Nuclear Risk-Reduction Redux in South Asia

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By Michael Krepon – India and Pakistan are resuming official talks after the nineteen-month hiatus resulting from the Mumbai attacks, but neither seems to place much urgency on putting in place new nuclear risk-reduction measures (NRRMs). India wants to focus on terrorism, while Pakistan wants to focus on water and Kashmir. Other subjects once covered under the previously agreed “composite dialogue” format, including the agenda item on peace and security in which NRRMs were discussed, now appear to be of secondary interest.

Delhi’s and Islamabad’s mutual disinterest in intensive diplomatic engagement is both understandable and unfortunate. Previous spurts of hopeful engagement have been ruptured by acts of mass casualty terrorism directed by Pakistani nationals against symbolic venues in India. The perpetrators have usually had ties to extremist groups that have not been greatly disturbed by Pakistan’s security apparatus. Delhi now expects little to come from resuscitating dialogue, and Islamabad refuses to want diplomatic success stories more than India. All parties, including Washington, the subcontinent’s presumed crisis manager, await the next big explosion on Indian soil. In the meantime and in the absence of high-level interventions, cautious Indian and Pakistani civil servants who have been entrusted with the stately process of re-engagement will continue to meet and issue polite press statements.

In December 2001, promising India-Pakistan ties were severed after an attack by Pakistani nationals against the Indian Parliament building, which led to the mobilization of both armies. A subsequent mass casualty attack directed against the dependents of Indian soldiers in May 2002 raised fears of another conventional war on the subcontinent, but the Indian Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee, saw a war as doing more harm than good.

At this point, the Carnegie Corporation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative enabled the Stimson Center to convene Track II workshops to lend impetus to NRRMs on the subcontinent. Stimson convened workshops in 2002 and 2003 with well-connected Indians and Pakistanis, most of whom had previously served with distinction in government positions and military assignments.

At our 2002 workshop, held in the shadow of the “Twin Peaks” crisis, participants discussed two worrisome scenarios – unconventional attacks leading to an escalatory spiral, and a conventional war leading to a nuclear exchange. Back then, such discussions were unusual, even in Track II. But because we focused on the scenario of extremist groups acting beyond governmental control -and perhaps because both governments could no longer be dismissive about this scenario – New Delhi and Islamabad “green lighted” our unofficial discussions.

At the conclusion of this workshop, participants endorsed an ambitious work agenda for their governments consisting of 37 agenda items to improve bilateral relations, implement NRRMs, exercise strategic restraint, improve safety, security, and communications.

The 2003 workshop entered deeper uncharted waters by using the scenarios of a terrorist attack using a “dirty” bomb and an improvised nuclear device that produced a mushroom cloud. The discussions that followed prompted a commonly agreed work agenda to reduce nuclear dangers. Our participants agreed to focus on “practicable as well as desirable measures that could be implemented as soon as possible.” These included establishing National Risk Reduction Centers, missile-related confidence-building measures, discussing key strategic terminology, making declarations of responsible nuclear stewardship, and increasing awareness of nuclear dangers.

This excursion down memory lane was triggered by a press release dated June 24, 2010, announcing that a University of Ottawa-led Track II program with former officials, retired military officers, and academics from India and Pakistan produced an action plan to help stabilize their nuclear relationship. Their “to do” list is indistinguishable from the ones Stimson compiled eight years ago.

Unless India, Pakistan and the United States can summon greater urgency to take preventative measures, eight years hence, after more mass casualty acts of terrorism and more crises, another NGO may see fit to convene another Track II event that produces similar recommendations. For now, Delhi seems convinced that NRRMs aren’t worth significant effort, as they do not fundamentally alter the behavior of Pakistan’s security apparatus and the outfits that provokes crises. Pakistan’s military leadership sees little sense of urgency to pursue this agenda, focusing instead on more concrete manifestations of security, such as modernizing its nuclear deterrent and preparing to counter India’s Cold Start military doctrine. Nor is the pursuit of NRRMs high on Washington’s list of talking points, which are dominated by Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s selective military campaigns against extremist groups.

These well rehearsed arguments leave little room for traction on the diplomatic front. One central irony here is that, if these rationales for complacency are correct, they nonetheless point toward the greater relevance of NRRMs. Moreover, little creativity or heavy lifting is required to add to their number, since preparatory work has already been done.

All of which raises the fundamental question of what constitutes the basic, minimal requirements of responsible states possessing nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and neither is keen to accept a moratorium on the production of bomb-making fissile material. Pakistan is blocking the start of negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty. Shall disinterest in the negotiation of bilateral NRRMs now be added to this list?

*The full report from Stimson’s NRRM workshops is available here.

Photo Credit: At the end of the guard changing ceremony at the Pakistan-India border the respective flags are lowered. Tore Urnes,[email protected]/2663808130/Flags

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009).

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