In Review Books

Diplomacy in the nuclear age: How India and Pakistan deal with the bomb

Published 26 Aug, 2018 01:03am

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Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

India and Pakistan ‘gatecrashed’ the nuclear club in May 1998. Children who were born right after the nuclear tests, carried out by the two countries in that year, are now able to vote — a generation, particularly in Pakistan, that has grown up on a steady diet of nuclear nationalism that portrays weapons of mass destruction as guarantors of national security and sources of collective pride. In times when the country can showcase little by way of achievements, we always console ourselves by saying that we have nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are made by experts trained in science and engineering but there is also another ‘nuclear expert’ whose bread and butter is linked to writing about these. There was only a small group of such experts two decades ago but nuclear tests by India and Pakistan have opened up many new spots for them. They are camped mainly in think tanks in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington DC.

An overwhelming majority of them use the lens of political realism that sees states as key actors who pursue their national interests in competition with each other. Moeed Yusuf also belongs to this tribe of nuclear experts. He defines the crises explored in his book as “exercises in coercion through which adversaries seek to enhance their relative bargaining strength vis-à-vis their opponents”.

Yusuf says Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments “speaks to policymakers in India and Pakistan, and in the countries that could be future regional nuclear rivals”. In what he calls “perhaps the most consequential policy implication” of his book, he recommends to the United States “to invest in deeper dispute resolution between regional nuclear rivals”. Ironically, given the book’s unsubtle tilt towards the official American and Pakistani perspectives, Indian policymakers or security analysts are unlikely to take it seriously.

Yusuf also seems to display an unadulterated fondness for the United States by, for instance, calling upon its policymakers “to appreciate their centrality to regional crisis management”. He makes a similarly adulatory assertion at another point: “altruistic and humanitarian concerns that have traditionally had significant impact on US decision-making should further punctuate the compulsion to intervene to prevent nuclear escalation.”

The term ‘third party’ in this book is used interchangeably with the United States as his key argument hinges upon a central role for Washington DC in preventing a nuclear conflict between Islamabad and New Delhi. “… that the crises between regional nuclear powers will be heavily influenced by the overbearing interest of the unipole in preventing a nuclear catastrophe” is how he explains it.

Three crises – Kargil war in 1999, Pakistan-India military standoff in 2001-02 and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai – constitute the core of the book. In all of them, the blunt conclusion – one not reached by the author – is that none of these “exercises in coercion” has resulted in bargaining strength for Pakistan.

The first crisis, that occurred almost a year after the 1998 nuclear tests, started when Pakistan clandestinely sent a few hundred paramilitary personnel to occupy some strategic mountain peaks across the Line of Control (LoC) in Indian-held Kashmir. “The false expectation of supportive third-party involvement was partly responsible for Pakistan’s decision to instigate a crisis in Kargil,” Yusuf argues. “Pakistan had hoped to apply the finders keepers rule to these unattended heights and subsequently use this as a bargaining chip to negotiate the Kashmir dispute,” he writes.

Entertaining such a hope was naïve at best if one wants to be charitable to the planners of the Kargil operation but the bitter truth is that the whole plan was a careless adventure with no regard for the detrimental consequences that it was certainly going to have for Islamabad. For Yusuf, though, “the Kargil crisis ended without escalating into a major war”, just as Pakistan’s security establishment had believed. There was, indeed, no major war but the crisis ended in defeat for Pakistan in both military and diplomatic terms, leaving the country isolated and mistrusted by allies and adversaries alike.

No reasonable observer will deny the role that America’s shuttle diplomacy played in the summer of 1999 in having “brokered peace” between India and Pakistan but this cannot gloss over the fact that Islamabad had landed itself in such a bind that it had to surrender to Indian demands in Washington DC. The outcome of the crisis was, indeed, decided in the battlefield where India had attained decisive superiority.

The second crisis resulted from a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 — only three months after 9/11 and while Kargil was still a fresh memory. When New Delhi blamed Pakistan-based militant outfits for it, Islamabad was already on a diplomatic back foot due to the Kargil fiasco. It denied responsibility but the militant organisations’ close ties with the Inter-Services Intelligence were so well known that there were no takers for the denial.

Consequently, Indian and Pakistani armies faced each other across international boundary for the most part of 2002. Yusuf’s discussion of this stand-off and the American role in it provides very good insights into the nuanced role of diplomacy in times of crisis. US Secretary of State Colin Powell put it quite accurately: “We had sort of a duty roster out there for who is going tomorrow to keep these clowns from killing each other.” The crisis ended when Pakistan, yet again, gave assurances that it will not allow cross-border militant movement.

The third crisis discussed in the book happened “courtesy of a series of terrorist attacks” in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, in November 2008. All attackers were Pakistani nationals. After the attack, India chose to mount a diplomatic onslaught on Pakistan instead of opting for military action. The brazen attack had meant widespread support and unconditional sympathy for India among the international community and Indian policymakers astutely used it to portray Pakistan as a breeding ground for cross-border terrorism. Pakistan tried to rein in some militant outfits by rounding up their leaders but, given its past track record, these moves were portrayed by India as an “eyewash”. As Yusuf correctly points out, “by the spring of 2009, the familiar pattern of terrorists being rounded up and later released by the Pakistan state was being repeated”.

Like any book that eyes policymakers as its key audience, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments, provides some policy prescriptions. The main prescription offered by the author is for the United States to “consider a more active role in encouraging an uninterrupted India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir”. The prescription for Pakistan is that “regardless of the US position, [Islamabad] must make utmost efforts to defeat all forms of terrorism emanating from its territory”. And the joint prescription for India and Pakistan is that they “must work together in defeating the menace of terrorism”. All of this sounds nice but ground realities suggest that none of it is likely to be adopted by the concerned parties.

Such limitations of Yusuf’s book are, in fact, the limitation of realist theory that focuses on state actors and their actions and does not delve into the social, economic, political and strategic factors that cause those actions and determine their direction and outcome. Additionally, many Indian and Pakistan security experts consciously or unwittingly end up echoing official versions as the true versions of history. In many parts, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments also follows the same path which makes its analysis a bit lopsided and its prescriptions a little too Pakistan-centric.

Its strength, however, is the large number of interviews that Yusuf has conducted with policymakers, especially from the United States and Pakistan, who played key roles during the three crises mentioned above. For this reason alone, if for nothing else, his book should be seen as a good addition to the academic literature available on war and peace between India and Pakistan.


The writer is the author of 'The Roots of Rhetoric: Politics of Nuclear Weapons in India and Pakistan'.


This was originally published in Herald's August 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.