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Our nuclear bomb is not a firecracker

The issue of nuclear terrorism in South Asia has become very complicated, as both India and Pakistan threaten each other with attack by nuclear weapons

 Musa Khan Jalalzai

The continued nuclear weapons build up in India and Pakistan, while neither state abides by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or international and democratic oversight, is a threat to peace and stability of South Asia. The recent threats of using nuclear weapons against each other has prompted deep anxiety in the neighbouring states that the use of nuclear bomb would also affect their social, economic and health sectors. In the contemporary geopolitical landscape, the greatest threat of nuclear exchange between the two states has created a climate of fear as they possess significant nuclear arsenals consisting of short and intermediate range ballistic missiles as well as nuclear-capable aircraft. Given the prevalence of short range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads, it is clear that their use remains a viable policy option for both states. Pakistan is advancing toward a sea-based missile capability and expanding its interest in tactical nuclear warheads. This advancement in nuclear missile technology, which could be fired from a submarine, gives the country “second strike” capabilities if a disastrous nuclear attack undermines all land-based weapons. Pakistan is ready to announce a new strategy, including an effort to reshape nuclear warheads to make them suitable for deployment from the Indian Ocean.

In June 2015, Indian security forces carried out military operations against insurgents in Myanmar, which caused tension between India and Pakistan when Indian leaders warned that it could happen in Pakistan as well. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Defence Minister Khwaja Asif responded with strong words. Asif warned India that Pakistan was a nuclear state and the country does not maintain a nuclear bomb just to use it as a firecracker. “If forced into war by India, Pakistan will respond in a befitting manner; our arms are not meant for decoration,” he said. Former president General Musharraf also responded aggressively in turn, saying that Pakistan would adopt a tit-for-tat approach and would react immediately: “Don’t attack us, don’t challenge our territorial integrity because we are not a small power, we are a major nuclear power.”

The issue of nuclear terrorism in South Asia has become very complicated, as both India and Pakistan threaten each other with attack by nuclear weapons. On February 28, 2015, the US government warned about the possibility of an Indian nuclear attack on Pakistan if terrorists attacked India. Recently, in the US Senate, government officials and researchers warned that in case of an Indian attack, Pakistan would use nuclear weapons against the country. “South Asia is the most likely place nuclear weapons could be detonated in the foreseeable future. This risk derives from the unusual dynamic of the India-Pakistan competition,” Carnegie researcher Perkovich said.

However, General Khalid Kidwai, a former Director General of the Strategic Planning Division of Pakistan recently remarked that Pakistan had enough nuclear weapons to ensure that a war in the subcontinent was no longer an option. His remarks appeared to suggest that the nuclear deterrence debate in this region has been settled. General Kidwai implicitly acknowledged that Pakistan used extremist groups as foreign policy instruments. He blamed the crisis in Kashmir and Afghanistan to justify Pakistan’s actions.

The recent construction of nuclear power plants in Khushab and Karachi raised some questions that by expanding its nuclear installations network, Pakistan does not comply with the principles of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) non-proliferation policy. Having ignored international concerns on nuclear power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency of Sindh province approved the twin nuclear project and allowed its construction. Now, as both the states are nuclear powers, Pakistan recognises that terrorist attacks from its territory against India are not in its interest. In fact, the access of terrorist groups to fissile materials in both states is evident from the fact that the safety and security of nuclear sites in India is not satisfactory. The same question arises in Pakistan, where party politics in the Atomic Energy Commission and a lack of civilian oversight has received deep criticism from the world’s media.

The threat of chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism in South Asia also causes deep frustration and anxiety, as the region hosts many militant organisations. These groups have already learnt the technique of making nuclear explosive devices and the illegal transactions of poorly protected materials remain a threat. The Subcontinent is the most volatile region because India and Pakistan are engaged in a dangerous nuclear arms race. India is enjoying conventional superiority. The addition of a nuclear dimension to this conflict is a matter of great concern. India’s National Security Advisor admitted in one of his recent speeches that a fourth generation war is being fought against Pakistan with different tactics and dimensions. Strategically speaking, India and Pakistan have their own threat perceptions, which are quite similar. India wants to be a strong nuclear state because of its fear of Chinese aggression, while Pakistan also needs nuclear weapons because of its fear of Indian aggression. China helps Pakistan in upgrading its nuclear weapons and provides sophisticated weapons to the country’s army, while the US helps India.

The misinterpretation of each other’s motives has also caused misunderstandings. First they threaten each other with nuclear bombs and then assess the consequences and fatalities. This issue has also been highlighted in a recently published book by Nathan E Busch: “Due to continual mistrust between the two countries, each would be likely to misinterpret military movements, missiles tests, or accidental detonations as an impending attack by the other side. The risks of misinterpreting each other’s motives are compounded by the vulnerabilities of their nuclear forces and the short flight times of the forces to key targets.”

The jihadist organisations in South Asia, and even the Islamic State (IS) and Taliban, have already demonstrated their interest in retrieving chemical and nuclear weapons, but at present, there is no evidence of their attempts to get access to these weapons. IS recently claimed that it is engaged with Pakistan for nuclear weapons delivery, but this cannot be confirmed through any research papers or news reports. There are confirmed reports that IS retrieved chemical weapons from Iraq and jihadist groups in South Asia are struggling to obtain chemical weapons capability. In summation, as both India and Pakistan are responsible nuclear states, they need to avoid misinterpreting each other’s motives and share such intelligence information that could help prevent nuclear incidents.

The writer is the author of Nuclear Jihad in Pakistan and can be reached at zai.musakhan222@gmail.com

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