Book review: Analysing the Indo-Pak nuclear threat

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By Rizwan zeb
A Punjabi adage “kehna tei noh tay sunanan noh nou” aptly sums up the crisis in the Subcontinent. Moeed Yusuf’s book begins where most of the books on South Asian stability end. What distinguishes this original and thoroughly researched book is that the author has gone beyond just providing a chronological narrative of recent events. Everyone observing South Asia is aware of the role the US has played in this region, especially when it comes to nuclear crises. Yet it is Dr Moeed Yusuf who has successfully, for the first time, conceptualised this role through the theory of Brokering Peace; an original theory of nuclear crises behaviours centered on third party mediation. Moeed has tested this theory using case studies of the Indo-Pak crises. These include 1999’s Kargil debacle; military stand-offs in 2001-02 and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
The book is divided into three sections. Section 1: Conceptual and Theoretical Issues has two chapters: Chapter 1 Understanding Nuclear Crisis Behavior: A Survey of the Literature (pp13-26) and chapter 2:  Setting Up the Inquiry: An Introduction to Brokered Bargaining (pp27-49). Chapter 1 Understanding Nuclear Crisis Behavior is a must read for all students of strategic and security studies. It provides an excellent overview of the existing literature, relevant theories and debates and addresses why India-Pakistan nuclear dynamics are different from the erstwhile Cold War. The criticism of the existing literature sets the stage for the second chapter in which the author introduces his theory of Brokered Bargaining. The literature survey would be immensely useful for university students who up-till-now struggled to find study material on the subject.

