Actually, General Bipin Rawat, nuclear weapons CAN deter war; a deterrence our countries are all too familiar with

Published: January 17, 2018
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Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat during Annual Press Conference at Manekshaw Centre at Dhaula Kaun on January 12, 2018 in New Delhi, India. PHOTO: GETTY

Indian army chiefs rarely make policy statements. Thus, on the rare occasion when they do choose to partake in diplomatic posturing, it is taken very seriously. This is exactly why the DG ISPR and the Defence Minister took very stern notice of General Bipin Rawat’s press statement on January 12th, where he said that his force was ready to call out Pakistan’s “nuclear bluff” and carry out cross-border operations if need be.

It must be fun to engage in high-level brinkmanship. Otherwise, it must get tiring to have so much authority and yet not be able to do anything with it. How else can one explain such a callous statement by a four-star general, who understands the consequences of a nuclear war in the subcontinent all too well?

If we are to take General Rawat’s statements at face value, then nuclear weapons cannot deter war. He does admit that,

“Nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence… yes, they are! But to say that they can deter war, they will not allow nations to go to war, in our context that may also not be true.”

With all due respect General, nothing could be further from the truth. Nuclear weapons have proven to be weapons of deterrence and have proven to avert war time and time again.

The only reason the United States and the USSR did not go to war was because they both had nuclear weapons which could destroy the world many times over and ‘mutually assured destruction’ was a very real concept, not just textbook theory. Even at the height of the Cold War, during the Cuban missile crisis, the superpower adversaries feared locking swords. John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev engaged in high-level brinkmanship, but neither seriously considered pressing the nuclear button.

Both India and Pakistan became nuclear powers after India’s five nuclear detonations in Pokhran, Rajisthan, and Pakistan’s six nuclear detonations in response to it in Chaghai, Balochistan, in May 1998. It was only because of these nuclear tests that the Kargil episode did not escalate to a full-blown war between the two nations.

Another event which could have led to a war between the two subcontinent giants was the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. The resulting 2001-02 military standoff between India and Pakistan was the largest mobilisation of forces since World War II. As in Kargil, while the international community played its part in de-escalating the situation, there was nothing stopping the Indian forces from attempting to cross the international border were it not for Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.

Similarly, the 2008 Indo-Pakistan standoff after the Mumbai attacks did not result in an expected war. Again, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent and refusal to adopt the “First No-Use” policy came to its rescue. Forget 2008, even after the 2016 Uri attack, despite claims of a “surgical strike”, India couldn’t do much other than raise a lot of hue and cry over the attacks. The trend over here is that after each one of these attacks, India has rightly or wrongly blamed Pakistan.

After the 2001-02 military standoff, the Indian Army realised that it took more than three weeks for its forces to mobilise, giving the Pakistani Army enough time to amass defensive deployments. Cold start was perceived as a plan to make inroads into Pakistani territory within 48 hours of any major provocation. In response to this, the Pakistani establishment decided that in the face of Indian incursions into Pakistan, it would cede its territory, but also deploy and use tactical nuclear weapons such as Hatf I and Nasr Hatf IX within its territory to thwart the numerically superior Indian forces.

Thank God, this scenario remains in the emblem of war games and has not been put to actual test.

Strange as it might seem that Pakistan would be willing to use nuclear weapons within the country, it is a strategy that works because war is a psychological game more than anything else. You don’t provoke a mad dog because the consequences are unpredictable. When the mad dog is a military state hell-bent on survival, the consequences are not only unpredictable, but also catastrophic.

A nuclear confrontation would not only cripple the subcontinent but would be disastrous for the whole world. If nuclear weapons are directed at any of the major Indian or Pakistani cities, 20 million people would vanish in thin air from the direct effects of the weapons. This is half the number of people killed in all six years of World War II. The resulting firestorms would make cities like Delhi, Lahore, Karachi and Mumbai skeletons of their original selves.

About one to five million tons of smoke would rise 50 kilometres above cloud level. The resulting stratospheric smoke layer would block sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface. Skies all over the world would turn from blue to grey. Temperatures would drop drastically and we might see many years with no summer anywhere in the world. There would be food shortages and hundreds of millions of people would starve to death.

This nuclear darkness is not a very likely scenario, however. We all know that the Indian army chief’s statement is mere posturing. The Indian defence establishment has many a time raised the spectre of a Pakistani invasion, but the idea has never materialised, because the cost benefit analysis does not hold out. India has much to gain from avoiding an incursion into Pakistani territory and much to lose if it doesn’t. India’s economy in fact would thank the Army Chief General Rawat if he doesn’t ponder over brazen war manoeuvre in his sleep.

General Rawat obviously knows all this, so there must be a reason why he is engaging in war posturing. It can be a play for dominance vis a vis Pakistan, but he is also sending a very specific message to Pakistan. Back in September, after the 70-day Dokalam standoff with China, he made a statement that India “cannot rule out the possibility of a two-front war with China and Pakistan”.

India and China have always had border disputes, and the Indian military has assessed that the People’s Liberation Army would continue to make small transgressions on the 4,057-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC). There is a feeling within Indian military quarters that in the future, the all-weather friends – China and Pakistan – may act in tandem against India, with Pakistan taking advantage of the situation on India’s northern border. Thus, to diffuse the likelihood of this eventuality, the General has put up a brave face against its two foes, warning that India would not shy away from engaging in all-out war, despite Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence.

