenous insurgency in Kashmir has been more violent and longer lived because of the active support of the militants by Pakistan. Furthermore, by infiltrating in Kargil, Pakistan had violated the goodwill that had just a few months earlier been established by the leaders of the two countries in inaugurating bus service between Lahore and Amritsar. So the temptation in some quarters of India must have been strong to put an end to Pakistan’s needling once and for all. But no steps were taken toward this end.

India’s avoidance of either form of escalation stemmed not from moral qualms but from the clear-eyed recognition on the part of Indian decision-makers that their adversary possessed nuclear weapons. Expanding the scope of the conflict beyond the points of Pakistani egress could have provoked a wider and possibly uncontrolled conflict, and this was a denouement that no Indian decision-maker was or is willing to countenance. Clearly, although stable deterrence has not yet arrived in South Asia, these two new nuclear adversaries have come to a sober understanding of their circumstances that has blocked any imminent danger of nuclear escalation.

Building Stability

Yet it would be disingenuous and imprudent to suggest that stable deterrence will inevitably evolve in South Asia as the region lurches from crisis to crisis. Human error, misperception, misjudgment, and miscalculation could combine in a number of ways to undermine the ragged stability that exists in the region. Ironically, the present Afghan crisis, which involves Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, may just be the opportunity that the United States needs to shape the politico-strategic landscape of the subcontinent and its environs for the better. Accomplishing such a goal, however, will require a shift in approach that dispenses with the shibboleths of yesteryear.

Even though abandoning disarmament as an objective will be distasteful to the more ardent members of the global non-proliferation community, the pursuit of nuclear rollback in South Asia is but a chimera. No Indian government in the foreseeable future will agree to dismantle the country’s nuclear weapons program. Regardless of U.S. assessments, key Indian decision-makers believe that it is in their vital security interests to maintain a limited nuclear deterrent as a hedge against possible future Chinese revanchism.11 Unbeknownst to most analysts of international security, China still has extant claims on substantial portions of India’s northeast.

India’s unwillingness to part with its nuclear arsenal in turn makes it impossible for Pakistan to dismantle its own program. Given Pakistan’s geostrategic vulnerability, its belief in India’s intransigence, and its unavoidable conventional military inferiority, nuclear weapons provide Islamabad with a margin of reassurance. Again, although many in the global non-proliferation community would wish to see a denuclearized Pakistan, such a prospect remains unlikely given the regional configuration of power.
If the existence of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs, at least in their present, incipient forms, are accepted as an existential reality, then, what the United States needs to do is enhance long-term crisis stability in the region. At the broadest level, the pursuit of such a goal will require Washington to remain engaged in South Asia long after bin Laden and his followers are brought to justice. Within this broad policy framework, the United States must pursue three distinct goals.

First, it must devote significant energy and treasure to fashioning a durable political dispensation within Afghanistan, initially under the auspices of the United Nations. The Bush administration has loudly and repeatedly proclaimed that the United States is not going to run a nation-building enterprise in Afghanistan. Although Bush’s motives are domestic and not geopolitical, this is nevertheless the right position to take, given the way the United States is viewed in the region and in the rest of the Muslim world. But the United States and its anti-terror coalition cannot simply walk away from Afghanistan once bin Laden is reeled in. Unless an effort is mounted to fashion a stable and self-sustaining post-Taliban Afghanistan, the very forces that enabled bin Laden to build his network will again spring forth. Given the war-scarred state of Afghanistan, a UN-run interim administration along the lines of East Timor or Cambodia appears entirely apt and indeed necessary. The events of September 11 have brought home a compelling reality: the United States must remain an important player in international organizations to shape a desirable global environment; it cannot rely solely on its military prowess to further its global strategic and security interests.

Second, the United States must re-engage Pakistan. Such re-engagement, however, must go well beyond the usual propensity to forge strong military-to-military ties. This strategy, with many important limitations, did serve U.S. interests during the Cold War, when the principal enemy was another superpower and the loathsome domestic arrangements of many allies had to be overlooked to obtain their support on the global chessboard. Such a strategy, however, would be fundamentally flawed in the present era. The United States can no longer afford to remain oblivious to the internal dimensions and policies of its allies. Ignoring Pakistan’s intricate ties to the Taliban, allowing the growth of a variety of thuggish organizations within Pakistan both during and after the Soviet-Afghan war, and unquestioning military supply of the mujahideen through the Pakistani intelligence agency contributed mightily to the strength of the groups and individuals that U.S. troops are now combating in Afghanistan.

