Next to Subcontinent Face-Off, the Cold War Looks Safe

06 Aug, 1998    ·   129

Ramesh Thakur analyses how the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan is more dangerous when compared to the US-Soviet Union relationship during the Cold War.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott will resume talks in New Delhi Monday with Jaswant Singh, the Indian government's point man in defending its nuclear tests to the world. Mr. Talbott would do well to impress upon his Subcontinental hosts just how dangerous the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan is compared with that between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War.



Cold War deterrence was itself more unstable than realized at the time. The thought of India-Pakistan relations being as stable as Cold War deterrence is not very reassuring.



The geostrategic environment of the Subcontinent has no parallel in the Cold War. India and Pakistan share a long border; the United States and the Soviet Union did not. This dramatically shortens the time frame either country would have to decide, during a crisis or war, whether to use nuclear weapons.



The entire province of Kashmir, the source of two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since their independence from Britain in 1947, remains in bitter contention, whereas the United States and the Soviet Union had no direct territorial dispute.



Contiguity permits India and Pakistan to meddle in each other's territory on a scale that was never an option for the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.



India also shares a long border with nuclear-armed China ; it, too, is disputed. This introduces a third element of territorial tension into the strategic equation, which was never the case in the Cold War.



The stability of Cold War deterrence rested on credible second-strike retaliatory capability. Stockpiles, command and control centers and the military-political leadership were protected against a surprise attack that could destroy all of them in one strike. Neither India nor Pakistan has even the most rudimentary basing, command and control systems in place that could survive a nuclear assault.



Moscow and Washington spread their stockpiles across land (on missiles), sea (on submarines) and air (on planes). This three-pronged dispersal added to detection and strike difficulties for an enemy and so buttressed second-strike capability. India and Pakistan lack this stabilizing triad of weapons platforms.



Because of the lack of survivable forces and command centers, both nations are highly vulnerable to a preemptive strike. But there is an inherent asymmetry in the way each calculates risks.



Pakistan cannot match India 's conventional superiority. However, a successful first strike could destroy India 's nuclear capability and paralyze its conventional superiority, and wrest Kashmir from India - or so a government in Islamabad might conclude.



Conversely, a government in New Delhi might conclude that since reciprocal nuclear capability rules out their actual use by either country, it is safe to launch a military strike against Pakistan in punishment for its provocations in Kashmir . There is nothing in the history of the U.S.-Soviet relationship to indicate the eventual outcome of such an adventure.



Finally, all these worries are exacerbated by political volatility in both countries. The government of Pakistan faces economic meltdown and political challenges from Islamist groups and the military.



The government of India is an uneasy coalition of an intensely nationalist party that bases its legitimacy in religion and mythology, and a number of disparate parties that pursue different, and sometimes incompatible, regional agendas.



An extract from International Herald Tribune, Paris , July 20, 1998