How nuclear weapons changed the face of conflict in South Asia

Salma Malik reviews Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments - US Crisis Management in South Asia

How nuclear weapons changed the face of conflict in South Asia
May 2018 marked 20 years of India-Pakistan’s bilateral nuclearisation, though Delhi’s entry into the nuclear club through a benignly smiling Buddha dates back to 24 years. The May of 1998 steered the deeply-fissured conflict dynamics of South Asia to a new dimension. The world capitals, led by Washington DC, broke out in a flurry, not so much on India’s second round of testing, but largely concerned with how Islamabad would react to the second Indian awakening. Extraordinary diplomatic outreach missions, incentives, threats of punitive action and thereafter implementation of wide-ranging sanctions post Pakistan’s nuclearisation forever changed the strategic narrative for the actors concerned.

Given the widening conventional imbalance and persistent environment of conflict, Pakistan had to seek, and credibly manifest a power balancer, especially in the absence of an empathetic power broker. This may have been Pakistan’s reason to shun the well-suited cloak of ambiguity, driven by the simplest logic that Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme was perceived differently by a range of stakeholders. For the domestic audience, depending on their level of comprehension, it was a weapon of ultimate strategic currency and an answer to all the problems with the enemy. For international actors, it was (and remains), a dangerous weapon in the hands of a developing country faced with arduous governance and security challenges, later compounded by ideologically-driven actors as well as proliferation concerns. While there was, and remains to date, a tacit acceptance of India’s nuclearisation, the international actors would have been happier with a non-nuclear Pakistan. However, for better or for worse, the conflict binary between the two neighbours had now permanently altered. No longer could any crisis situation, big or small, between the two, go unnoticed on the US conflict radar. Whether or not either of the two actors’ involved the US or any third actor to solicit their disputes, the latter’s intervention in some manner appeared inevitable. Amongst many pressing concerns, the foremost remains the near absence of geographic distance between the nuclear armed neighbours that are home to one fourth of the global population. This left little time for preventing a perceived escalation in case of a nuclear exchange.

Was the international community correct in its estimations? Are the nuclear weapons in the hands of Pakistanis a dangerous toy, for which they have little comprehension? How far has Pakistan travelled through this difficult path, where every action or measure taken in the strategic or even non-strategic realm has led the international community raise questions or concerns about Pakistan as a responsible nuclear weapons’ state? Furthermore, what have we, as Pakistanis, learnt in these two decades of nuclearisation? These 20 years allowed Pakistan to create an elaborate strategic infrastructure, with a robust command and control system, catering to doctrinal aspects and endeavouring for a formal recognition for its programme – all of which has been no mean feat. Yet, there have been many challenges as well as lessons to learn. One important takeaway is that no longer can India-Pakistan conflict be perceived with the traditional security lens. Secondly, where at one time the US reluctantly engaged as the third party, the post-nuclear South Asia witnessed a highly proactive role in crisis diplomacy being played by Washington, which redefined US relations with the two South Asian neighbours.
Overt nuclearisation of South Asia not only altered the context of the conflict, but also how the external actors independently, or in the role of mediators, now perceived the region

These changing dynamics have been painstakingly documented and analysed by Dr Moeed Yusuf in his recent book Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environment US Crisis Management in South Asia, a publication by the Stanford University Press. Focusing primarily on three (and a half) crises between India and Pakistan, namely the 1999 Kargil, 2001-02 twin peaks, the 2008 Mumbai crisis, and lastly offering a brief analysis of the 2016 Uri crisis. Moeed has comprehensively covered various facets of the issue, starting with the unique dynamics of each of these crisis episodes.

Although never fully in sync with Pakistan’s expectations as an ally, the post 1998 crises provide a much clearer understanding of when and how Washington gravitated closer towards New Delhi. The existing literature on India-Pakistan conflict trajectory has often drawn parallels with the Cold War bipolar rivalry between the super powers. This author very clearly debunks this myth by highlighting the critical role of the third party as a defining feature. The book not only focuses on the third party, primarily the US, performing the role of a mediator, guarantor of peace and crisis manager, but more specifically, discusses the strategy employed by conflict actors to create a demonstrative crisis hoping to lure third party support- angle in third party mediation and intervention, which has never been explored before. The author sees this as a reckless and dangerous prospect in a post-nuclearised environment, where the rules of engagement and competition demanded a mature and deeper contemplation of the situation.

Comprising eight chapters, the book is divided into three portions. The first describes the theoretical framework and provides a detailed analysis of the literature generated on third party brokering and mediation. This underscores the hitherto missing link that crises may actually be generated to elicit the attention of a third party. This may be done for a number of reasons, from simply drawing the attention of international stake holders to the conflict, to reviving it, or to a transformation in the structure or context of the conflict. According to the author, the overt nuclearisation of South Asia not only altered the context of the conflict, but also how the external actors independently, or in the role of mediators, now perceived the region. The second portion covers three chapters, each dedicated to a singular crisis case study, i.e. Kargil, twin peaks and lastly the Mumbai crisis. This section provides the reader the strategic and diplomatic context that prevailed from the germination to the maturation of each crisis, how India and Pakistan perceived these singular events through their respective strategic lens. And last, but not the least, it outlines US’ effective brokering, its concerns regarding escalation of crisis, explaining why and how Washington gradually but steadily aligned its interests with New Delhi, largely owing to Islamabad’s singular pursuit of evoking third party intervention.

