Pakistan’s Evolving Nuclear Weapon Posture: Impact on Deterrence Stability

This essay provides an overview of the ongoing quantitative and qualitative changes in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and their impact on deterrence stability vis-à-vis India. Prominent among these trends is a major expansion in fissile material production that enables the manufacture of lighter and more compact warheads optimized for battlefield missions; the development of cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles possessing dual-use capabilities; and a greater emphasis in doctrinal pronouncements on the need for strike options geared to all levels of conflict. Although these trends pose problematic ramifications for the risks of unauthorized and inadvertent escalation, deterrence stability in South Asia is not as precarious as many observers fear. The challenges of fashioning a robust nuclear peace between India and Pakistan cannot be lightly dismissed, however, and policy makers would do well to undertake some reinforcing measures.

Read the full essay in a special issue on “Nuclear Stability in South Asia” published this week in The Nonproliferation Review.

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Musharraf Needs a History Lesson on Kargil

My last post took issue with the historical amnesia of some Indian political leaders regarding the record of diplomatic engagement with Pakistan.  I turn my attention now to the self-serving reading of the 1999 Kargil mini-war between the two countries being offered by Pervez Musharraf, who was Pakistan’s army chief at the time and is currently in the dock facing charges of high treason for suspending the Constitution and implementing emergency rule in 2007.

In remarks the other week, Musharraf claimed he initiated the conflict in order to retaliate against India’s military intervention into the 1971 political crisis in East Pakistan that eventuated into the creation of Bangladesh as well as India’s 1984 surprise seizure of the Siachen Glacier, an uninhabitable stretch of the Himalayas north of Kashmir that is contested by both militaries.  As Musharraf boasted, “I believed in a tit-for-tat policy on all fronts.”

He has advanced this point before, such as in his 2006 memoir in which he contended that the Kargil operation was a splendid tactical success that was undone by the fecklessness of then- Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.  But the truth of the matter is far less flattering to Musharraf’s reputation as a military leader and to the Pakistani army’s claim of institutional competence.

The Kargil conflict, named for a town in the mountainous reaches of northern Kashmir around which the fighting took place, began in early 1999 when a sizeable Pakistani force (numbering at least 1,500 – 2,000 and perhaps more) of lightly-armed mountain infantry troops infiltrated across the Line of Control – as the Kashmir divide between Indian and Pakistani troops is called – and seized large swaths of rugged territory that had been vacated by Indian soldiers during the winter.  By the time the intruders were discovered in May, they had occupied over 300 square miles of Indian territory and were in a position to interdict a strategic highway linking the Siachen Glacier to the rest of Kashmir.

In response, New Delhi launched a fierce and sustained counterattack.  The ensuing two-month battle featured intense ground fighting, heavy artillery barrages and the first combat sorties undertaken by the Indian air force since the Bangladesh war.  The crisis was finally defused by a combination of Indian battlefield successes and U.S. diplomatic intervention.

Significant details about the conflict remain a matter of debate, including the casualty figures.  Two years ago, the Indian defense minister reported that 530 battle deaths occurred on the Indian side, though the Indian army’s official website lists the number at close to 1,000.  And while Pakistan refuses to disclose its losses, observers estimate 400-700 fatalities.

Two recent sources have provided important clarification to parts of the historical record, however.  The first is a 2009 study of the crisis that is the most authoritative to emerge to date.  The second is a series of disclosures (here and here) made last year by retired General Shahid Aziz, who was the head of the analysis branch of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency during the crisis.  He would later go on to serve as director-general of military operations and chief of the general staff – both prestigious positions in the Pakistani army.

The two sources paint a far less heroic portrait than the one Musharraf supplies.  To start, Musharraf and a handful of other military leaders planned the Kargil operation in such isolation that little thought was given to broader coordination within the Pakistani army as a whole, the other military services or the wider government.  The lack of foresight resulted in utter disarray in Islamabad’s response once the Indians discovered the incursion.  Aziz, for example, calls Musharraf’s scheme an “unsound military plan based on invalid assumptions, launched with little preparations and in total disregard to the regional and international environment.”

