Nuclear South Asia is more Stable than You Think

Now posted on Foreign Policy magazine’s South Asia channel is my article arguing that the stability of nuclear deterrence in the region is not as bleak as is widely assumed.

I’ve been making this argument for quite a while.  True, the challenges of fashioning stable deterrence in South Asia cannot be taken lightly in view of the singular intensity of the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry.  The relationship – which combines contiguous but bitterly contested territory, sharp historical animosities, internal frailties vulnerable to outside exploitation, and conflicting national identities – makes for a monstrous security dilemma without parallel in the history of nuclear deterrence.  So there are plenty of reasons for concern.

Yet it is also true that much of the pessimistic analysis about the workings of nuclear deterrence in the region has great trouble in explaining the relative peace in South Asia ever since India and Pakistan became overt nuclear weapon powers 16 years ago this month.  This is a rather large lacuna given the crisis-prone character of the India-Pakistan relationship.

In the years leading up to the 1998 nuclear tests, analysts routinely argued that the lack of reliable early-warning capabilities and the short time-to-target distances involved would inevitably impel both countries to adopt counterforce strategies and preemptive or time-sensitive postures that are liable to precipitous overreaction in the heat of a serious confrontation.  But these predictions have not yet come to pass for either state even after two serious military confrontations:the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” crisis, in which general hostilities seemed nigh and the possibility of nuclear use appeared ominous.  The pessimistic case for nuclear dangers in South Asia would be a whole lot stronger if those making it were able to furnish a better explanation for why similar warnings in the past have fallen short.

What is more, the prevailing pessimism struggles to account for the intensive back-channel peace process both countries engaged in 2004-07.  These diplomatic negotiations ultimately failed to bear fruit, though they reportedly were on the verge of defusing the perennially-inflamed dispute over Kashmir (see the analysis here and here).  At his final press conference earlier this year, now former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed that “it appeared that an important breakthrough was in sight” until late 2007 when domestic political ructions erupted in Pakistan that would eventually lead to Pervez Musharraf’s ouster.  These talks serve as a significant counterpoint to widespread arguments that the nuclearization process in South Asia has only served to foment greater tension and conflict.

Further, the pessimistic perspective tends toward worst-case analysis and exaggerations of Indian and Pakistani capabilities.  Senior U.S. officials during the Clinton administration took to routinely predicting a nuclear conflagration in South Asia.  In Congressional testimony in early 1993, CIA director James Woolsey argued that “The arms race between India and Pakistan poses perhaps the most probable prospect for future use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.”  He added that both countries were able to deliver nuclear bombs via combat aircraft.  Yet according to new research by Gaurav Kampani, New Delhi lacked the technical capacity to air-drop nuclear weapons until the end of 1995.

The point here is not that CIA estimates were off by 2-3 years, but that the opacity which has long shrouded the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs has a way of leading analysts to imagine the worst as well as to downplay how resource constraints, institutional factors and ideational considerations combine to put sharp limits on nuclear proliferation.  For more on this point, see Kampani’s fascinating article and Jacques Hymans’ recent piece in Foreign Affairs.

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