Thus, in return for U.S. economic largess toward Pakistan, Pakistan’s leaders, both military and civilian, must sever the umbilical cords of the numerous organizations engaged in spreading terror from within Pakistan’s borders. Simultaneously, the United States, instead of bolstering the Pakistani military, must now actively work to strengthen civil society and civic institutions in Pakistan. This strategy will entail providing Pakistan with targeted economic and technical assistance. As a useful start, the United States could provide substantial foreign assistance for the rebuilding of secular public education in Pakistan to reduce the reliance of Pakistan’s poor on the madrassas (Islamic schools) that are inculcating the country’s prospectless youth with Islamist fervor. It should also devote some resources to the development of responsible, dispassionate journalism within the country—at all levels of the publishing strata, not only among the relatively free, elite, English-language press. American assistance must also be used to strengthen the independence of the judiciary within Pakistan.

None of these measures will involve dramatic expenditures, but only a strategy of this order, which shifts resources away from mindless military spending, will enable Pakistan to release itself from the bondage of illiberal military rule. Such a strategy also affords the best hope of reducing Indo-Pakistani tensions. Various illiberal, militaristic (if not outright military) regimes within Pakistan have thrived on a policy of demonizing India. Fostering the growth of a more civic and representative Pakistani polity offers the greatest hope of altering the dire images of India that have become the staple of Pakistani popular discourse. Furthermore, reducing the privileged status of the Pakistani military will also undermine an important force for the pursuit of uncompromising policies toward India and for the enduring Indo-Pakistani hostility.

Finally, the United States should not restrict its efforts to Pakistan. Prior to September 11, the Bush administration had made a concerted effort to court India and had finally dispensed with the idée fixe of non-proliferation in order to pursue a less contentious and more productive relationship with India based upon some shared concerns, such as anti-piracy, combating terror, and intelligence cooperation on China. That enterprise should not be derailed. While addressing India’s legitimate concerns about terrorism, the administration should also exert some pressure on India to tackle its own policy failures in Kashmir. The insurgency in Kashmir today bears only the faintest resemblance to the original, indigenous uprising of 1989; it has evolved into a protection racket with a religious patina. Yet genuine disaffection with decades of Indian misrule seethes in Kashmir,12 precluding the restoration of normalcy should the insurgency lapse. India must restore the fractured rule of law in Kashmir, mete out punishment to members of its security forces involved in egregious human rights violations, and resurrect the many solemn but broken pledges to grant Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, a substantial degree of autonomy within the scope of the Indian union.

These policy changes will not meet the maximal demands of many within Pakistan’s leadership, who still harbor fantasies of integrating the Indian-controlled portions of Kashmir into Pakistan. However, after five decades and three wars over Kashmir, none of which brought Pakistan any closer to that elusive goal, it may well be time to declare a truce. Again, American counsel to the Pakistani leadership to that end could have a salutary effect. The long-standing, if often faint, hope of convincing the United States to either cajole or coerce India to part with Kashmir needs to be extinguished. If the Kashmir dispute is settled in a fashion that addresses the deep-seated grievances of India’s Kashmiri population, no amount of Pakistani instigation will easily revive the embers of the insurgency. Such an outcome can then provide the basis for more imaginative bilateral confidence-building, cooperative monitoring, and arms control measures in the region and thereby contribute to the vital and shared goal of promoting nuclear stability.

1. Douglas Frantz, “U.S. and Pakistan Discuss Nuclear Security,” The New York Times, October 1, 2001, p. A3.
2. Seymour M. Hersh, “Watching the Warheads: Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons at Risk,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2001, p. 48-54.
3. Gaurav Kampani, “Safety Concerns About the Command and Control of Pakistan’s Strategic Forces, Fissile Material, and Nuclear Installations,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, September 28, 2001.
4. Molly Moore and Kamran Khan, “Pakistan Moves Nuclear Weapons,” The Washington Post, November 11, 2001, p. A1.
5. Nayan Chanda, “Urgent Worries About Pakistani Nuclear Material,” The International Herald Tribune, November 2, 2001.
6. Šumit Ganguly, The Crisis in Kashmir: Portents of War, Hopes of Peace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997).
7. For evidence of Pakistani complicity in the Kashmir insurgency, see R. A. Davis, “Kashmir in the Balance,” International Defence Review, 1991, p. 301-4.
8. Patrick E. Tyler and Celia W. Dugger, “Powell’s Message: America’s Courting of Pakistan Will Not Come at India’s Expense,” The New York Times, October 18, 2001, p. B3.
9. Ashley J. Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Deployed Arsenal (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2001).
10. Šumit Ganguly, “India’s Pathway to Pokhran II: The Sources and Prospects of India’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” International Security, Spring 1999, p. 148-77.
11. Šumit Ganguly, “Behind India’s Bomb: The Politics and Strategy of Nuclear Deterrence,” Foreign Affairs 80, no. 5 (September-October 2001), p. 136-42.
12. Maseeh Rahman, “Facing Into a Storm,” Far Eastern Economic Review, October 11, 2001, p. 74-77.

Šumit Ganguly, professor of Asian studies and government at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of the forthcoming Conflict Unending: Indo-Pakistani Tensions Since 1947.