Written by Rizwan Zeb.

Since the 1980s, nuclear weapons have figured prominently in Indo-Pakistan conflicts. Even before the overt nuclearization of both countries in 1998, nuclear weapons played a decisive role in at least two crises; Brasstacks and the Compound Crisis of 1990. After nuclearization, India and Pakistan twice came close to a nuclear confrontation according to various accounts: the Kargil conflict in 1999 and the military standoff in 2002.

Kargil conflict

The Kargil conflict (May-July 1999) was limited in space, yet it lasted longer than any other Indo-Pak war and resulted in approximately 1700 deaths on both sides. New Delhi is of the view that it was the Pakistan army’s belief that the Indian army was exhausted and suffering from low morale due to its long-drawn-out involvement in anti-insurgency operations in Kashmir that led to this operation. Islamabad claims that this operation was a pre-emptive operation to the possible Indian operation in the Shaqma sector with the objective of weakening Pakistan’s ability to effectively interdict the Dras-Kargil road. Another group of Pakistani analysts link this operation to the larger Kashmir problem and the Siachen conflict of 1984. Therefore, according to their reasoning, the Kargil conflict also falls under similar “nibbling” operations that had acquired some legitimacy over the years.

The conflict started with emerging reports of intruders on the Indian side of the LoC on 6 May 1999 and ended with an announcement by Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, soon after his visit to the United States and meeting with president Clinton, that Islamabad would withdraw its troops. The Indians throughout the crisis practised coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis Washington. New Delhi on more than one occasion made it clear to the Americans that unless they pressurised Islamabad to pull back it would have to escalate the situation by opening up another front.

This crisis was unique in several aspects. During the crisis, communication between the two states remained active and their prime ministers kept talking, unlike earlier conflicts in which communication links were among the first casualties. Niaz Naik, a seasoned diplomat, and veteran journalist R.K. Mishra represented Pakistan and India respectively. Both had several rounds of talks which continued even during the Kargil Conflict.

If American electronic intelligence is to be believed, it was during the Kargil conflict that Pakistan allegedly moved its nuclear weapons for a possible deployment. Bruce Riedel, who was present at the Sharif-Clinton meeting, claimed the American president told the Pakistani prime minister about the movement and warned that any such movement would bring the two countries much closer to a nuclear war.

Another important aspect of this crisis is that India made a cognisant effort to remain focused on the Kargil sector and not open another front. This is something totally against the previous Indian behaviour during the 1965 Operation Gibraltar, when the Indians crossed the international border and attacked Pakistan. A number of South Asia watchers believe that this restraint was due to the introduction of nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pak strategic dynamics.

2002 military stand-off

The attack on the Srinagar legislative assembly on 1 October 2001 and another on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001 provoked a massive Indian military mobilisation and a year-long stand-off between India and Pakistan. The Vajpayee-led Indian administration was quick to put the blame on Pakistan, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. A list of demands was given to Islamabad which was rejected by then President Musharraf.

Within days, India mobilised almost 80,000 troops including its three-strike corps as well as its Air Force and Navy. Pakistan counter-mobilised. This resulted into a military stand-off in which both armed forces stood eyeball to eyeball. During the year-long stand-off, on more than one occasion India wanted to cross the LoC and attack Pakistan. However, such plans were ultimately cancelled.

After the end of the stand-off, President Musharraf stated that had India decided to cross the LoC or the international border, it would have been “unconventional war” on India. Reacting to this, George Fernandes, then Defence Minister of India, claimed that there would be “no Pakistan left if India retaliated with nuclear weapons of its own.”

Perhaps the most ironic feature of this year-long military mobilisation was that instead of Pakistan, which is considered to be the one threatening nuclear war in the region to achieve its objectives, this time it was India threatening nuclear war, primarily aimed at the United States, to pressure Pakistan.

One thing that becomes obvious looking at these Indo-Pakistan crises is how a militarily weaker Pakistan, without sufficient strategic depth, places its reliance on nuclear weapons to ensure its national defence. With the increasing conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons for the latter assume the role of an essential penalty to offset India’s conventional superiority. This is exactly why Pakistan has opted for a first use policy and has kept its nuclear threshold undefined.

Rizwan Zeb, Ph.D., is Research Fellow, South Asia Study Group (SASG), University of Sydney and associate professor, Iqra University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He specializes in South Asian Security Affairs and has researched and published extensively on Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, security and learning. His publications include ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: How Safe is Safe Enough? Transparency versus Opacity’ in Defence and Security Analysis, (2014, Vol. 30 (3)); ‘Pakistan’s Nukes: How Safe is Safe Enough? Swords and Ploughshares’, (2010, Vol. XVIII (1), Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS), University of Illinois; Deterrence Stability, Nuclear Redlines and India-Pakistan conventional Imbalance, Spot Light on Regional Affairs, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, 5, April-May 2009; David versus Goliath? Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine: Motivations, Principles and Future, Defense and Security Analysis, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 387–408, December 2006. He tweets at @SRizwanZeb. Image Credit: CC Wikimedia Commons.

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