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Last Updated: Friday, 9 May, 2003, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Have nuclear weapons made South Asia safer?

By the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones

It is five years since India and then Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests in 1998. They triggered howls of international protest.

India's Prithvi missiles
India's Prithvi missiles - not just pointed at Pakistan, India says
Amid dire predictions that the world had moved one step closer to a nuclear holocaust, the United States and other western countries imposed sanctions and demanded the two countries disarm.

But the politicians in Delhi and Islamabad had another view.

They argued that nuclear deterrence had kept the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and that it could do the same in South Asia.

Both countries had possessed nuclear weapons long before 1998.

India first tested a nuclear bomb in 1974.

Pakistan, by contrast, maintained a policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.

Nevertheless it had first built a workable nuclear device in 1982 and by the end of the 1980s it was widely accepted by the international community that Islamabad had become a de facto nuclear power.

'Significant constraint'

So has the nuclearisation of South Asia deterred war between India and Pakistan?

The last full-scale war between the two countries was in 1971.

The Indians have come to the conclusion that the military solution is just not there
Khursheed Kasuri
Pakistan foreign minister

While it is impossible to prove that the risk of a nuclear conflict has been the overriding factor preventing another all-out conflict, there is good reason to believe that it has been a significant constraint on policy makers in both countries.

In 1987 India conducted a huge military exercise - Operation Brasstacks - near its border with Pakistan.

Fearing attack, Islamabad mobilised large numbers of troops and there were genuine fears that war could begin.

According to Indian officials, at the height of the crisis a Pakistani minister threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

A few days later, when Rajiv Gandhi was considering launching a conventional strike, an adviser from his Ministry of Defence urged caution.

"India and Pakistan have already fought their last war'" he said, "and there is too much to lose in contemplating another one."

Land and air attacks

Since the 1998 tests the two countries have come close to war on two occasions.

In the 1999 Kargil crisis, Pakistan infiltrated over 1,000 troops into Indian-held Kashmir.

India responded with land and air attacks forcing the Pakistanis to retreat.

And in 2002 India deployed hundreds of thousands of troops in forward positions on its border with Pakistan following the attack on the Indian parliament the previous December.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Khursheed Kasuri, believes that India's eventual decision to withdraw those troops can be explained by India's fear of provoking a retaliatory nuclear strike.

"We draw a fair conclusion from that," he says.

"We are not making any boasts but the Indians have come to the conclusion that the military solution is just not there."

It is impossible to prove that, on any of these occasions, nuclear weapons deterred military escalation.

But there are good reasons for believing that the nuclearisation of South Asia has restrained military and political leaders.

"Nobody dares launch a conventional conflict of any consequence for fear it will escalate to nuclear levels", says Professor Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The uncertainty surrounding the deterrence value of the nuclear arsenals is inevitable.

The Indian Government does not want to say that the risks of a nuclear conflict mean it is no longer prepared to use its conventional superiority against Pakistan.

For its part Pakistan makes little secret of its view that it needs a nuclear weapon because of its conventional weakness vis a vis India.

That is why Islamabad has consistently resisted Delhi's offers of a nuclear "no first use" agreement.

Washington does seem to have accepted that India and Pakistan will have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future
Despite the reassurance it gains from having nuclear weapons, Pakistan has offered to dismantle its arsenal if India does the same.

It has made the suggestion, in part, because it is confident that India would never consider nuclear disarmament.

India has nuclear weapons not only because of Pakistan, but also because of China and its desire to win big power status on the world stage.

"Pakistan's nuclear program is India-specific," said India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, earlier this week.

"But we are concerned about other states as well."

Even though the United States wants to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it seems to have given up on denuclearising the sub-continent.

Shortly before he left for his May 2003 official visit to India and Pakistan, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, played down the latest Pakistani offer of nuclear disarmament.

"I think we have to keep our appetites under control," he said.

Washington would never want to say that the nuclearisation of South Asia is a force for stability.

But it does seem to have accepted that India and Pakistan will have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.

Owen Bennett-Jones is a former BBC correspondent in Islamabad and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm





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