I am pretty sure General Rawat and the Indian Army would not act on any such statements, but if the General is indeed seriously thinking about a two-front war, he should perhaps consider this phrase from President Kennedy’s speech on peace:

“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Thus, for the sake of our future generations, the esteemed General should abandon all plans of a two-pronged war.

Shajeel Zaidi

Shajeel Zaidi

The author works in alternative financing on Wall Street, and has a fascination with modern history and politics. He tweets as @shajboi (twitter.com/shajboi) and can also be found on Instagram as shajboi (www.instagram.com/shajboi/)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Fahad

    I thought they called the nuclear bluff when they made the “surgical” strike? Or was that just as they say, a “dramay-bazi”?Recommend

  • cuban

    Nukes haven’t prevented wars – they just increase the size of the arsenals. USA, UK, China, India, Pakistan etc have all been attacked despite their nukes.Recommend

  • Rahul

    All India wants is to stop the flow of terrorists. Recommend

  • Usman Haq

    Should invite this army chief in laughter challenge.Recommend

  • kulbhushan Yadav

    I think Pakistanis should start realizing that their nuclear blackmail would not take them very far. The more you talk about nuclear war, the more chances for Indian leadership to convince the world how dangerous these weapons are in hand of immature and unstable leadership of Pakistan. You guys have opened your mouth on nuclear weapons so much that single missile from Pakistan to India, whether conventional or nuclear, would be considered nuclear and India would have no choice but to go all out nuclear along with interception of Pakistani missile.Recommend

  • Patwari

    See, the general is close to retiring. He needs to find a cushy, well paying job with good benefits, to cover his current living style. With statements like these, one of the extremist Hindutva political parties will snap him up as a mouthpiece. They may make him run for political office, even run for Congress. There. Simple.
    With elections just around the corner for India [where you win elections by spouting poisonous vitriol about Pakland] the general is all set for his next job.
    Even the village idiot can tell you the General is just assuring himself a good livelihood post retirement. And not fade away in penury and obscurity.Recommend

  • abhi

    And why didn’t war happened between 1971 to 1998? There was no nuclear deterence then? Why there is no war between India and Bangladesh or India and Nepal there is no nuclear deterence there either.Recommend

  • abhi

    Nuclear bluff was already called out during Kargil war and surgical strike.Recommend

  • Syed Ali Abbas

    And for that lying is alowed there? Great. At least u know what he means then.Recommend

  • Srinivasulu Mekala

    If the author really believed in deterrence, he would not have written this article. How come there was Kargil, and now violations at the LOC are 24×7 phenomenon?? The tragedy is you will never acknowledge the nuclear threshold out of shame and that will deter you from using the deterrence. You are doomed if you do not use the deterrence option and you are also doomed if you decide to use it.Recommend

  • Raunaq Sarwar

    Pakistan must know, tactical weapon even within its territory, in case of war, will not be tolerated and viewed kindly by the world community. There will be severe consequences. Indian army is never scared of crossing the boundary, but it is a well thought out strategical decision to not do so, which is paying good dividends.Recommend

  • Paritosh Dutta

    The writer should know that if it weren’t for US, India Army would have crossed the border long time back. I am glad we didn’t, it built up our credibility, whereas pak is on the decline. Not India, US would nuke pak sooner than later.Recommend

  • ramanan

    If you think you can commit terrorism under the nuclear umbrella, we will call the bluffRecommend

  • Heart Breaker

    In its attempt to impress the ambitious Indian political leadership,
    subdue Pakistan, and secure hefty funds to sustain a large army despite
    stiff competition from other services, the Indian Army should not
    unwittingly ignite a nuclear war in South Asia.Recommend

  • Qasim

    It was the greatness of Pakistan that we didn’t backstab India in 1962. Whereas India remained interfering in our issues examples 1971, 2001, 2016, through Afghanistan and Balochistan. Confessions of PM Modi, Ajeet Deol, Kashmir Singh, Kal Jhadav and many spies are available on internet. Still Indian media, military and establishment is keeping their public in mode of hysteria w.r.t Pakistan. How can we do all this if your military and setup is so strong? Listen to the people of Kashmir.Recommend

  • Qasim

    This is all imagination. But this imagination is what is the key to our existence and survival. Do remember Zia’s words to Rajiv.Recommend

  • Bilal

    Bring it on, we will see who’s bluffing.Recommend

  • Ghazi Gul

    Pakistan will not be launching one missile but over 120 of them at once.Recommend

  • Rania

    These immature statements and practicing of harsh policies suggests the very insanity of the Indian elites which they are trying to pass to local masses. it would only fuel up the already turmoil situation in the region. For making the region a peaceful place Indian elites and policies makers must act vigilantly and must seek for alternatives in order to make the diplomacy workable among the regional actors. This is not just the matter of nuclear weapons and how and when to use them but a matter of billions of people living in the region which would suffer in case of any mishap and miscalculation which can open up the doors of nuclear war.Recommend

  • Abid Mahmud Ansari.

    Indian army chief, with a funny hat, can indulge in such unscrupulously casual and thoughtless talk, simply because he knows that in case of a “nuclear tit for tat” war, India will lose only the billions of “slum dogs” living in Bombay, Calcutta and Bihar. He might be thinking that this is an easy way to “eliminate” India’s world famous poverty, which is one third of the poorest of poor of the whole world, including Africa!Recommend

  • Patwari

    Indian Elites? Huh? There is such a thing as elites in Bharat?
    Seriously now! More like a realm of chaos. Recommend