by Madhav Nalapat

Way back in 2001-02, wealthy ladies in the US and the UK who were in their sunset years got subjected to a barrage of news reports about a nuclear catastrophe that was soon to befall the world in the shape of radioactive fallout. India and Pakistan were at the cusp of launching nuclear attacks against each other, and the resulting fallout would even reach the UK and the US, thereby cutting short the already limited time that such well-meaning ladies had on the planet. What was the way out? “Non-proliferation” think-tanks acted in the manner of quacks dispensing cure-all medicines in the past, medicines that were worse than placebos in that they not only did not heal but harmed anyone who took them. At soirees and lunches, those involved in getting funding for such think-tanks spoke with emphasis about how the Doomsday Clock was almost at midnight, in case the think-tanks in question did not get bursts of funding to inter alia visit India and Pakistan and keep the two nuclear powers away from making much of the world even more uninhabitable than it already was.

Ironically, it was these very think-tanks that had peddled the view to policymakers in the countries where they were located that the US and other Atlanticist countries should look away from the transfers of nuclear technology and materials together with missile systems from China (often via North Korea) to Pakistan. The theory was that once Pakistan became a nuclear power, India would be so jittery that it would agree for the trade-off that both countries relinquish their nuclear programmes. They claimed that the best way to persuade India to de-nuclearize was to look the other way while Pakistan was being gifted that capability by that great friend of the US at the time, the People’s Republic of China. As with so many of the theories spun by the non-proliferation lobbies in the US in particular, this one too did not work. The closer Pakistan came to becoming a consequential nuclear power, the greater the impetus in India to go further along the road to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities

At the time of the imaginary nuclear crisis of 2001-02, this columnist pointed out in the Washington Times among other newspapers that any talk of Pakistan initiating a nuclear exchange with India was delusional. The generals in Pakistan, brimming with their New York condos and plush private housing in Rawalpindi and elsewhere had no interest in watching such assets be placed at risk by launching a nuclear attack on India that would invite retaliation such as would extinguish Pakistan as a functioning state. Pakistan’s generals, who are busy in adding to their wealth overseas and their power domestically, are very rational actors.

The term “actor” is apt, in that they remain experts in convincing policymakers in the western world that they are only seconds away from pressing the nuclear button by the side of the Chief of Army Staff at Rawalpindi GHQ. Among the many US Secretaries of State who have been bamboozled by such misleading threats from the generals in Pakistan is apparently Mike Pompeo when he was in that role. Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time in India punctured the balloon of such nuclear blackmail when he approved the Balakot strike in 2019, to the shock of GHQ Rawalpindi. It is clear that as usual, they turned to Washington for rescue, using the usual warning that if India did not desist, a nuclear attack would follow.

On contacting the External Affairs Minister about this impending disaster, the sensible reply was that in that case, Pakistan would suffer unbearable consequences. This was a polite way of the EAM telling the otherwise very capable and astute US Secretary of State that he was mistaken in the way he took Pakistan’s nuclear bluff seriously. Whether it be to prevent retaliation from India for acts of terror against the world’s most populous democracy or to get more money from western donors, nuclear blackmail has become a standard weapon of army-ruled Pakistan as resort to terrorism has long been. While resorting to terror by Pakistan needs to be eliminated by the international community, nuclear blackmail should not be given any reward in the form of concessions. Rather, those making such threats need to come under international sanctions.