Spy’s eye: Debate on nuclear strike

Tags: Opinion

Nuclear policy must be based on our capabilities and ability to preempt enemy’s initiative

Manohar Parrikar- our defence minister- while speaking at a book release function commented on the merit of the nuclear policy of India and said that what was more important than the 'no first use' was for the world to know that India would always exercise the nuclear option with a great sense of responsibility. The doctrine of national defence is shaped by a country's considered assessment of the external threat scenario - in a nuclear world - which by no means can be presumed to be static. Parrikar's implicit suggestion of a review of the present nuclear policy may have been in the nature of a loud thinking but it certainly draws attention to three important features of the scene prevailing around India that could necessitate such a reexamination.

First, India's current security concerns are almost totally focused on two hostile neighbours- Pakistan and China- who have an explicit military alliance of long standing directed against India. China has already taken the side of Pakistan on the issue of cross border terrorism by blocking the naming of Masood Azhar - leader of the Pak army controlled Jaish-e-Mohammad - by the UN as an international terrorist. Azhar masterminded the attack on Parliament in 2001 as well as the recent offensive against the forward airbase at Pathankot. In the sharp escalation of Indo-Pak tension following the killing of nineteen soldiers at the army base in Uri by terrorists of Lashkar-e-Toiba, another ISI-mentored outfit, coming in from across LOC, China has declared its support to Pakistan -its 'all weather friend'-on Kashmir.

Secondly, India has to take notice of the intemperate statements made by spokespersons of Pakistan including its defence minister threatening India with a nuclear retaliation in the context of the ongoing tension between the two countries on Kashmir. Pakistan has a larger pile of nuclear warheads than what India has and its army is convinced that the tactical nuclear weapons in its possession give it an advantage - even as Pakistan could not match India in a conventional war. Pakistan does not believe in 'no first use' - whereas a commitment to this effect had been made by India in its declared Nuclear policy. Pak army psychologically is so unidimensional about considering India as its enemy that its threshold for resort to a nuclear offensive will always be somewhat unpredictable.

Lastly, as a responsible nuclear power known for its peace- keeping record India was naturally inclined to adopt 'no first use' stance in respect of nuclear weapons but this should not make it binding on it to maintain that policy even in the face of a steady rise in the level of hostility displayed by Sino-Pak alliance marked by military and nuclear collaboration. The geo-political situation, post cold war, has allowed this anti-India axis-unhindered by any opposition from other countries including the US - to become stronger by the day. It is a matter of regret that the Obama administration - just because it had to depend on Pakistan in the 'war on terror' against Islamic radicals - tilted in favour of Pakistan on the issue of cross border terrorism. As a matter of fact both US and China were supporting the 'root cause' theory on Kashmir and directly or indirectly wanting India to resume talks with Pakistan on that issue.

It has to be seen if Donald Trump, the new US president, would continue with the pro-Pak tilt of earlier American policy makers. Pakistan, meanwhile, could step up its attempts to fuel Indo-Pak tension on its eastern border with the aim of leveraging its importance for the US in the combat against Islamic radicals of Taliban-Al Qaeda group that lay on the western front.

Indian diplomacy will have to act expeditiously to bring Trump presidency and India on the same page in regard to the situation on the Indian sub-continent. India will have to expose Pakistan for its double facedness in dealing with Islamic radicalism and use the channel of intelligence exchange to explain how Pakistan considered Islamic militants as an extended arm of its army for use not only against India and Afghanistan but also selectively against American assets as well, just to increase its influence with the Western world. The Pak army is not above letting militants lay their hands on a nuclear weapon-using the deniability card that it has always invoked in all the terrorist attacks carried out against India.

In view of these multiple dimensions of Indo-Pak hostility that exclusively affected India, it is quiet appropriate for this country to realistically examine what nuclear posture would best safeguard our own security. Manohar Parrikar has done well to put forth his 'personal' views on the need to revisit the nuclear policy of 'no first use' in the prevailing risk scenario.

Nuclear policy should not become an exercise in abstraction. It must be a product of our nuclear capabilities, ability to preempt a nuclear initiative of the enemy which would depend on our intelligence reach, and our success in enlisting US support for fool proof arrangements to deny Pak army any alibi for letting terror outfits gain access to nuclear weapons.

'No first use' should be tempered with the provision that it will not come in the way of a preemptive strike to neutralise a proven attempt of the enemy to make such a strike first. If Parrikar's observations trigger a meaningful debate on the issue in forums like National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and Institute of Defence & Security Analysis (IDSA) this would be quite in order. The relevance of what that ace warrior of history, Frederik the Great, famously said - 'it is pardonable to be defeated but not to be surprised'- will never be lost.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)

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