Saturday, August 05, 2006

A-A continue to talk nukes

Don't you think there's something about claiming India should have nukes as a deterrent, when it didn't deter Pakistan in Kargil, or the terrorists from attacking Parliament, or any of other thousand and one mischiefs?

Amar asked me after the earlier conversation. I have been thinking about this for a while. It is self-evident that Indian nukes don’t deter terrorists, just like 9/11 wasn’t deterred by Americans’ huge arsenal. As 9/11 could not have been deterred by a Star Wars II missile shield that the Bushies were pushing in the summer of 2001, no terrorist attack or insurgency could have been deterred by the Smiling Buddha II. Nukes, in the hands of liberal democracies, are useless against terrorists because no democracy will wipe out an entire city or a region because of the actions of a few. And to use tactical nukes against insurgents is akin to destroying the village in order to save it.

Nukes are a useful deterrence against an enemy that poses a real or perceived existential threat. Soviet Union in the late 1940s faced an existential threat from the West. Chinese communists thought that they faced an existential threat from both the Soviets and the West in the 1960s. Israel faces an existential threat from many of its neighbors. And this deterrence works. After all, Islamabad is not under American occupation, even though Pakistani generals are complicit in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, export Jihadi violence, and have imposed a corrupt dictatorship on its citizens — basically everything Saddam Hussein is accused of.

What existential threat did India face in 1974? Whom did the Indian leadership think it was going to deter with its nukes?

Or was it just a prestige issue for Mrs Gandhi?

Whether perceived or real, Indian bomb did however present the Pakistani elite with an existential threat.

And now with both countries openly displaying their arms, one can argue that Pakistan has a set of perverse incentives. It can now create mischief like Operation Grand Slam, without the fear of an Indian thrust against Lahore. You see, Pakistani nukes deter Indian reprisal, even though Indian nukes don’t deter Kargil that ought to cause an Indian reprisal. In fact, nukes make mischief more likely if Pakistani leaders are inclined that way! So it is a reasonable argument that getting the bomb was a mistake for India.

Does this mean that India should push for denuclearization as Amar suggested earlier? I still think it is not practicable given Pakistani generals have very little incentive to give up their toys. But as Amar says: that is more a question of mechanism … than … agreement to the idea.

But if we can’t achieve denuclearization then should we be worried about Delhi and Bombay becoming nuclear wastelands? Is a Pakistani nuclear strike against a major Indian city at all likely? What does Pakistan have to gain from it? In the event of a battlefield defeat — say Indians reach the Indus or Islamabad is cut off from Lahore — Pakistan may deploy tactical nukes. But would they nuke a major Indian city?

Consider what happened the last time Pakistan lost a war. In 1971, with humiliation looming in Dacca, but its air force largely intact in the Western theatre, Pakistan could have bombed Indian cities, causing massive civilian casualties. It didn’t. I don’t think Pakistani generals are about to become the largest suicide bombers in history by walking with their nukes into the bazaar that is India.

Yes mad men could seize power in Pakistan. But that possibility is something India, and the world, has to live with whether India retains nukes or not.