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Pakistan’s moderates threatening nuclear war over Kashmir is a sign it’s losing the argument

Former Pakistani ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi said Pakistan should retaliate against India with nukes. Perhaps that threat is the only way Pakistan can stay relevant.

India and Pakistan flags
India and Pakistan flags | Representational image | Commons

Having failed to get international support in favour of its position on Kashmir post-Narendra Modi government’s Article 370 move, Pakistan’s establishment seems to have opted to raise the spectre, once again, of nuclear conflict. And this time even a moderate in the Pakistani establishment, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, is threatening nuclear war in support of Kashmir’s secessionists.

The strategy is similar to the one that led to the Kargil conflict in 1999. Pakistan hopes to use conflagration involving weapons of mass destruction as a means of getting an otherwise disinterested world to pay attention to an economically weak and politically divided Pakistan.

In an article, former ambassador to India, China, and the US, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, implied that Pakistan should retaliate against India with nukes if India does not change its stance in relation to Kashmiris under Indian rule.

Qazi asserts, “Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent is meant to deter war not pursue war. But if the people of the Valley are threatened with genocide, as indeed they are, Pakistan’s deterrent must cover them.” Nuclear threats when issued by former or serving high ranking government officials need to be taken seriously because they often reflect widely held beliefs within that country’s establishment.

That, Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, someone who has advocated good ties with India over the years appears today to be in favour of nuclear war is worrisome. There are others with more extreme views, such as Munir Akram who was recently reappointed as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, who have irresponsibly brandished the nuclear sword for years. But Qazi represented the more moderate version of Pakistani ultra-nationalism, until now.

But after over seven decades of referring to Kashmir as the ‘jugular vein’ and ‘unfinished business of Partition,’ after four wars with India (including 1971 that led to the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh) and after being unable to convince the international community of India’s alleged hegemonic ambitions, it is understandable that the Pakistani establishment views itself at a loss.

Also read: Modi has finished Pakistan’s ‘unfinished business’ of Partition

Nuclear statements

This is not the first time that Pakistani officials have spoken of nuclear war with reference to India. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan, during his speech before the UN General Assembly, appealed to the global community to act on Kashmir because “if the world does nothing to stop the Indian assault on Kashmir and its people, there will be consequences for the whole world as two nuclear-armed states get ever closer to a direct military confrontation.”

This is not to deny that in recent months there has not been loose talk about nuclear weapons from the Indian side as well. In mid-August, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh opened the prospect of India revising its doctrine of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) of nuclear weapons, given the threat of battlefield nukes being deployed by Pakistan. “The future of India’s No First Use (NFU) policy on nuclear weapons depended on circumstances,” he asserted. Further, the deputy chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Keshav Prasad Maurya said in October 2019 that voting in favour of the BJP will mean “dropping of a nuclear bomb on Pakistan”.

Also read: Modi has convinced the world Kashmir is India’s internal affair – but they’re still watching

Nuclear competition

Most nuclear weapon powers see their weapons of mass destruction as a means of maintaining status quo and as deterrents to bad behaviour on part of their enemies. In the subcontinent, India’s nuclear programme originated not out of a regional rivalry, but from the argument that non-proliferation should be global. Either no one should have weapons of mass destruction or everyone should have the right to own them.

Pakistan’s nuclear programme, on the other hand, is about contention with India. As a revisionist power, Pakistan developed its military nuclear programme primarily to advance its claim of parity with India and to settle what it considers the ‘unfinished business’ from the 1947 Partition.

India does not need the Pakistani threat to be a nation. It is a classic status quo state and is content within the borders it has. Indian nationalism is not defied around Pakistan. Pakistan needs hostility as a part of its nationalism.

As scholar and analyst Khaled Ahmed once said, Pakistanis have a hard time defining themselves as a nation except in opposition to India through the prism of their ideology. Unlike communist and fascist states where the ideology was derived from within the nation, in the case of Pakistan, the ideology defines the nation.

For most countries, nuclear weapons are an instrument of power and in earlier decades countries even like Soviet Union/Russia have been willing to discuss certain limitations. With Pakistan, however, the issue of nuclear weapons is intertwined with the identity of the state and the perceived existential threat from India. The Pakistani state views nuclear weapons as a defining characteristic of its identity: it is the only Muslim state with declared nuclear weapons.

Ever since partition in 1947, Pakistan’s foreign and security policy has been framed around seeking parity with its larger neighbour India. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishment that has dominated the state ever since independence, initially sought conventional military parity with India. When that became impossible by the 1960s, nuclear weapons were viewed as the panacea.

Also read: New study predicts impact of India-Pakistan nuclear war — over 100 million dead

Nuclear option

India has a declared No First Use policy as part of its nuclear doctrine. While India has not signed the global non-proliferation treaties – NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) – it has signed a civil nuclear deal with the United States, agreed to IAEA’s supervision of its civilian nuclear reactors and signed the FMCT (Fissile Material Cut off Treaty).

Pakistan, on the other hand, has refused to declare an NFU policy and has no declared nuclear doctrine. Senior Pakistani officials have often spoken about Pakistan’s nuclear red lines that include retaliation if “India attacked Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory; India destroys a large section of Pakistan’s land and air forces; Imposition of a blockade to such an extent that it ‘strangles’ transportation of vital supplies and adversely affects the ‘war-waging stamina’ of the country; India pushes Pakistan into political destabilisation or creates large-scale internal subversion.”

However, as scholar and analyst Husain Haqqani states in his book India v Pakistan: Why can’t we just be friends?: “Although Pakistanis feel great pride in their having achieved nuclear power status, nuclear weapons have neither made Pakistan more secure nor created the equivalence with India that Pakistan seeks.”

Now, facing massive losses, Pakistan knows the only way to ensure that the country remains relevant is by hovering its finger over the only button it has – that of nuclear war.

The author is a Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington DC-based Hudson Institute. Her books include ‘Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’ (Routledge, 2011) and ‘From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy’ (Harper Collins, 2017). Views are personal.