The third and last portion of the book is based on a comprehensive analysis and possible repercussions of any deliberate or inadvertent crisis generation in a nuclear environment. There is also a brief analysis of the Uri Crisis and the resultant “surgical strikes” by India, which received customary lip service of crisis diffusion and management by Washington. Not only did it have its origins in the statements made by US policy makers during Mumbai, there in was a clear convergence of Delhi and Washington’s interests and perspective. In this section, Yusuf also aptly discusses US brokered bargaining as a unipole in a range of other conflict dyads. Exemplifying the problem, he covers a spread of power differentials, regional contexts and security arrangements such as the Middle East (two friends’ model i.e. Saudi Arabia vs Israel), the friend and foe prototype (i.e. Iran and Israel), the Korean and lastly, the Sino-Indian dyad. He draws parallels between various crises scenarios, while describing the differential power potential of belligerents, expectations of conflict parties in US potential to act as a superior or dominant broker. The author qualifies, that US as a sole super power may be faced with many challenges but for the foreseeable time it would maintain its supremacy and influence. This makes the US the most likely country to be seen as a mediator by regional or others actors, regardless of the clout gained by other global players.

Moeed Yusuf’s book not only provides a comprehensive insight into the role effectively played by the US as a third party - an aspect which has been discussed by other writers as well, but it makes a successful attempt at theorising why and how presence and role of the US impacts crisis behaviour in a nuclear environment. Would his deliberations help alter the behaviour patterns, influence the management, outcome of crisis and bring stability amongst the belligerents in times to come?  Why was there a need to examine this aspect, which, for example in the South Asian ambience, is taken for granted anyways? Yusuf responds by bringing forth two important factors. The first being the emergence of regional nuclear rivals; and second, the demise of Cold War bipolarity, paving the path for a unipolar system, establishing American preponderance. For those who seek to compare and find solutions for any of the regional nuclear crises from the Cold War super power rivalry model, one major point of departure was the absence of a more powerful third party to diffuse crisis or provide early warning between US and Soviet Union.

The detailed analysis of each of the South Asian crises accentuates their distinctiveness, each a lesson in nuclear learning. Whereas the Kargil misadventure was conceived initially in a non-nuclear environment, for Pakistan which was beginning to learn the intricacies of nuclearisation, trying to fight a limited war under the nuclear shadow was a costly enterprise. In contrast, New Delhi’s measured response reflected a mature behaviour. However, one must also remain cognisant of the fact that in comparison to Pakistan, India had 24 years of overt nulearisation’ experience at hand. The author rightly points out the secrecy and exclusivity maintained by the architects of the operation, with little focus on how the international environment had altered. However, he does not offer any insights into why the budding body of Pakistani nuclear policy experts were not consulted before Kargil was initiated.

The readers, through the successive chapters get a thorough insight into how Pakistan gradually learnt the nuances of nuclear politics, yet there was a visible disconnect to the changing regional trends. The growing discontent Pakistani establishment had with the US is guised either as a civil military detachment or Washington’s bias towards New Delhi, without introspection as to how our decision makers need to closely focus on the rapidly changing strategic environment. This environmental change is manifested through many indicators, such as India’s rise as an economic and political actor, the flagship India-US nuclear deal, the drawing power of economic engagement, US and India’s convergence on anti-terrorism stance as well as New Delhi enjoying the status as the key player in Washington’s broader Asia policy. The author, who is no stranger to the US decision making behaviour and nuances, also offers a clear read into the role played by other third parties, such as European states and mainly China, whose views seemed closely aligned with the US when it came to strategic crisis diffusion than otherwise.

In conclusion, Moeed with his twin hats of working closely with the US policy circles and interacting equally closely with those in Pakistan, has through this book provided a very candid and honest analysis, of the nuclear crises between the two neighbours. He also tried to sensitise the reader to the inherent dangers of invoking deliberate third party intervention, terming it a counterproductive strategy in the longer run. Where the inclusion of nuclear weapons certainly provides the necessary deterrence, and correcting the military imbalance, the changing strategic environment requires a much deeper and holistic preparation, that involves political, economic, diplomatic as well as domestic security measures – the quintessential thresholds without which deterrence becomes vulnerable. Lastly, the US in the foreseeable future will retain direct stakes in preventing a regional crisis to escalate to the nuclear level; however, evoking demonstrative crises to elicit third part intervention may not always be a viable option.

The author is an assistant professor at the Defence and Strategic Studies Department, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. She can be reached at