Manish Tewari | Were India, Pak close to a nuke war after Pulwama?
Mike Pompeo, the seventieth secretary of state of the United States of America and the twenty-fourth director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in his recently released book, Never Give an Inch, writes on p. 340: “I do not think the world properly knows just how close the India-Pakistan rivalry came to spilling over into a nuclear conflagration in February 2019. The truth is, I don’t know precisely the answer either; I just know it was too close. I will never forget the night I was in Hanoi, Vietnam when — as if negotiating with the North Koreans on nuclear weapons wasn’t enough — India and Pakistan started threatening each other in connection with a decades-long dispute over the northern border region of Kashmir… In Hanoi I was awakened to speak with my Indian counterpart. He believed that the Pakistanis had begun to prepare their nuclear weapons for a strike. (The reference seems to be to the current NSA Ajit Doval rather than late Sushma Swaraj who was then foreign minister for earlier on p. 338 he says he worked closely with Doval) India, he informed me, was contemplating its own escalation. I asked him do nothing and give us a minute to sort things out. I began to work with Ambassador Bolton (then the national security adviser of the United States) who was with me in the tiny secure communications facility in our hotel. I reached the actual leader of Pakistan, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa (chief of the Pakistan Army staff), with whom I had engaged many times. I told him what the Indians had told me. He said it wasn’t true. As one might expect, he believed that the Indians were preparing their nuclear weapons for deployment. It took us a few hours — and remarkably good work by our teams on the ground in New Delhi and Islamabad — to convince each side that the other was not preparing for nuclear war. No other nation would have done what we did that night to avoid a horrible outcome.”
The former NSA of the United States in his book, The Room Where It Happened, on p. 325, writes: “I thought that was it for the evening; but word soon came that Shanahan and Dunford wanted to talk to [Mike] Pompeo and me about a ballooning crisis between India and Pakistan. (Patrick Michael Shanahan was acting US secretary of defence and Gen. Joseph Francis Dunford Jr. was the chairperson of the United States joint chiefs of staff). After hours of phone calls, the crisis passed, perhaps, because in substance there never really had been one. But when two nuclear powers spin up their military capabilities it is best not to ignore it. No one else cared at that time, but the point was clear to me: This is what happened when people did not take nuclear proliferation from the likes of Iran and North Korea seriously.”
Obviously both India and Pakistan have not responded to the explicit writings of two of the seniormost officials of the Trump Administration charged with the national security remit. Worryingly, neither has the media nor public policy professionals, especially those who populate the myriad think thanks on foreign policy and national security, have asked the obvious question — Was there a possibility, howsoever remote, of a nuclear conflagration between India and Pakistan?
The Parliament, of course, preoccupied by the mundane, has never had the appetite and, I suspect, perhaps, neither the inclination nor even the intellectual bandwidth to engage in a serious non-partisan discussion on nuclear or national security issues.
The equation is further triangulated by the existence of a first age nuclear power, China, which shares borders with both of us and has supplied nuclear materials and technology to Pakistan on its western periphery and North Korea on its eastern flank.
However, coming back to the Pompeo-Bolton revelations, it is but self-evident that, post the Balakote retaliatory strike, things quickly escalated to a threshold where there was a possibility of tactical or even strategic nuclear weapons coming into play rather quickly. The Pulwama attack took place on February 14, the Balakote air strike on the morning of February 26 and the Hanoi Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on February 27-28, 2019.
Obviously, the Mike Pompeo-John Bolton mediation must have taken place on the intervening night of the 27-28 February. The fact that, within 36 hours of the retaliatory strike, things had reached an inflection point that allegedly prompted the Indian national security adviser to either warn the United States national security apparatus consisting of the secretary of state, acting secretary of defence, national security adviser and chairman, joint chiefs of staff of the US Armed Forces, that India had detected nuclear activity in Pakistan and, therefore, was contemplating counter-measures is as serious as it can get.
It can’t be argued that India played the US establishment with the nuclear card to bring quietus to a rapidly spiralling crisis post the Balakote strike for, at that level, you do not cry wolf. There are other consequences for doing that.
The fact that it prompted Mike Pompeo to speak to then Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and also activate both the US embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad to get both nations to deescalate is a classical case of third party intervention to stave of a catastrophic flashpoint even if the mediation was done covertly.
However, President Donald Trump did not leave it covert for long. In his true inimitable style and perhaps to gloss over the failure of the Hanoi summit, ostensibly also to deflect from his former lawyer Michael D. Cohen’s damaging testimony to the Oversight Committee of the US House of Representatives, he stated at a press conference in Hanoi, “They’ve been going at it, and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop. And we have some reasonably decent news. I think, hopefully, that’s going to be coming to an end.”
It is, therefore, fairly clear that there are no off-ramps when the Indo-Pakistan rivalry goes on an accelerated escalatory spiral. It requires third party intervention/ mediation to cool things down and restore sanity.
This always may not be available and may not even work if positions on both sides are locked in. India and Pakistan, therefore, must explore the possibility of putting in place a formal and institutionalised modus vivendi that can be activated in times of a crisis without relying on foreign help.