The N-word

2002 ended much like it began, with talk of war, possibly war involving nuclear weapons, hanging over the Subcontinent like a thick, blinding fog. Addressing an air force veterans rally in Karachi on 30 December, President General Pervez Musharraf said that at the height of the standoff with India last June, he sent signals to New Delhi that "if Indian troops moved a single step across the international border or the Line of Control, they should not expect a conventional war from Pakistan".

Musharraf's statement, which appeared to imply that he had threatened nuclear war against India, quickly provoked denunciations from New Delhi and clarifications and counter-denunciations from Islamabad. On 3 January, Musharraf insisted that he had been misquoted, stated that "no one in his right state of mind can talk of nuclear war", and clarified that his reference to non-conventional warfare meant guerilla combat in the event an Indian invasion of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. NC Vij, India's army chief, declined to analyse the semantics of Musharraf's statement, though Defence Minister George Fernandes replied that "nuclear blackmail" would not succeed and that if Pakistan launched a nuclear strike, "we would suffer a little but there will be no Pakistan left later". In Islamabad on 7 January, Pakistani Information Minister Shiekh Rashid Ahmed termed Fernandes' rebuttal the "ravings of a crazy man" and said that if Pakistan is attacked, "we have the will to give a crushing reply", yet another ambiguous statement appearing to suggest a willingness to use nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional attack.

This exchange of nuclear-charged words is only the latest episode in a years-long and ongoing death-grip-dance of South Asian brinkmanship, in general, and Pakistani ambiguity regarding its nuclear weapons usage policy, in particular. Speaking at the same forum as Fernandes, the US Ambassador to India, Richard Haass, called the India-Pakistan relationship "distinctly abnormal" and recalled that the US and Soviet Union kept essential channels of communication open even during the Cold War's most tense moments. And for all of the faults of India's nuclear stance – the first being that it was India that went nuclear first, egging Pakistan to follow suit – at least New Delhi has committed itself to a no-first-use policy and placed its weapons under a civilian-led command structure, things Pakistan has not done. In February 2000, Pakistan announced that its Nuclear Command Authority would be chaired by the Head of Government – then Musharraf, now Prime Minister Jamali – but analysts argue that Jamali is unlikely to exercise authority independent of Musharraf, thus merely veiling the military's control of the weapons. In Pakistan, all roads lead to General Musharraf.

Pakistan started a crash uranium enrichment program in 1976, two years after India first conducted its Pokhran tests under Indira Gandhi. In 1985, the two countries agreed not to attack each other's nuclear installations. Pakistan declared a moratorium on the production of highly enriched uranium in 1991, although then-Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan claimed in a 1992 interview with The Washington Post that his country had enough fissile material to produce at least one bomb. India truly let the dogs of nuclear conflagration loose when Atal Behari Vajpayee gave the go-ahead for Pokhran II, and, despite the voices of a few peaceniks, Pakistan immediately reciprocated. South Asia has not been the same since, with two declared nuclear powers constantly at the brink of all-out war, what with the 73-day Kargil War in mid-1999, Musharraf's October 1999, the December 2001 militant attack on the Indian Parliament and the extended standoff on the border with forces at ready.

Confusing and provocative statements from Islamabad have helped to keep the n-option in the spotlight. In April 2002, Musharraf told a German magazine that "as a last resort, the atom bomb is also possible", appearing to reaffirm a February 2000 commitment to decide on the use of nuclear weapons "when national integrity is threatened". However, when meeting with other Asian leaders in Almaty in June, Musharraf seemed to offer contradictory statements on the same day, at one point declaring that "any sane individual" would prevent a nuclear war from occurring and at another stating that "the possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies that they will be used under some circumstances". Coupled with Musharraf's December remarks, it appears that, despite assurances to the contrary, Pakistan's nuclear posture rests in the whims of one man.

Even beyond its confrontation with India, the telltale smoke vis-à-vis Pakistan's nuclear programme does not inspire confidence. In the fall of 2002, allegations surfaced that Pakistan has been supplying technical assistance to North Korea's nuclear programme since 1997 in return for missile technology, charges Islamabad denies. Further, there are concerns that individuals within the Pakistani nuclear establishment might be bought by those in need of their expertise. In its 30 December 2002-5 January 2003 edition, the South Asian Tribune, a US-based Internet newspaper run by a Pakistani editor-in-exile, reported that at least eight senior and one mid-level nuclear engineers "secretly absconded from Pakistan" between 2000 and 2002, destinations now unknown.

It is important to avoid Musharraf-esque ambiguity and Fernandes-que flippancy to make one point perfectly clear: the stated willingness to use nuclear weapons is wrong by any standard – political, social, moral or otherwise. No leader of any government, be it democratic or dictatorial, free or feudal, should under any occasion state, imply or suggest that he or she would use these terrible tools of destruction. Despite Fernandes' disturbingly blasé statement that India "could take a bomb or two", the use of even one nuclear weapon – much less a complete exchange of arsenals – would invite unprecedented human and ecological destruction on the Subcontinent, and likely beyond.

As 2003 begins, we must worry about our collective future and wait to see if brinkmanship and ambiguity remain the order of the day. The loose talk about the use and counter-use of nuclear weapons indicates how far our politicians and politician-generals are from reality. It also indicates how far the public at-large is from a true understanding of the fallout of atomic war, which is what goads the leaders to such craven irresponsibility.

No other region in the world has ever come this close to nuclear confrontation, nor have things remained on the brink for so long. It is time to wake up, not only in New Delhi and Islamabad, but also in Karachi, Lahore, Madras and Bombay. And in Colombo, Dhaka and Kathmandu.

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