The Perils of Proliferation in South Asia

Linked with K.N. Pandita’s Rejoinder.

(Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (2009). This article first appeared in the April issue of Arms Control Today, – see Michael Krepon’s book review). 

By Michael Krepon,

There have been four nuclear-tinged crises in South Asia since 1990, and new crises could well be generated by religious extremists carrying out mass-casualty attacks.  Several new books on regional stability and crisis management on the subcontinent are therefore timely and well worth reading.  Of particular interest are three collections o essays edited by Peter Lavoy, Scott Sagan, Sumit Ganguly and Paul Kapur.

One point of departure for this literature is a theorem developed in the West during the Cold War known as the “stability-instability” paradox.  Robert Jervis defined the stability-instability paradox this way in The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy: “to the extent that the military balance is stable at the level of all-out nuclear war, it will become less stable at lower levels of violence.”  This working definition assumed that stability could be achieved with large, offsetting nuclear arsenals, a goal that eluded Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons strategists who kept jockeying for advantage-and the avoidance of disadvantage-even after acquiring society-killing stockpiles.  But Jervis’ larger point was well taken and is quite applicable to South Asia: the advent of the Bomb can be perceived as an insurance policy against the most dangerous types of escalation, thereby abetting-mischief making below the nuclear threshold.


One of the many reasons to welcome Peter Lavoy’s long-awaited edited volume, Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia: The Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict, is that Jervis revisits the stability-instability paradox through the lens of Kargil, the high-altitude, limited war between Pakistan and India that occurred at the instigation of a small group of Pakistani military officers the year after both countries carried out nuclear tests.  Jervis’ new formulation is that, “Strategic stability permits if not creates instability by making lower levels of violence relatively safe because escalation up the nuclear ladder is too dangerous.”      

Achieving strategic stability may, however, be even harder for India and Pakistan than for the Soviet Union and the United States.  After experiencing harrowing crises over Berlin and Cuba, Moscow and Washington tacitly agreed not to play with fire in each other’s back yard.  Their strategic competition then played out in more out-of-the-way locales, where missteps were severely punished by proxy forces.  The locus of Indian and Pakistani competition, on the other hand, is the contested back yard of Kashmir, where Western deterrence theory has now been introduced to the agendas of jihadi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad.

India’s and Pakistan’s quest for strategic stability should, in theory, be facilitated by their endorsement of “minimal” nuclear deterrence.  But, as former Indian Minister of External Affairs Jaswant Singh likes to say, “minimal” is not a “fixity.”  Deterrence requirements for India must be calculated with China as well as Pakistan in mind, and no two legs of this triangular stool are equal.  Moreover, both the Indian and Pakistani governments have publicly embraced doctrines of massive retaliation.  India has adopted a “no-first-use” doctrine; Pakistan has not, due to its conventional military imbalance with India, which has led Pakistan’s security apparatus to rely on unconventional means to keep New Delhi off-balance and to tie down large numbers of Indian troops in Jammu and Kashmir.  The Pakistan Army is now carrying out a punishing and partial offensive against those who once were its allies, which is why more mass casualty attacks in urban centers are a sure bet.  The mix of massive-retaliation doctrines, religious extremism, a growing nuclear dependency by Pakistan, and a growing conventional imbalance in India’s favor do not bode well in the event that another crisis prompts military operations.

The books reviewed here reflect a healthy, but lopsided debate between deterrence optimists and proliferation pessimists.  The former believe that offsetting nuclear weapons will keep the peace; the latter maintain that more nuclear weapons will result in more wars and perhaps mushroom clouds.  Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan provided an essential introduction to this debate in their two editions of The Spread of Nuclear Weapons.  One deterrence optimist for South Asia, Devin Hagerty, concluded in The Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: Lessons from South Asia that, “There is no more ironclad law in international relations theory than this: nuclear weapon states do not fight wars with one another.”  Hagerty subsequently amended this conclusion to account for the Kargil War in the collection of essays edited by Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur, Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia: Crisis Behaviour and the Bomb: “Nuclear weapons constituted one of many factors in Islamabad’s decision to undertake low-intensity operations in Kargil, but they were the main factor in containing the ensuing conflict within the Indian side of disputed Kashmir.”

