Point, Counter Point: the Wisest Choice

Point, Counter-Point: A Four Part Series

The Wisest Choice, by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

Normalizing Nuclear Pakistan, by Rabia Akhtar

After the Euphoria?  by Amina Afzal

Overlooking’ Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, by Aditi Malhotra and Sitakanta Mishra


President George W Bush knew how to sweet talk India. Following the signing of the India US nuclear deal he claimed it was “India’s passport to the world”. During an earlier visit to Islamabad, he had rejected any similar deal for Pakistan, on the grounds that India and Pakistan were “different countries with different needs and different histories”. India saw this as its final triumph on two fronts – first the de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan in the US policy discourse. The second was a tacit US acceptance of Indian exceptionalism. While some very smart people foresaw the problems arising from the competing exceptionalisms of India and the United States, few actually saw how it may hinder quite seriously India’s own security. Today it is no exaggeration to say that India’s desire to be the sole nuclear exception, may very well be at the cost of its long term security.

Yet there is a compelling argument to bringing Pakistan into the nuclear fold that probably benefits India more than it does any other country.

Today Pakistan is inching towards greater isolation than ever before in its history. As a result its room for maneuver is extremely restricted, with very little by way of options but more dangerously with very little to lose. India’s position today vis-à-vis Pakistan has in fact never been stronger.

Assuming that every Indian stereotype of Pakistan is in fact accurate and this is a country on the cusp of collapse, this is the best time to get the international community to negotiate with Pakistan, and get the best possible terms. India historically though nurtures this myth that forgoing seemingly good options today, yields a brighter tomorrow. Take for example historian Srinath Raghavan’s work on India’s defense and foreign policy from 1947 to 1962 where he praises this policy as one of “multiplying ones options”. Sadly while it sounds good, in practice this policy has been a miserable failure. India chose to play nuclear ostrich through much of the 50s and 60s and ended up living on the fringes of the NPT, till it decided to cut its losses and the India US nuclear deal. Similarly after testing a device in 1974 it chose to put its weapons programme in deep freeze, presumably again with the intention of “multiplying its options”, the net result was that India had to undergo another set of sanctions in 1998. If anything I am yet to get a single example from an Indian realist scholar on a practical and irrefutable example of “multiplying options”.

Let us then apply a simple cost benefit analysis to what India would gain letting Pakistan into the nuclear order today, even assuming the worst Indian stereotype of Pakistan as fact.

  • Indian Stereotype 1 : The so-called bifurcation of the Pakistan nuclear programme into civilian and military is a farce, since the army controls the state and hence its civilian bureaucracy.

A nuclear deal will force a de-facto separation of civilian and military facilities. It empowers the civilians, and removes significant powers from the military and in so doing provides a much needed correction in the civil-military balance – something India has always wanted. The question is outside of rhetoric, what alternative can India propose that would correct the civil-military balance the way a nuclear deal could?

  • Indian Stereotype 2 : A deal materially rewards Pakistan.

Indian reactors were running woefully under capacity owing either to India’s incompetence at procuring nuclear raw material in the black market or its insufferable “goody two shoes” attitude. Pakistan on the other hand was adept at manipulating the black market and keep its reactors running. If anything a deal would first force Pakistan to bring the black market trade to light and second give the international community the means to regulate it in the future. It will give India and the international community vital clues as to how Pakistan managed its clandestine acquisitions and in so doing would irretrievably compromise Pakistan’s illicit supplier network.  Does India have any other option that can achieve similar results?

  • Indian Stereotype 3 : A deal will only strengthen the Pakistani weapons programme

The key phrase Mark Fitzpatrick uses is “Pakistan has a lot more to atone for”. It is for this exact reason that linking good military nuclear behavior to a civilian nuclear deal is both realistic and feasible. For example would a Pakistan heavily dependent on the west for energy security and under the threat of a “right to return clause” realistically resort to nuclear sabre rattling? Similarly one sine qua non of the deal will be Pakistan’s adherence to both the CTBT and the FMCT, both of which will cap Pakistan’s capabilities. From point 1 and point 3 it is clear that such a deal will not only loosen the military’s control over the nuclear programme, but also curtail the military’s options. What Indian alternative can achieve even a fraction of these goals?

  • Indian Stereotype 4: The West is again trying to gain leverage with and falling for Pakistani propaganda

Since 1998 the narrative in India has slowly changed from one of western aid enabling Pakistani revisionism to western aid thwarting such revisionism. Is handing over Pakistan’s jugular from adversary China, to India’s friends in the west such a bad idea? While India admittedly has limited leverage on the west to enforce our agenda on Pakistan, India has exactly zero leverage on China. It was not India’s fizzled Cold Start that bought Pakistani good behavior after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, it was the west’s decisive interventions in Islamabad. It is far better that our friends have leverage on Islamabad than our enemies.  Building a strict performance-reward chain, with scaling back of privileges based on the mere finding of a material breach can act as a powerful control mechanism. By contrast what exactly have Indian protestations achieved in the past?

