In the annals of nuclear weapons use discourse, it is a commonly accepted proposition that while Pakistan is all too ready to use the ultimate weapon in a war against India, New Delhi will exercise the option only as a retaliatory measure — what pundits call a second strike.
The reason often cited for Pakistan’s hair-trigger nuclear stance is that it can never win a conventional war and its weapons are best used before they are "taken out". In fact, contemporary wisdom has it that Pakistan has barely enough resources to fight for 72-hour war, and a naval blockade of Karachi and shutting off the Indus waters will bring the country to its knees in no time.
But will the use of nukes bring Pakistan victory? No, say experts. If anything, it will invite its complete annihilation, because while India’s broad land-mass will ensure a degree of survivability, smaller Pakistan will just go up in smoke.
Indian officials are extremely chary of war-gaming a nuclear exchange scenario, which they consider vulgar and unbecoming. But in recent months they have been quietly letting it known that New Delhi has factored in all kinds of eventualities, an exercise that led junior foreign minister Omar Abdullah to warn that Pakistan will be "stupid" to go down the nuclear route.
In the event of such a scenario and a Pakistani first strike, India could lose a city or two but its response will be on a scale that will not leave behind much of Pakistan, which isn’t much in the first place. Even the two "worthwhile" targets, Karachi and Islamabad, are so close to India that New Delhi will be constrained to use some of the smaller weapons in its arsenal.
Privately, Indian officials have told some US interlocutors that India’s nuclear weapons are "assuredly secure" with its survivability and a chain of command ensured.
So why would Pakistan push the losing button? The answer lies in a chilling exchange related in a recent article in the journal Atlantic Monthly that is being circulated widely in the South Asia circuit.
In the article, writer Peter Landesman relates a hair-raising conversation he has with a retired Pakistani brigadier who was serving as an aide to Benazir Bhutto. On a visit to Brigadier Amanullah’s house in Islamabad, Landesman sees a landscape painting showing the Bhuttos with what he (Landesman) thinks is a rocket heading to the moon. He asks the Brigadier about it, and is told the painting is actually "A nuclear warhead heading to India".
The rest of the narrative in Landesman’s own words:
I thought he was making a joke. Then I saw he wasn't. I thought of the shrines to Pakistan's nuclear-weapons site, prominently displayed in every city. I told Aman that I was disturbed by the ease with which Pakistanis talk of nuclear war with India.
Aman shook his head. "No," he said matter-of-factly. "This should happen. We should use the bomb."
"For what purpose?" He didn't seem to understand my question. "In retaliation?" I asked.
"Or first strike?"
I looked for a sign of irony. None was visible. Rocking his head side to side, his expression becoming more and more withdrawn, Aman launched into a monologue that neither of us, I am sure, knew was coming:
"We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities—Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta," he said. "They should fire back and take Karachi and Lahore. Kill off a hundred or two hundred million people. They should fire at us and it would all be over. They have acted so badly toward us; they have been so mean. We should teach them a lesson. It would teach all of us a lesson. There is no future here, and we need to start over. So many people think this. Have you been to the villages of Pakistan, the interior? There is nothing but dire poverty and pain. The children have no education; there is nothing to look forward to. Go into the villages, see the poverty. There is no drinking water. Small children without shoes walk miles for a drink of water. I go to the villages and I want to cry. My children have no future. None of the children of Pakistan have a future. We are surrounded by nothing but war and suffering. Millions should die away."
"Pakistan should fire pre-emptively?" I asked.
"And you are willing to see your children die?"
"Tens of thousands of people are dying in Kashmir, and the only superpower says nothing," Aman said. "America has sided with India because it has interests there." He told me he was willing to see his children be killed. He repeated that they didn't have any future — his children or any other children.
I asked him if he thought he was alone in his thoughts, and Aman made it clear to me that he was not.
"Believe me," he went on, "If I were in charge, I would have already done it."
Aman stopped, as though he'd stunned even himself. Then he added, with quiet forcefulness, "Before I die, I hope I should see it."
It is this hopeless desperation that western officials are warning India about as New Delhi weighs the military option. A country without a future is quite willing to go down and try and take with it a country which is hopeful of its future despite its myriad problems.
For India, the dilemma is obvious: If it submits to this line of thinking (Pakistan’s irrationality), it risks being blackmailed into inaction; if it chooses to call the bluff, it invites the Amanullah solution.
Published in TimesOfIndia, May 19, 2002 issue