Seventeen years have passed since we conducted our five nuclear tests on the 28th of May, 1998 in the barren wastes of Chagai in Balochistan. The tests were conducted in direct response to India’s six nuclear tests of Operation Shakti held on May 11 and 13 the same year.
The Indian nuclear tests were a shock for Pakistan and made us realise the precarious strategic predicament we were in. The second important realisation was the fact that the Indian tests did not result in any punitive action by the international community against India for having violated the established norm of nuclear non-proliferation. After much debate in policymaking circles and an agonising two weeks or so later, Pakistan decided to do its own tests to counter the Indian action. On May 28, Pakistan achieved strategic parity with India, which remains in place despite many ups and downs through all these tumultuous years. Our nuclear capability is the great equaliser of the bilateral equation.
The Indian and Pakistani tests represented overt nuclearisation of both countries and incurred the ire of the international community. Interestingly, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1172 of June 6, 1998, condemning the nuclear tests of both India and Pakistan came after Pakistan had also conducted tests, leaving the intriguing possibility open that no action may have been taken by the Security Council against India had Pakistan not followed suit.
Both India and Pakistan were also subjected to US comprehensive sanctions under the Symington and Glenn Amendments, while Pakistan was additionally sanctioned under the provisions of the country-specific Pressler Amendment. However, these censorious measures became in the years to come less and less onerous and burdensome. India got off scot-free with Clinton’s visit in 2000, when the US moved towards a new relationship with India, followed up by the Bush administration’s fully articulated strategic partnership initiated in 2005 leading to the infamous Indo-US nuclear deal. Pakistan fended for itself all those years, but also got off the hook in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the American need for Pakistan in the war on terror.
Be that as it may, it is in the bilateral context that the strategic deterrence of India and Pakistan came into play. The nuclearisation of the two countries has led to a strategic parity that prevents armed conflict. The first test of the principle of deterrence was seen in the Kargil conflict of 1999, which did not lead to all-out war. Then came the 2002 terrorist attack against the Indian parliament, which led to Indian massing of troops along the nearly 3000kms border between the two countries, but no further escalation occurred till the end of the crisis.
In 2004, India came up with the Cold Start doctrine, which conceived of massive incursions into Pakistan within 72 hours under a nuclear overhang that would avoid a nuclear confrontation. It has not been activated so far, and may no longer be favoured by the Indian military partly because its efficacy has been compromised by Pakistan’s response of developing tactical nuclear weapons, which may stymie any adventure of that sort. Finally the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 could also have been a pretext for India to launch an attack on Pakistan, but the nuclear deterrence between the two countries held. Thus the seventeen years have seen the principle of deterrence neither violated nor compromised.
India and Pakistan have a history of hostile relationship and India’s growing conventional capabilities (further augmented by the west for commercial and geopolitical reasons) coupled with its provocative military doctrines continue to pose a wide-ranging threat for Pakistan. On its part, Pakistan seeks to balance its military capabilities by combination of nuclear and conventional strategies. The point is that Pakistan is merely responding to the threat environment being constructed around it as it did by conducting its nuclear tests in 1998.
The development of the Nasr missile system is a case in point. Furthermore, Pakistan has established a robust and centralised nuclear command and control system and there are no indicators that Pakistan will ‘delegate’ nuclear strike responsibility to the lower end of chain of command. The fears of theft and miscalculations are thus unfounded.
At a broader level, the nuclear discourse about the region in the Subcontinent remains disturbing. India’s acquisition of advanced weapons system, along with sophisticated missile-defence systems, provocative war fighting doctrines under a nuclear overhang can only make strategic stability more fragile. Prior to coming into power, the BJP in its manifesto talked about making changes in the Indian nuclear doctrine. Although the evidence till now is of continuity but this situation may not remain static. Moreover, the change of government in India has, among other things, also impacted the regional strategic discourse. It is pertinent to mention here that India remains nonresponsive to many constructive proposals by Pakistan such as a Strategic Restraint Regime that has the potential to increase strategic stability in South Asia.
On the nuclear diplomatic front, the post-1998 nuclear test environment has been favourable to India alone. India’s likely entry into the exclusive cartels of nuclear technology and material would disturb the strategic balance in the region and may trigger an arms competition, involving not only Pakistan and India but China as well.
The fact is that the two states have been treated differently by the international community. India is being facilitated to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group in contravention of the NSG criteria and Article 1 of NPT, while the same is being denied to Pakistan. In fact, India’s case for entry into other multilateral export control regimes like the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement is also being pushed.
Looking ahead to the next decade, Pakistan would be moving confidently forward in consolidating its deterrent nuclear capabilities. The strategic landscape during the May 1998 tests was altogether different from the contemporary era. By inference, therefore, the policy of exclusion may also be outdated and the world must adjust itself and benefit from normalising its relationship with Pakistan.
The writer is a former ambassador.