Obviously there is a high possibility that Pakistan will abuse the programme as it has almost every deal before. But in dangling a carrot it either forces Pakistan into a rhetorical action trap or it exposes Pakistan as not being serious about integrating with the international community. At best Pakistan’s revisionism is curbed at worst it stands exposed and isolated and Indian obstinacy cannot be blamed for it.

From an Indian point of view this may not be fair or just – but it may be the wise thing to do. In this India has much to learn from the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.


Image: Aamir Qureshi-AFP, Getty


Posted in , India, India-Pakistan Relations, NPT, Nuclear, Pakistan, Point Counter-Point, Policy

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

After his B.Com from the University of Madras he pursued a career in the corporate world before turning to academia. He holds a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Political & Social Inquiry at Monash University, and is pursuing his PhD. He served as research assistant on several projects all under the aegis of the Centre For Muslim Minorities & Islam Policy Studies at Monash (2007-2010). He is a Programme Coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Sandia National Laboratories. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent any institutional or national position. His primary research is on limited wars and nuclear thresholds, but his interests include, military transformation, defence planning, procurement and offsets, infrastructure, governance and Historical Patterns of Conflict in Democracies. His spare time is spent traveling, cooking, flying microlight aircraft and scuba diving.

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کیا مقصد حاصل ہوگیا؟ افغانستان میں امریکی مفادات اور مستقبل میں درپیش آزمائشوں میں توازن کی کوشش

افغانستان میں اگر حالات انتہائی سازگار ہوں تو بھی اگلے پانچ برس اس کیلئے مشکل ہوں گے۔ اگرغنی حکومت اورطالبان کے مابین پر امن طور […]

September 5, 2020 - Views 0

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6 thoughts on “Point, Counter Point: the Wisest Choice

  1. Abhijit:
    You have a distinctive voice. Always easy to read.
    Would you condition a nuclear deal for Pakistan on the cessation of extremist violence directed against India?

  2. @MK

    Thanks, much appreciated

    No absolutely not – if anything linking terrorism to a nuclear deal would be counterproductive for several different reasons.

    1) It is important that India does not get into a self-destructive terrorism idee fixe like Pakistan has over Kashmir

    2) Shouldn’t back Pakistan into a corner with an everything or nothing deal. use salami tactics, one deal at a time. create a web of multiple paths, multiple dependencies, till you can change Pakistan’s cost-benefit analysis over time

    3) Realise Pakistani sensibilities and give them a sense of security in each deal. they shouldn’t have to look over their shoulders thinking that every deal is an Indian plot to get Pakistan declared an official sponsor of terrorism.

    4) Terrorism isn’t a toy that can be turned on and off at will. Its a manifestation of complex social structures and impulses that can only be tamed with a lot of time and lot of effort and a lot of pain. Sadly this something India has to accept.

    5) The reality is that any deal on terrorism will have significant blowback for Pakistan. linking terrorism to a nuke deal will set the deal up to fail, give terrorists or the military the levers to sabotage the deal and set the whole process back

    6) I think there are other and better ways of dealing with cross border terrorism – to the extent that we can insulate ourselves from most of the terrorism, irrespective of Pakistan’s position….but that requires immense self-discipline.

  3. This essay contains too many assumptions, many of them fanciful. Whether Pakistan signs a Nuclear deal with anyone should be of no concern to India, it being their business. The Indo / US deal was more about pats on the back and grandstanding, other than legitimizing India as a Nuclear Power, its value is limited.
    The strategic affairs analysts should not concern themselves with who is setting the agenda, deciding and implementing policy in Pakistan — Military, Mullah, Parliament or Terrorists. All should be treated as one and the same Enterprise — name boards will keep changing, work will keep getting outsourced from one entity to another and loyalties and Power dynamics will keep switching internally. There is no need for anyone to get confused by attempts at deniability or obfuscation, through this creative confusion.
    Intent should be notified in a language easy to understand. What Pakistan does or does not do within should not be of concern to anyone. After 26/11 Mumbai attack India should have sent a strong message, please handover the plotters — if you do not we will come and get them. The World has other more important issues to bother than who is attacking India, why of it and will stop with offering copious sympathies. What India has to do it must do, leaving Pakistan to do whatever it wants to do. Once a country has informed you it has no control on the terror groups sustained, fed and sheltered on its territory, it has absolved itself of its responsibilities as a Nation State.
    Posturing and verbal dramatics can achieve nothing. When the cost of initiating adventures of the terror kind is escalated to stratospheric levels capable of paralyzing it, the perpetrator will at least be forced to think. As long as India or any other country in its place suffering from terror attacks does not act forcefully and wants to continue playing the victim, it deserves to be the victim. Terrorists have to be pursued into whichever den they are hiding. If weapons are not meant to defend a country they should be placed in a Museum. I must add that Power comes from conviction, never from weapons or fear. Look around if you have not realized it yet.