Moreover, the failure to prepare for the possibility of an Indian counterattack meant that no provision was made for troop reinforcement and logistical supply of units occupying captured territory.  And Islamabad’s desperate insistence once the battle was joined that the intruders were not Pakistani soldiers but jihadis over whom it had little control all but foreclosed coming to their rescue. Aziz is particularly harsh on this latter point, excoriating Musharraf for sending men into battle without doing detailed planning and then abandoning them once the fighting began.

As I noted last year when Aziz’s disclosures first surfaced, Musharraf’s misleading puffery has relevance beyond the question of who bears personal blame for the Kargil fiasco.  It taps into a false narrative long sustained by the Pakistani army, in which it is the only institution capable of safeguarding the nation’s well-being against India’s external depredations and the domestic follies of civilian-led administrations.

This line has decisively warped civil-military relations throughout Pakistan’s history.  Musharraf used it to justify his coup against Nawaz Sharif a few months after the Kargil crisis wound down.  And aided by subservient media outlets, it has been employed in the post-Musharraf period to undermine two successive elected governments seeking to improve relations with India, the first led by Asif Ali Zardari in 2008-2013 and now the one run by Sharif, who is back in a return engagement as prime minister.  But as the record of the Kargil conflict makes clear, the army’s narrative is far from solid.  The sooner it is discredited, the better for Pakistan’s development as a democratic polity.

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Pakistan: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Strikes Again

My last post examined the significant anti-state violence in Pakistan caused by a myriad of non-state actors residing within its borders, and highlighted the danger of freebooting jihadis mounting terrorist operations aimed at catalyzing unwanted tensions between Islamabad and its neighbors.  The problem is rooted in what can be called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice syndrome, from Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of conjuring up proxies one cannot ultimately control.  Among other things, it raises difficult questions for how New Delhi and, to a lesser extent, Tehran structure credible deterrence equations with a country that is being challenged internally by capable militant elements it once supported.

Two developments in the last month or so underscore these points.  The first is an audacious seaborne jihadi assault upon a naval dockyard in Karachi, which Pakistani security forces were only able to beat back following a six-hour gunfight.  According to a detailed statement by the newly-formed Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the strike had a two-fold objective.  One was to take control of a Pakistani frigate and “steer it toward the Indian waters in order to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles.”  The other aim was to seize another frigate and use it to attack U.S. Navy vessels operating in the region.

If successful, the operation would have vastly exacerbated Pakistan’s fraught relations with New Delhi and Washington.  During the recent electoral campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “zero-tolerance policy” against Pakistan-sourced terrorist attacks, and he has pursued a noticeably tougher line in the on-going skirmishes along the Kashmir divide than his predecessor.  As a senior official in the Indian home ministry puts it, “The message we have been given from the prime minister’s office is very clear and precise. The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses.”

Speaking a few days ago, Modi reiterated this stance, proclaiming:

Today, when bullets are being fired on the border, it is the enemy that is screaming. Our jawans [soldiers] have responded to the aggression with courage. The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated… People know my intentions and I need not express those in words. When the jawans have to speak, they speak with their fingers on the trigger… and they will continue to speak that way.

Given the new political atmosphere in India, a naval engagement initiated by Pakistan-based jihadis could quickly escalate into a perilous military confrontation between New Delhi and Islamabad.  And an attack upon U.S. Navy ships by these groups carries its own dangers.

Following the May 2010 car bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square by a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, the Obama administration put Islamabad on notice that future terrorist attacks on American soil emanating from Pakistan would result in retaliatory military action.  Indeed, President Obama used an October 2010 White House meeting with Pakistani senior officials, including then-army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to repeat this message, which according to Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington at the time “sounded more ominous coming directly from the president of the United States.”

The second development is an increasing series of attacks by Pakistan-based Sunni insurgents upon border posts in the Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran, which is roiled by a disgruntled Sunni minority in the predominately Shiite country. The assaults have caused Tehran to warn that it will launch hot-pursuit operations into Pakistan if Islamabad fails to control its borders.

[UPDATE, October 17: The deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps yesterday reiterated that Tehran reserves the option of launching military strikes into Pakistan if Islamabad fails to take action against Baluchi rebels staging cross-border attacks.]