Moeed Yousuf – writer of the book

Section 2: India-Pakistan Crises in the Overt Nuclear Era has dedicated chapters for each case study. Chapter three (pp53-82) looks at the Kargil crisis. Staying away from the still debated “who knew what”, the author argues that the “planners of the Kargil operation drew wrong lessons from South Asian nuclearisation”.He states “The operation was initially conceived in the late 1980s in a conventional environment, and the officers believed that the same tactical, limited land-grab objectives would be more achievable under the nuclear overhang” (p55) failing to “recognise the obvious flaw in their assumptions: Pakistan was hoping for international support while challenging the unwritten law that nuclear weapons states do not violate “recognised zone of control.” (p55). Interestingly, General Musharraf’s statement that at the time of the Kargil crisis, Pakistan’s nuclear capability was not operational is not discussed nor was he interviewed for the book.
Chapter 4 (pp83-120) details the 2001-2002 military standoff between India and Pakistan. This crisis emerged soon after 9/11 and American invasion of Afghanistan. Despite Indian hopes, this time the Americans had to take into consideration the fact that Pakistan was an American ally in the then new global War on Terror. In fact, American response reminded this scribe of the famous “there is no oil in Kashmir” statement attributed to former American ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley. Now, Americans were mainly concerned about their war against terror in Afghanistan.According to US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the US’s aim was to “acknowledge the right of others to do what we had done in responding to the attack on the Twin Towers but also convince them not to actually do it.” (p97)
It is generally believed, especially among Pakistan’s strategic community that during the year-long standoff, India couldn’t attack Pakistan despite planning to do so twice because of its uncertainty about Pakistani response that could have included use of nuclear weapons. The author claims that “in the 2001-02 stand-off, India was reportedly on the verge of acting militarily against Pakistan and was restrained only by a diplomatic frenzy made possible by US satellite imagery confirming that Indian forces had moved into war fighting positions.”(P-7)
The author also hints about the ill-fated back channel dialogue between RK Mishra and General Mahmud Durrani(p88) which, according to many in Islamabad failed because of “the US conciliatory signaling towards India during the crisis” that resulted in its discontinuation. During the standoff or the twin peaks crisis, India continued to signal to Washington to address the problem otherwise, it would be compelled to escalate (pp5-6, 94-95), whereas Islamabad used its frontline state status and troops movement in its favour. (pp94-95)
Chapter 5: The Mumbai Crisis (pp121-154) makes an interesting read and provides valuable information. This chapter is particularly important as this crisis is not as widely analysed as the other two. Interestingly, at the time of the Mumbai crisis, both India and Pakistan were getting incredulous of America. For New Delhi, “Bush administration’s success in preventing the Indian leadership from acting against Pakistan in the 2001-02 stand-off and its unwillingness to press Pakistan sufficiently on the anti-Pakistan terrorism issue thereafter” had “emboldened the Pakistani security establishment to persist with its proxy warfare strategy” (p123). For Islamabad, the trust deficit with USA was widening. The Americans were also facing a dilemma; they needed Islamabad’s support for the Afghanistan mission whereas they could not afford to alienate India as it was the cornerstone of America’s new South Asia Policy.Another factor was the Indian military’s cold start doctrine. Although it was not fully operational at the time, many worried that India might employ it (p123) especially when the American embassy in New Delhi reported of a “war fever in India” (p139) The generally held view about this crisis was that despite some provocations and aggressive nuclear signaling, no extensive mobilisation took place and it never turned into as alarming a crisis as the 2001-02 standoff (p121) but the Americans believed otherwise. They drew parallels between 26/11 and 9/11 and “recall how deeply compelled they had felt to go to war because of the attacks on US homeland” (pp 138-39). According to the author, the Indians did not want to attack Pakistan as New Delhi believed that “an Indian attack would have obscured the focus on Pakistan’s link to the terrorist attacks and pushed the world to see the incident as part of the larger India-Pakistan dispute” (p128)
The author argues that in each of these conflicts, “the concern about escalation forced the United States to engage, largely unsolicited…” (p5). This assessment is partially correct as the American might had their concerns, the fact is both India and Pakistan constantly solicited U.S. involvement and in fact played to the gallery, something the author highlights throughout the book.
The author also highlights Americans lack of faith in Indo-Pak leadership’s ability to resolve their problems. Nothing illustrates this better than what Colin Powell said during the 2001-02 stand-off: “We had sort of a daily roster out there for who is going tomorrow to keep these clowns from killing each other.” (p96)
These case studies highlight the fact that each crisis brought a new set of challenges requiring case specific responses from a third party (the US). As highlighted in the book, every time Americans intervened, they did it only to deescalate the situation and not to resolve the underlying problems. Two out of the three crises took place when the Americans were militarily present in Afghanistan and had a direct stake in the regional peace and stability yet what is puzzling is that the US didn’t manipulate the situation to its advantage (p149).
The third section, Lessons and Implications comprises two chapters; Brokered Bargaining: Observations and Lessons for South Asia (p157-180) and Beyond South Asia (p181-197). In it, the author provides lessons for other case studies from the Middle-East and Korean peninsula.
The book concludes with Brokered Bargaining Implications for Theory and Practice (p198-214). An important question is what if in the next crisis, the US doesn’t have any direct stakes or gets involved in supporting one party against the other? Also, in these crises, the US was the main third party or the lead party brokering peace between India and Pakistan supported by all other major global players. However, it would be interesting to see what would happen in a crisis where one or more than one of these powers challenge or disagree with the Americans and support either of them. (p96)
Stanford University Press has done an excellent job on all fronts. The cover is decent and appealing for an academic book. The editing quality is also excellent. All in all, this is an original and exceptionally strong contribution to literature that has broken the Euro-American scholars’ monopoly. Above all, it is well written and is a pleasure to read. Borrowing a non-Kosher literary giant’s comment about William Dalrymple, this scribe is happy to note that Moeed Yusuf is a strategic thinker who can actually write.
(Rizwan Zeb is Associate Professor at Iqra University, Islamabad, research fellow, South Asia Study Group (SASG), University of Sydney, associate editor of the peer-reviewed quarterly Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs and research Fellow at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad (on study leave). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK and visiting scholar at the India-South Asia Project at the Brookings Institution. He tweets at @SRizwanZeb.)