Ganguly and Hagerty are leading proponents of this camp of deterrence optimists.  Their previous collaboration, Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons, concludes that timely and forceful U.S. interventions, a sufficiently stabilizing conventional military order of battle, and, especially, a mutual fear of nuclear escalation have prevented major war and dangerous escalation on the subcontinent.  A more in-depth account of Indian-Pakistani crises written by P.R. Chari, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, and Stephen P. Cohen, Four Crises and a Peace Process, arrives at far more cautionary conclusions.  These authors note that “neither side in our four crises had a sure grasp of the other’s fears and hopes, and at times one or both sides miscalculated the role that outsiders might have played.” Moreover:

 all new nuclear states tend to explore the limits imposed by their possession of nuclear  weapons.  They push at the edges before backing off… Clearly, the occurrence of four major crises within a twenty-year period indicates a fundamental structural problem.   Whether one attributes this primarily to the Kashmir dispute or to other factors, such as    India’s rise as a major power, South Asia has not been a stable and peaceful region, despite the common cultural and geopolitical heritage of the two states.

Kapur is among the ranks of proliferation pessimists, having written at book length shredding the arguments of deterrence optimists.  (Disclaimer: Kapur and this reviewer share the same publisher.)  His co-edited volume with Ganguly, Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia: Crisis Behaviour and the Bomb, is built around the promising idea of pairing a deterrence optimist and a proliferation pessimist to assess each crisis dating back to the 1986-1987 Indian Brasstacks exercises, which some believe were designed by Indian Army chief K. Sundarji to prompt a war with Pakistan before it could acquire nuclear weapons.  This book shines when topnotch analysts are paired against each other, as is the case with Praveen Swami and Kanti Bajpai on the “Twin Peaks” crisis of 2001-2002, which was sparked by the attack on the Indian Parliament building by Islamic extremists.  It disappoints when the chapters are very uneven. 

Neil Joeck’s essay on Kargil is essential reading.  He concludes that “the availability of nuclear weapons on both sides did not prevent war but did increase the potential for a catastrophic outcome.”  In Joeck’s account, both India and Pakistan did what Thomas Schelling told us to expect long ago: they competed in taking risks.  “Despite Pakistan’s having proven its nuclear capability, India was prepared to move up the escalatory ladder.  In view of these actions, it is difficult to conclude that in the Kargil war, escalation did not occur because the stakes were too high.”

Instead, there is compelling evidence, provided in great detail in Lavoy’s book, that significant conventional escalation did not occur for three primary reasons: Indian troops began to reclaim the heights above Kargil, Pakistani military and diplomatic position had become untenable, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided to cut his country’s losses.

John H. Gill provides another cautionary note in his fine chapter on Brasstacks in the Ganguly and Kapur volume: government and institutional structures in India, as well as in Pakistan, “remain vulnerable to individualistic decision-makers and bureaucratic shortcuts.” In the case of Brasstacks, India was the source of military adventurism enabled by an appalling lack of vetting and coordination; in Kargil, it was Pakistan’s turn to make the same mistakes.  In both cases, the role of key individuals with outsized and risk-taking personalities was crucial. 

The essays by proliferation pessimists in Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia: Crisis Behaviour and the Bomb are, on balance, stronger analytically than those of deterrence optimists, who necessarily rely on more heroic assumptions.  The co-editors punt on the contrary findings of their contributors, offering a two-paragraph summary of key conclusions, one of which is that, “the disagreements between the two camps may turn largely on their views as to whether dangerous crisis process or stable crisis outcome matters more.”   

Scott Sagan has long dwelled on how strong personalities, domestic politics, accidents, and organizational compulsions and screw-ups could lead to a breakdown of deterrence.  His new edited volume, Inside Nuclear South Asia, provides many cautionary notes. (Disclaimer: Sagan and this reviewer share the same publisher.  Sagan warns once again that the rational deterrence model presumes unitary actors, whereas India and Pakistan are anything but unitary actors.  He also cautions that the role of the Pakistani military on nuclear matters is unlikely to be circumscribed by civilian oversight, insider threats will continue to work against efforts to improve nuclear security, Indian nuclear doctrine is evolving in open-ended and potentially dangerous ways, and new complications will arise if and when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returns to power in India. 

Kanti Bajpai’s essay, “The BJP and the Bomb,” is particularly good.  While acknowledging that Indian security concerns played a major role leading up to the Pokhran tests, he argues that “the timing of the 1998 tests, the tipping point, is better explained by domestic political considerations.” If, as Bajpai concludes, “The BJP played politics with the bomb” in order to extend its stay in power, and if the BJP forms a new government, more nuclear testing could be in store on the subcontinent.  