[UPDATE, October 18: A Pakistani paramilitary officer was killed and four other personnel were injured yesterday when their vehicle came under fire by Iranian border guards.  Dozens of Iranian troops also raided a village along the Iran-Pakistan border.  More on these developments here, here and here.]

So much of the regional security environment in South Asia turns on a Pakistan that is unable to keep its raging domestic turmoil from spilling over into the neighborhood. Expect to see more of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as the country’s internal travails mount.

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Pakistan: Will the Youth Bulge turn into a Democratic Dividend?

I argued in an earlier post that much of Pakistan’s future direction will hinge on events unfolding this year.  The first of these are the national elections scheduled for May 11, which could be decided by a large number of first-time voters.  These voters are the product of one of the world’s largest youth bulges and their electoral impact is a critical indicator to watch for.

India tends to receive most of the attention when it comes to mind-boggling demographic trends, though its western neighbor is no laggard either.  True, India is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in about a decade or so.  But by some estimates, Pakistan eclipsed Brazil to move into the fifth position last year and could pass over Indonesia to take the fourth spot by 2030.  Yes, India will add the equivalent of Europe’s labor force over the next 15 years and end up supplying a full quarter of the global workforce.  But Pakistan’s population nearly doubled over the past two decades and its working-age population is growing at a faster clip than the overall population.  Pakistan also is a younger country, with a median age of 22 versus 26 in India.  And according to Forbes magazine, Karachi is the world’s fastest-growing megacity, with its population expanding 80 percent in 2000-2010.  Such dramatic growth helps to explain the city’s steady slide into chaos (see here and here).

In theory, the youth bulges in India and Pakistan are good things, since a growing proportion of workers to non-workers in a society – what is often termed the “demographic dividend” – helps propel capital accumulation and economic growth.  Youth bulges played an important role in powering the East Asian economic miracle from 1965-1990.   But it is unclear whether this pattern will be replicated in South Asia, since India and Pakistan have difficulty in generating productive employment for new entrants to their labor forces. Continue reading

Kargil Disclosures and the Nuclear Proliferation Debate

My last post focused on the domestic implications in Pakistan of the latest revelations about the 1999 Kargil mini-war.  Since the crisis is a key point of contention – a sort of Rorschach test, really – in the debate over whether the proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia has stabilized or aggravated the India-Pakistan rivalry, it’s also worth taking another look at two important points regarding Kargil’s nuclear dimensions:

  • Did Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May 1998 embolden the Kargil planners, especially Pervez Musharraf, the newly-appointed chief of army staff, to undertaken the ill-advised operation just a few months later?
  • Did the perceived success of Pakistan’s small nuclear arsenal in deterring fulsome Indian retaliation during the crisis give Musharraf the security confidence to embark upon an intensive back-channel peace process in 2004-07 that reportedly was on the verge of defusing the perennially-inflamed dispute over Kashmir? Continue reading

Pakistan: The Kargil Debate Resurfaces

My last post noted how skirmishes in the disputed Kashmir region last month have put a spanner in the promising rapprochement between India and Pakistan.  This is a familiar theme in bilateral affairs.  The exemplar of how military tussles in Kashmir can escalate into a wider confrontation and subvert important diplomatic initiatives is the 1999 Kargil mini-war.  By sheer coincidence, new revelations about the conflict emerged in Pakistan just as the recent fighting broke out.  With the country about to kick off a raucous electoral season, these disclosures have current relevance since they concern actions taken back then by Pakistani leaders who are still on the political scene.  More fundamentally, however, they touch on the very essence of the Pakistani state. Continue reading

Pakistan in 2013: The Year of Living Dangerously

In earlier posts (here and here), I argued that Pakistani politics would be fraught with turbulence in 2013, with one of the key casualties being the fragile détente process that has recently emerged between New Delhi and Islamabad.  Two weeks into the year, events are already conspiring to validate this assessment.

Pakistan, the most important country on everyone’s roster of failed states in the making, is once again in the throes of political chaos.  The Supreme Court, led by maverick Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has just ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption charges arising from Ashraf’s earlier stint as the federal minister in charge of power production.  Two years ago, the judiciary ousted him from the post when it found that a program he oversaw to spur private generation of electricity was riddled with graft.  The latest action is sure to aggravate what was already shaping up to be a chaotic round of parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in the next few months. Continue reading