  4. @ Abhijeet.
    1) “…competing exceptionalism…” It is good to think big but India has no history of exceptionalism. It is a bit unfair to compare India to America’s exceptionalism. A state that is not at peace with itself and in its neighbourhood has a long way to go and think that it has the divine right to change things in the world. Is American exceptionalism a good trait to copy?
    “…army controls the state…” That seems slightly misplaced reading of last few years of Pakistani history.
    “…deal would first force Pakistan to bring the black market trade to light and second give the international community the means to regulate it in the future. It will give India and the international community vital clues as to how Pakistan managed its clandestine acquisitions and in so doing would irretrievably compromise Pakistan’s illicit supplier network…” Read Joshua Pollack’s Fourth Customer at ACW and Play Boy’s edition. Proliferation is a global common like other commons of the sea and space. All the armed States can probably be divided in to two categories of old and new proliferators.
    “…nuclear sabre rattling…Pakistan’s adherence to both the CTBT and the FMCT…What Indian alternative can achieve even a fraction of these goals?” Gives me an idea. Why does not India offer negotiating and signing an FMCT after declaring a unilateral moratorium on fissile material production? This shall encourage others to follow and give New Delhi a moral leg up plus prove its exceptionalism.
    “…Pakistani revisionism…” Interestingly, it is not Pakistan that is interested in revising the global order and revise the Security Council!
    “…It was not India’s fizzled Cold Start that bought Pakistani good behavior after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, it was the west’s decisive interventions in Islamabad…” The Cold hasn’t fizzled. See the force posture and communication network that have sprouted up after 2004. One has to watch Pakistani restraint despite involvement in its internal affairs and its destabilisation.
    “…Obviously there is a high possibility that Pakistan will abuse the programme as it has almost every deal before….” That takes us back to few years in history when a State diverted material from a reactor to smile like Budha in 1974 and Nuclear Suppliers Group its raison d’état! It is interesting to have cheeks to talk about morality and abuse! Pakistan could have also diverted material from Atoms for Peace Program reactor – it was responsible to fulfil its obligation. Like India of NPT obligation!

  5. @peacemaker

    “…competing exceptionalism…” I’m calling it as I see it, not making a value judgement of if it is good or bad. You’re free to draw your own conclusions as you see fit

    “slightly misplaced”. …… no I don’t think so. Just because the army has taken a back seat doesn’t mean it doesn’t call the shots. You’re talking optics I’m talking reality.

    “Read Joshua Pollack’s Fourth Customer at ACW and Play Boy’s edition” ….. I have. Point being? I’m talking about discovery and control, you’re talking about classification. Two very different things.

    “Gives me an idea” We’re talking about a deal for Pakistan here, not one for India…..India already has a deal its happy with and has no need to renegotiate …. its fait accompli. The last thing India will do, is to factor in Pakistan or a Pakistani’s point of view into what it will or will not do with its nuclear edifice.

    “it is not Pakistan that is interested in revising the global order and revise the Security Council” again you’re confusing reforming global governance with pakistani territorial revisionism = revanchism/irredentism. Everyone supports the former, no one has the stomach or patience for the latter (see Crimea). Basically you’re saying Russian actions in Crimea = Security Council reforms?

    “See the force posture and communication network that have sprouted up after 2004”. Again point being?

    “Pakistani restraint …despite..”. again point being? you’re going off in tangents completely unrelated to the arguments here.

    “when a State diverted material from a reactor to smile like Budha in 1974” yes and as you yourself said “All the armed States can probably be divided in to two categories of old and new proliferators”… India is a newer proliferators than the p5 but older than Pakistan or the current set of Iran and DPRK…..different rules for different folks. Deals and treaties aren’t based on justice or fair play, they are based on relative strengths and reality.

  6. Firstly, in a note of thanks to the Stimson Center for hosting this exchange, I am delighted for my book on Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers to have prompted such a worthy set of commentaries.
    Abhijit puts his finger on a central point regarding Pakistan’s inching toward greater isolation. The growing fundamentalist tendencies in the country and the paranoia often expressed about Western intentions are among the main reasons I chose to write my book. In assessing a nation’s security posture, one has to start by examining motivations. It became apparent to me that affecting Pakistan’s nuclear posture will not be possible without addressing the nation’s deeply felt sense of discrimination. Hence my conclusion that Pakistan should be offered a conditional path to nuclear legitimacy.
    Abhijit reinforces my contention and adds to the list of arguments for a nuclear deal some that my book didn’t cover. I am not fully persuaded that a nuclear deal would ‘force a de facto separation of civilian and military facilities’ more than is already the case today, but it is a hypothesis deserving of further analysis. Ditto with the suggestion that a deal would force Pakistan to bring its black market trade to light. I wish this would be the case, but this hope may not be the strongest argument for a deal.
    The strongest arguments are the other ones Abhijit discusses: a deal would require ‘responsible’ nuclear behaviour in ways that would enhance regional stability. I am grateful to Abhijit for reinforcing my belief that offering Pakistan such a path should give India no reason for alarm. In my book launches, the question has sometimes come up as to how India would react. The next time I will quote Abhijit’s analysis to reinforce my conviction that India should be happy about it.

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