Paul Kapur’s chapter argues that the Cold War definition of the stability-instability paradox does not apply to South Asia since, if it did, the Pakistani military would be deterred from employing unconventional means against India’s superior conventional forces.  This academic distinction appears to have been lost on Pakistan’s security apparatus.  As Kapur himself notes:

Pakistani leaders soon came to believe that this danger of nuclear escalation, by insulating Pakistan from Indian conventional attack, would allow Pakistan not simply to ensure its own security but also to pursue a strategy of limited conflict against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir

One of the many strengths of Kapur’s essay is his interviews with key Indian and Pakistani leaders.

Peter Lavoy’s edited volume, Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia, provides great insight into a war previously shrouded in secrecy and self-serving accounts.  Lavoy and his team of analysts at the Naval Postgraduate School carried out extensive fieldwork and were granted access to key Pakistani military officers.  They situate the Kargil War in the context of military jockeying along the Kashmir divide, where the capture of posts across the Line of Control (LoC) was not unusual, and where Pakistan suffered the humiliating occupation of the Siachen Glacier by Indian troops in 1984.  Some of the contributors, including Lavoy and Feroz Hassan Khan, downplay but do not dismiss the stability-instability paradox as a factor in Kargil.  In effect, they argue that Kargil’s planners were too myopically focused on military tactics to dwell on deterrence theory: 

The planners of Kargil assumed that India would not respond to what they considered to be localized military maneuvers on superior terrain with military escalation, and even if it did, Pakistani troops, together with pressure from allies, would be able to neutralize any possible Indian riposte.  They were sorely mistaken.

The military planners of Kargil were few in number, inclined toward risk-taking, and badly out of touch with the international ramifications of nuclear testing on the subcontinent and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s subsequent trip to Lahore to open a new, hopeful chapter in bilateral relations.  Their plan was tactically brilliant and strategically unwise.  They became victims of their successful plan when Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry troops advanced far beyond their assigned objectives because there was no one on the heights to stop them.  Their positions became overextended and hard to resupply-especially since Pakistan was trapped by its cover story that “freedom fighters” and not troops carried out the incursion.      

In Lavoy’s view, one lesson of Kargil is that “the armed forces of nuclear powers can fight each other, but only where their vital interests are not at stake.” He provides ammunition to both deterrence optimists and proliferation pessimists.  On the one hand, Lavoy notes that both India and Pakistan avoided key escalatory steps and concludes that, “The Kargil conflict did not come close to causing a nuclear war,” in part because, contrary to the reports of some U.S. officials at the time, “Neither Pakistan nor India readied its nuclear arms for employment.”  On the other hand, he adds, “we now know that Indian troops were within days of opening another front across the LoC and possibly the international border, an act that could have triggered a large-scale conventional military engagement.” His conclusions that India and Pakistan did not come close to uncontrolled escalation and yet came close to a major conventional war are not easily reconcilable. 

Lavoy has assembled an all-star cast of analysts.  There is not one weak chapter in the book, and those by Lavoy, Feroz Khan, Christopher Clary, John H. Gill, Praveen Swami, Rajesh M. Basrur, Hasan-Askari Rizvi, and Jervis are particularly good.  These authors draw varying lessons from Kargil.  Hasan-Askari Rizvi, perhaps Pakistan’s leading commentator on civil-military relations, is not sanguine, politely suggesting that “it is unclear if Pakistan has learned the lesson of institutional decision-making.”  Rajesh Basrur, knowing full well how resistant Indian institutions are to adaptation, offers a decidedly mixed appraisal of India’s ability to implement the lessons of Kargil.  One of Lavoy’s lessons of crisis management is particularly chilling:

Even some nuclear-armed countries will fight where they think they can… However, India and Pakistan run two high risks in this strategic competition.  They risk losing militarily.  But they also risk winning so much that the other side is compelled to escalate the conflict.   

One significant analytical problem with crisis management is that the next crisis will have both new and familiar dimensions.  The lessons learned and unlearned about Kargil will certainly be crucial.  But the next template for crisis management for India, Pakistan, and the United States is unlikely to be Kargil.  Rather, it will be the November 2008 Mumbai attacks against iconic Indian targets by Islamic extremists with links to Pakistan.  If New Delhi responds by carrying out its “Cold Start” doctrine of quick air strikes along with the seizure of some Pakistani territory, the next crisis on the subcontinent could be a show topper.

Comments are closed.