Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Apr 04, 2016
US nuclear concerns real, but targets wrong

Anti-proliferation lobbies in the US and elsewhere, especially in South Asia, should be celebrating US President Barack Obama’s call for India and Pakistan to reduce their nuclear arsenal. Their celebrations should stop there, however. Instead, they should all be telling the US where to begin, and what all not to jump.

It’s anybody’s guess why Obama chose to mention India-Pakistan nuclear weapons non-proliferation at a news conference at the end of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in the American capital of Washington, DC. Nations do not discuss their n-weapons programme, and their ‘military doctrines’ in public. The US and Russia, the two nations that Obama mentioned as those that had to reduce their n-arsenal, have not done so.

It’s equally unknown, how and why the non-proliferation aides and advisors of the American President did not refer to the post-Pokharan II Indian concerns about China being the (main) nuclear concern. Americans were believed to have been behind the ‘leak’ of then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s confidential missive to President Bill Clinton. Afterward, then Defence Minister George Fernandes acknowledged that China was the ‘potential (nuclear) threat number one’ for India.

In recent years, India would have to add Chinese ‘border incursions’ and ‘border killings’, apart from the unprovoked references to Arunachal Pradesh. India cannot also forget the unchanged Pakistani declaration of ‘Kargil War’ President, Pervez Musharraf, that they would consider deploying tactical nuclear weapons if the Indian troops crossed into (what Islamabad claimed) was Pakistani territory.

Pakistan does not have the ‘Soviet excuse’ anymore, but it would still refer to India. Ask the Chinese, and they could point to Russia, now as then. As the globally-acknowledged ‘emerging super-power’, they cannot keep US from across the Pacific and also from within the Ocean(s), out of their reckoning. Rather, they would not — in public and private, alike. Russia too would point to the USA.

Well, Russia could also refer to the post-Cold War Euro-American play-outs in its immediate neighbourhood, comprising one-time Soviet States. They would not overlook the NATO arsenal on European soil. The bug thus stops there — and the discourse ends in Washington, DC, where Obama has now begun it, all over again. It is also anybody’s guess why Obama, in his news conference, kept China — and American allies with acknowledged or unacknowledged nuclear arsenal of their own — from the reckoning.

Non-State actors

On the other crucial aspect in the Summit context again, Obama might be barking at the wrong tree, all over again. The American concerns about nuclear weapons/material falling into wrong hands cannot be over-stressed. It’s for real, but Pakistan alone should been the target of American concerns and that of the rest of the world, beginning with the Indian and Afghan neighbours of Pakistan, but not ending there.

The US began flagging such concerns only after the Pokharn-II tests, which alone brought the Pakistani nuclear/nuclear weapons capability out of the closet.  Until Pokhran-II provoked Pakistan into enacting Chagai I & II tests, the US went happily not acknowledging what it knew was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the Indian truth in the matter. A Q Khan, whom India had named for long, suddenly became the bad guy for the US, too. Eliminating A Q Khan’s name and role from contemporary Pakistani nuclear history was convenient, not only for Pakistan but also for America. Afterwards, this is the first time that the US is talking about (Pakistani) nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-State actors – and at such high level as the President’s. It’s in the IS context, welcome, but why Obama should give the impression of equating India and Pakistan in this context, needs some explanation, too. It’s more so, particularly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had reportedly explained the Indian efforts at security its nuclear weapons and material falling into the hands of non-State actors, at the very Summit.

It has been the undiluted, and at times condescending and contemptuous western attitude that what they are capable of doing on the strategic front, as securing their nuclear weapons developing nations like India are not capable of doing. They need to remember that 9/11 happened against the US, from inside the US and targeting American lives, security and sovereignty, too, so to say. There have been similar attacks in Moscow in the past, and other European capitals, though to a much degree in political terms, in recent months and years. Pakistan is a basket-case for all that can go wrong with a nation-State, and all that has gone with western geo-politics, geo-strategy and geo-economics, all put together.

If Al Qaeda was seen as a haven for fundamentalists and/or mercenaries mostly from Afro-Asian States, IS recruits come from across the world, more so from western nations when compared to the other. Expanding beyond Syria and Iraq, the IS is believed to be competing with Al Qaeda for political, military and territorial space with Al Qaeda, particularly in Afghanistan. Ironically, both were/are creations of the US and the rest of the West, in particular global contexts as they (alone) saw them. Now, they have no control on either of them, or any number of factions that has been typical of conventional Afghan system of warlord-ism.

Compromising sovereignty

It does not stop there, though. By equating India and Pakistan at one-go, and also referring to a need for reduction in nuclear arsenal, that too in public, Obama might have put those two governments in jeopardy, and in more ways than one. Political Opposition and other critics of the governments in these countries could come down heavily on the respective political leaderships for allegedly compromising their sovereignty even before anything has happened.

Any good-faith American initiatives in this respect and other efforts at normalisation of bilateral ties between the South Asian neighbours would be booed down in the two nations. In the heat of the American presidential primaries, Americans would want to know what competing front-runners in public would have to say. It’s more so about the otherwise unpredictable Donald Trump, the Republican favourite, who is still not the favourite of the party bosses.

In South Asia itself, the ‘uncalled for’ American intervention in the ‘internal affairs’ of the two nations could pressure the political leaderships to slow down on the on-again-off-again normalisation process, all over again. India is sworn to the ‘Simla Accord’ and the ‘Lahore Agreement’, and the pressure on PM Modi, from within his party and the political Opposition, would be tremendous – even if unseen, at times. Less said about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan the better. Questions would be asked nearer home if Pakistan should accept the American premise that the nation was not old enough to possess nuclear weapons, without losing them to rouge elements! That is a question for which PM Sharif won’t have answers that could convince his critics, now or ever.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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