The independent news organization of Duke University

The nukes that keep the peace

Nuclear deterrence works. It always has, it always will. This is the single greatest lesson of the Cold War, and it remains true even post-9/11. As much as some alarmists like to believe that South Asia is somehow different, it's not. The fact is that if it weren't for their strategic nuclear arsenals, the two great powers on the Indian subcontinent would already be at war.

None of us need reminding of the consequences should full-scale atomic war break out between India and Pakistan. Pentagon analysis suggests that there could be 11 to 17 million immediate casualties, assuming the complete deployment of each nation's nukes. Millions more would die within weeks from starvation, disease and radiation poisoning. In the intermediate term, famine would grip large areas in both nations as prime crop-producing regions would lie fallow. No humanitarian assistance could prove sufficient in the face of such devastation. There are simply no crisis management models to deal with the effects.

If you believe that nuclear conflict is inevitable, chances are you envision something akin to the following scenario. Eventually, India's government will feel intense public pressure to retaliate massively against incursions into Kashmir by Pakistani militants. Border skirmishes will thus escalate into a full-scale assault by the Indian army and air force on forward Pakistani positions. Because India's military is far larger and conventionally superior, Pakistan will feel that it has no choice but to counterattack with a tactical nuclear strike. No country can accept such an attack without responding in kind, so India will hit back with its own strategic weapons, and we get nuclear war.

Many worry this will happen, but the plain truth is that it won't. The above scenario is based on a number of assumptions, of which the absence of any one renders the whole story extremely implausible. To begin with, short of an offensive by a substantial portion of the entire Indian military, Pakistan's own formidable forces on the Kashmir border will hold their positions in the event of attack. A full-scale invasion of Pakistan is not on the drawing boards in New Delhi, so there is no risk at present that Islamabad will feel threatened enough to press the big button. That's not to say that the coming months won't be bloody, but it is inconceivable that non-conventional weapons will be used.

American influence and the U.S. presence in the region should also act to defuse tensions. For the last year, the Bush administration has used all its diplomatic might to persuade the two governments that war would serve neither side's interests. The saber-rattling along the disputed border has certainly not helped Washington's regional objectives, as Pakistan has withdrawn its forces away from the Afghan frontier where they had been seeking out Taliban fighters. Clearly, the United States has a vested interest in keeping the peace in South Asia, since war would make the difficult operations in Afghanistan an even thornier process. Although it would obviously stay neutral in any conflict, the close proximity of several carrier task forces to the subcontient helps project America1s resolve in a tangible way.

But if India and Pakistan genuinely wanted a major war, the entire U.S. navy could not stop them. Thankfully, though, they don't want the situation to escalate out of control, and under these circumstances, deterrence will take care of itself. On both sides, there is now the political will for a great deal of rhetorical posturing, sending in border reinforcements and recklessly conducting missile tests. And this is exactly as far as the two governments will go. Beyond the bellicose speeches, they are thinking peace.

The rationale for this is simple. Given that all its strategic assets -- air bases, command-and-control installations, industrial centers -- are threatened by the enemy's missiles, neither side will ever take the first step towards all-out nuclear war. You can't have a fight if nobody throws the first punch, and in this case, no one will. Deterrence is effective if both sides are rational, and whatever one may think of their handling of the conflict, there is no denying that Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf are stable individuals who are not prepared to lead their countries into an atomic cataclysm. They will continue to practice brinksmanship, but when the moment comes, they will blink rather than push forward.

We should remember that deterrence is not always pretty. At times, it has looked like it might fail. Anyone who lived in New York or Moscow in 1962 knows this all too well. Still, it is a fact that there has never been a war<conventional or otherwise<between two nuclear states, and while India and Pakistan appear that they might be the first exception, there is reason for guarded optimism. What we are seeing at this moment is the storm before the calm.

Pavel Molchanov is a Trinity senior. His column appears regularly.


Share and discuss “The nukes that keep the peace” on social media.