The Nuclear Dead End in South Asia

The Pakistani nuclear program is lately getting a lot of buzz in Washington. The revelation that Pakistan has reportedly acquired tactical nuclear weapons has set the alarm bells ringing. The Obama administration went on to draw the blueprints of a possible deal with Pakistan. The New York Times ran an editorial detailing the efforts, which essentially entails a freeze on weapons production -- or a possible rollback -- in return for inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. President Obama was unable to get any assurances from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his visit to U.S. last month. The joint statement mentioned the resolve to thwart any threats of 'nuclear terrorism' but didn't flesh out the details. Any effort to rein in on the Pakistani nukes, however, will lead to a dead end as long as the Indian dilemma is not addressed.

There's no need to explain the sordid details of Indo-Pakistan rivalry. It's like an open secret. The arms race in South Asia -- and the enduring threat of a nuclear armageddon -- further complicates the matter. Fears of Pakistani nukes getting into the hands of extremists don't hold much water. There is a very remote possibility of some insiders doing the bidding of external forces. The same could be said about the Indian stockpile, especially with the rise of Hindu extremism. As a matter of fact, a serving Indian army officer turned out to be the mastermind of terror attacks in his homeland.

The Pakistani establishment is intent on countering the threat of Indian aggression by deploying small nuclear devices. The speed with which it is adding up the nuclear stockpile could make Pakistan the third largest nuclear weapons state by 2025. The policy is reminiscent of the Cold War era and looks unimplementable in the real sense. The financial strain undergone to achieve that distinction is not worth the effort. Pakistan already spends a significant chunk of its GDP on maintaining and expanding the nuclear stockpile.

The Hindu extremist wave in India and a massive upsurge in border skirmishes, in which many civilians die, reinforce the Pakistani apprehensions. India seems eager to even cut off sporting ties with Pakistan. The solution to South Asian nuclear dilemma lies with India. The transgressive behavior of its current leadership and a penchant for stocking up on conventional weaponry has not helped the cause. India has also expanded its nuclear program to a greater extent, triggering concerns in Pakistan.

U.S. and India entered into a comprehensive nuclear agreement in 2005. India, like Pakistan, is not a signatory to the NPT, CTBT or the FMCT regimes. The deal effectively ended the sanctions on India (imposed after the 1998 nuclear tests) and made it part of the global nuclear community. Now India wants to be a formal part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, edging Pakistan to claim the same privilege.

The two states have largely remained a pariah despite being declared nuclear powers. India has been accommodated recently but Pakistan remains on the fringes. Pakistani demand looks genuine as it has adopted a stringent nuclear command and control system. More so because India has not slowed down its weapons program. It has the means and capacity to accelerate weapons stockpiling in future. A recent Stimson Center report suggests India could out-compete Pakistan if it wishes to embark on a tit-for-tat. It can quickly deploy its weapons-grade plutonium, on which it enjoys an edge over Pakistan.

One-fourth of humanity thus lives in a constant fear of a nuclear apocalypse. The only way out is for India and Pakistan to shed their baggage and address the threat. The onus lies on India given its edge in conventional weaponry and geographical and economic superiority. Pakistan also needs to rethink its nuclear doctrine. The nuclear dead end in South Asia is intolerable in the long run.