Stratfor.com Geopolitical Diary: Pakistan's Nuclear Option
By: Stratfor.comDecember 30, 2008
It has now been more than a month since the Mumbai attacks unfolded, and India has not responded militarily in Pakistan. Some war preparations have been made and New Delhi has by no means taken the military operation off the table, but the crisis, for now, is at a lull. In an unscheduled conversation recently with his Indian counterpart, Director-General of Military Operations Lt. Gen. A. S. Sekhon, over the crisis hotline between their capitals, Pakistan's Maj. Gen. Javed Iqbal very well might have given an overt reminder of Islamabad's longstanding nuclear first-use policy. It is possible that India took a step back to re-evaluate its options and the consequences of direct military intervention in Pakistan.

Two nuclear-armed foes adhering to a no-first-use policy are unlikely to have a nuclear exchange. In first-use, one or both adversaries deliberately hold their nuclear weapons out as a deterrent to various forms of aggression, or as leverage when the conventional dynamics are unfavorable to them. Like NATO in Europe during the Cold War, Pakistan is simply incapable of quantitatively matching Indian demographics and conventional military forces (challenges only compounded by Islamabad's qualitative and technological disadvantages in relation to India). Nuclear weapons are Pakistan's ace in the hole. Consequently, Islamabad maintains an overt first-use policy, just as the United States and NATO never ruled out first-use.

Despite this, there are some very real differences between the Cold War dynamic and the current situation between India and Pakistan that are useful to highlight in assessing the likelihood of escalation:
  • Distance: The Americans and the Soviets were, for all intents and purposes, several thousand miles apart, despite the proximity of Alaska to Russia's Far East. The inability to deliver meaningful conventional strikes at that distance until the waning days of the Cold War meant that any direct confrontation likely would be nuclear or result in a massive land war in Europe. In comparison, Islamabad and New Delhi are less than 500 miles apart. Dense populations, saddle both sides of the border, and the Pakistani demographic, agricultural and industrial heartland lies directly across a border from India - with no real geographic barriers to invasion. This increases the likelihood of conventional warfare and, therefore, the potential for escalation toward the nuclear realm.
  • Global scale: With interests around the globe, it was easy enough for the Soviet Union and the United States to challenge each other indirectly through proxies and peripheral wars, from Korea to Vietnam and Afghanistan. In the case of Pakistan and India, the historical alternatives to a massive confrontation along the Punjab border have been fighting in the mountains and on the glaciers of Kashmir, blockades of Pakistani ports, and the use of militant proxies. With military competition so close to home, the use of ballistic missiles and strike aircraft in conventional roles inevitably raises the specter of their use in the nuclear role - and when the stakes are that high, one does not have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for clarification of intent once a missile makes impact. With any launch, one must assume the worst.
  • Mutually assured destruction: Though Pakistan's small, crude and low-yield arsenal could indeed be devastating, it does not threaten India with total destruction. With its own delivery systems capable of reaching every corner of Pakistan, New Delhi enjoys immense strategic depth that Islamabad cannot match with any current systems. India's arsenal is more mature and more robust than Pakistan's. Thus, Islamabad's first-use policy is actually defensive in nature; it is a deterrent against Indian aggression that, in the end, Pakistan knows it could not defeat.
But first-use is also a policy of which not only the Indian military, but Indian society at large, is well aware. Delivering an explicit reminder of this issue, during a tense conversation in the midst of a crisis, would be a deliberate choice by Pakistan.

The advantage of being a nuclear power is the ability to draw a line in the sand when the going gets tough. It is hardly a guaranteed defense, but certainly will give one's adversary pause. Ultimately, it did not deter the Chinese from moving forces into North Korea in 1950 or the Syrians and Egyptians from invading Israel in 1973 (which, at that point, was known to have nuclear weapons). In fact, it didn't deter Pakistan from conducting a bold military operation in the 1999 Kargil war, nor did it keep India and Pakistan from coming to a near-nuclear confrontation in 2002 after an attack on the Indian parliament. And ultimately, it might not deter India now. Islamabad is probably not willing to escalate to nuclear war over a few Indian air strikes, when the price for escalation would be an inevitable and devastating nuclear reprisal from New Delhi. India can be fairly confident of this fact.

The question, now that Pakistan appears to have drawn a very clear line in the sand, is how India will respond. How will the world community move to de-escalate a crisis that no one-not India, not Pakistan, nor anyone else-is interested in seeing deteriorate into a nuclear exchange (however unlikely this remains in practice)?

There is a problem with a weaker nuclear power playing this card when neither its chief foe nor the world's sole superpower has any interest in escalating nuclear tensions: The threat itself might go too far. While it could succeed in getting India to take a step back and re-evaluate, it also could drive the Indians and Americans to consider a bilateral strategic deal. Moreover, it leaves India-and the United States-to contemplate just how hard it might be to take the Pakistani deterrent out of the equation.

And removing a nuclear power's nuclear power is a profoundly dangerous proposition in and of itself.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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