In the aftermath of the Pulwama crisis, developments at the regional and international levels have weakened the nuclear taboo in South Asia. In post-Pulwama, strategic environment escalation trends have vertically spiraled. Nuclear nationalism and jingoistic media coverage fuel public sentiment.
Pro-war and anti-peace rhetoric have been found in public clamor supplemented by bellicose comments made by the political leadership. However, nuclear restraint/taboo needs to be strengthened in South Asia by employing Arms Control Measures (ACM), Confidence Building Measures (CBM), and diplomatic engagements at various levels to stabilize the strategic environment.
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What’s a nuclear taboo?
The non-use of nuclear weapons is the essence of nuclear deterrence and the single most important feature of the present nuclear era. The nuclear taboo is a normative inhibition of Nuclear First Use (NFU) accounting for the catastrophic nature of its use. Sannia Abdullah in her article, “Pakistan and the Evolving Debate on the Nuclear Taboo” questioned the very nature of nuclear restraint in South Asia. She is skeptical about the proposition put forward by Nina Tannenwald that nuclear restraint in South Asia is driven by moral considerations than the principle of military utility. Prof. Scott Sagan defines the principle of military utility that choices about weapons and tactics are determined by the logic of consequences rather than moral considerations. In the South Asian context, the principle of military utility has contributed more than moral considerations to keep the fragile nuclear restraint intact.
During the Pulwama crisis, the Indian Prime Minister had a strong incentive to take aggressive action to appease Hindu hard-liners for the upcoming election. In the aftermath of this crisis, each side withdrew different lessons. Modi asserted in a public rally on August 18, 2019, that India had called “Pakistan’s Nuclear Bluff”. Indian leaders cherished that in the future we can carry out punitive conventional strikes deep inside Pakistan while controlling escalation. Reprisal by Pakistan Air Force instilled confidence in military top brass and civilian leadership that the Indian “hit and run” war strategy had been debunked and a new normal was established. Issue of crisis escalation in South Asia undermines nuclear taboo and creates ethical, logical, and legal grounds for NFU by Pakistan in the right of self-defense to restore comprehensive deterrence.
Conventional asymmetry between India and Pakistan is destabilizing the strategic environment in South Asia. Indian tilt towards counter-force pre-emption undermines nuclear taboo by encouraging NFU. In any such contingency, Pakistan may fire the nukes first to avoid the “use-it or lose-it” dilemma. Arms Control Measures (ACM’s) focusing on Ballistic Missing Defenses (BMD), precision conventional weapons, hypersonic and supersonic missiles should be placed. Limitations should be placed on the supply of disruptive and destabilizing systems to South Asia.
In South Asia, nuclear transparency can be fostered by Confidence Building Measures (CBM’s). The measures include information exchanges on nuclear safety and security between officials of the nuclear command center, pre-launch notifications of ballistic and cruise missiles, establishing hotlines and declarations on excluding strategic sites from targeting lists.
Cyber-attacks on Nuclear Command, Control and Communication (NC3) injunction with conventional counter-force would be a complete kill chain including target identification, force dispatch, decision, order to attack, and destruction. There is a dire need for arms control in cyber and outer space. Technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics must be subjected to ACM’s. Anti-Satellite Missile Technology has undermined strategic stability in South Asia. Accounting for the stalemate in the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty, bi-lateral mechanisms should be established between Pakistan and India to regulate arms in outer space.
Normative values defying NFU can be strengthened by encouraging public diplomacy across the borders to highlight moral considerations in debates over arms control, the deployment of new missile systems, ballistic missile defense, and the consequences of nuclear war. In the South Asian context, academics must exchange views on various approaches to arms control and reducing tensions with candor, continuity, and flexibility.
Recognizing cultural synergies and enhanced people-to-people interactions would fester socio-economic cooperation between the two neighbors. Cultural diplomacy can be used as a tool to highlight the devastating consequences of a nuclear use. Indo-Pak has remained a home to many mosques, temples, and shrines for centuries. These historical buildings have a religious and cultural significance for the masses across the border. A bi-lateral organization should be established to protect historic architecture from falling prey to nuclear adventurism. Enhanced bi-lateral trade would sponsor increased economic interdependence thus limiting the scope of military pursuits. Artists from Pakistan and India should collaborate to release a movie on havoc associated with nuclear use.
Amidst the bleak narratives of hatred and distrust, let the history of shared culture prevail. Let the dovish narrative prevail over the hawkish mindset. Since 1945 nuclear non-use has been preserved as an international norm. Political leaders in India and Pakistan must avoid brinkmanship to ensure peace and prosperity in the region. Economic, cultural, and academic interlinkages alongside ACM’s and CBM’s would develop a sound normative framework to reign in nuclear nationalism thus strengthening nuclear taboo in South Asia.
The writer is a graduate of Defense & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad. He holds certifications from Stimson Center USA, United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, EU consortium of Non-Proliferation, International Atomic Energy Agency, and Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research. He has contributed to Strafasia on nuclear strategy. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.