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The Lahore Summit: The Nuclear Angle

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
Last updated on: February 03, 2016 21:44 IST
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'All this talk of 'tactical nuclear weapons' or a limited nuclear war are 'false flags'! It looks like India and Pakistan are slowly but surely inching towards this realism,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the latter's granddaughter's wedding ceremony in Lahore. Photograph: MEA/TwitterAvoiding nuclear war is 'the' national interest that trumps all other concerns. Because in case of nuclear war, there will be no 'Islamic Utopia,' Kashmir or economic development.

Nations' security and foreign policy have to be tailored keeping this cardinal truth in mind. All this talk of 'tactical nuclear weapons' or a limited nuclear war are 'false flags'! It looks like India and Pakistan are slowly but surely inching towards this realism.

Leadership is about boldness and seizing a moment, and Mr Modi has shown himself to be a master of this art. His predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh had all the right ideas, but was no leader and could not take this step in a decade.

Not just the December 25 meeting, but even the earlier one in Bangkok between the Indian and Pakistani national security advisors/foreign secretaries was held without prior publicity. This seems to be a pattern agreed to by both governments.

This makes sense as we have seen in the past that every time there is a meeting scheduled or some positive step is contemplated, non-State actors carry out some action that spoils the atmosphere and leads to cancellation.

The prime minister's visit immediately evokes memories of Mr Vajpayee's Lahore 'Bus' diplomacy of 1999. There indeed are similarities. The logic then, as now, is the same. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and therefore war that may well involve nuclear weapons is not an option. Both are neighbours and that geography cannot be changed. Why not then live as friendly neighbours?

Many in our think-tank Inpad believed in this logic and were supporters of the Vajpayee initiative. That the effort failed and ended in an armed clash on the Kargil heights is recent history. The reason for this failure was the false notion amongst Indians including myself that since nuclear weapons give Pakistan 'security', it would behave like a 'normal' State does.

We failed to gauge the depth of Pakistani thinking that equated security with getting Kashmir and 'equality' with India. Instead of accepting that nuclear weapons have given Pakistan security, its strategists felt that under the shadow of a nuclear threat Pakistan could pursue an aggressive policy on Kashmir.

The Indians also failed to anticipate the recklessness that the Pakistan army is capable of. Kargil was an initial tactical victory for Pakistan, but a strategic defeat when the world turned against it and its soldiers were forced to withdraw from the Kargil heights.

Pakistan then changed gears and began to increasingly rely on proxies like the Lashkar-e- Tayiba to continue its fight with India. The attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001 brought the two countries to the brink of war.

India mobilised its forces on the border (Operation Parakram) and threatened an all-out war. Intervention by world powers and a Pakistani assurance, guaranteed by the US, that it would not permit its territory for use against India, defused the crisis.

However, once India saw a change in government, this assurance was given a quiet burial in Pakistan and it began a 'new' strategy of using LeT proxies to harass India. The Manmohan Singh government's inability to fashion a response to this game plan saw Pakistan test the limits of Indian patience. Our lack of robust response to the 26/11 Mumbai attacks dented the credibility of Indian deterrence.

It seems the previous government then slowly built Indian covert capability to payback Pakistan in its own coin (the mention of Indian interference in Balochistan at Sharm-el- Sheikh in July 2009 was the proverbial Freudian slip).

While we must never forget recent history in dealing with Pakistan, we should also not ignore the major changes that have occurred in Pakistan's internal situation as well as the changed regional and global dynamics.

The December 16, 2014 terrorist attack at Peshawar's Army Public School was a turning point in Pakistan and its army's view on terrorism and extremism. The loss of over 100 school children to terrorists apparently changed the Pakistani mindset. This year, unlike earlier years, on December 16, the Pakistani media remembered the school massacre more than it did the Bangladesh defeat.

No doubt, the hardcore support base is still intact, but increasingly Pakistan realises the dangers of nurturing snakes in its backyard (as so colourfully put by Hillary Clinton). It may still be early days, but it seems Pakistan is at last trying to control extremist elements.

After the Peshawar massacre, Pakistani's plea that it is indeed helpless in controlling terrorism has a ring of truth. It seems India has shown some understanding of the Pakistani dilemma in private. The recent Paris attacks, a kind of copycat action resembling the Mumbai attacks, has further focused on Pakistani jihadi groups. Global public opinion is not ready anymore to distinguish between good and bad Taliban.

The regional situation is currently in Pakistan's favour as Washington will go soft on Islamabad till the US completes its withdrawal from the Afghanistan quagmire. Pakistan is acutely aware that this situation is unlikely to last very long and the Americans may well be ready to dump Pakistan once this need ends.

In the 1990s, the US shut its eyes to the Taliban-Pakistan combine's takeover of Afghanistan. Today, that is unlikely. Pakistan, it appears, has reconciled to this outcome and given up its bizarre idea of 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan.

The internal, regional and global situation, in Pakistani eyes, seemed right to respond to India's peace initiatives.

Both India and Pakistan, most importantly, seem to have matured in 'nuclear diplomacy', much like the US and the then USSR did in the 1970s. The Indian prime minister's visit to Pakistan may well herald the tentative first steps towards detente. This is different from a friendship or an alliance and means relaxation or easing of strained relations.

Before my American friends from think-tanks say, 'We told you so,' they need to be reminded that both the US and the erstwhile USSR went through several crises like the Berlin crisis in 1961, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1973 Middle East crisis where they came perilously close to Armageddon. The India-Pakistan learning curve is much steeper.

Some American think-tankers have appropriated all credit for the talks and believe that American prodding was responsible for the Lahore meeting. The world is very different in 2015 and in realistic terms it is the US that needs India more than the other way around.

These Americans need to be reminded that when it came to concessions to Pakistan, American pressure did not work even in 1963 when India was in dire straits! As to Pakistan listening to the US, well, the Pakistanis kept ObL hidden for 11 years in their country!

Let us give credit where it is due -- to Mr Modi and Mr Nawaz Sharif!

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian and coordinator of the think-tank Inpad.

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Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)