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Nuclear weapons

N-Game: 8 seconds to self-ruin


CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones, " Albert Einstein once said, alluding to the possibility of a nuclear conflict that could dwarf the twin blows on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there hasn't been a World War in the seven decades after the last one - much less one involving nuclear weapons. It looks unlikely there will be one in our lifetime.

Nuclear weapons themselves are becoming rather declasse, a currency to ensure status quo more than to exercise power. There are growing voices in the US to size down the American nuclear arsenal (happening) and eventually to jettison it (not happening). Fear of China, which in turn fears the US, keeps the nuclear wheel (or centrifuge) spinning. India fears China, Pakistan fears India, Iran fears Pakistan (and the US) and Saudi Arabia fears Iran and so it keeps going. The satirist-singer Tom Lehrer described this domino effect in a song on nuclear proliferation in the 1960s.

However, talk of a great nuclear war has definitely receded, replaced by fears of a rogue nuclear strike by terrorist elements, typically expected to come from some crazed Islamist fanatic. Of course, it could be from a fundamentalist of any religious persuasion (Jewish, Christian, Hindu etc) or even of any ideological bent, but chances of this are seen as remote and Islamist fundamentalists generally get the rap. Why is that? Is it because the sole Islamic nuclear power speaks permissively and has a hair-trigger nuclear posture, ready to hurl nuclear invective, if not weapons themselves, at the push of a button?

Two recent stories have pricked the ears of the nuclear fraternity in Washington DC, a city that once built dual-use structures to serve as nuclear shelters. A Pakistani general was recently reported as having bragged to a visiting British official during one the country's innumerable crises with India that "it takes us eight seconds to get the (nuclear) missiles over", into India. The general, believed to be deposed strongman Pervez "Motormouth" Musharraf, evidently wanted to send out a strong message to New Delhi not to retaliate militarily against any terrorist attack from Pakistan.

More recently, Munir Akram, a highly-regarded (only in Pakistan) retired diplomat from the country's foreign service, speaking for Pakistan's strategic command, said if there is a US military strike aimed at capturing or destroying Pakistan's nuclear and delivery capabilities, "it may feel compelled to use rather than lose these capabilities. "

Gee, really? Use against who? Since the United States is well outside the reach of Pakistan's nuclear delivery systems, could the intended victim be ... India? Or would it be US interests in Afghanistan or elsewhere within striking range? And if indeed Pakistan began the process of using its nukes ... or as much as preparing them for delivery, is it likely that these countries would be sitting on their haunches?

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to war game the scenarios, and abler folk would have done their homework;they wouldn't be worth their salt in office if they had not planned for such contingency. But the fact is that you will never hear an Indian general or bureaucrat or politician talk so lightly of nuclear strikes. Nor does the Indian media, except for an occasional excitable reporter breathlessly recording how much of the Chinese land mass and which Chinese cities are covered by each succeeding Agni missile.

But public and media discourse in Pakistan, perhaps betraying the scarred psychosis of no-hopers, is full of nuclear bluff and bravado. One of its more famous diplomats, now in disgrace and exile, once gaily suggested that Pakistan's prime target in a nuclear strike would be Bangalore, India's thriving info-tech city. Another columnist, with a well-earned reputation as a militarist hawk, wrote a tortured commentary on how Musharraf's message was part of elaborate Pakistani posturing and messaging. Neither come anywhere close to the fervid rants of Majid Nizami, owner-editor of one of the largest media groups (Nawa-e-Waqt ), who periodically proposes the only way to settle all issues with India is wage a nuclear war on it and he will die a happy man if he is strapped to a nuclear missile that is launched at India.

All this nuclear bluster hasn't in the least bestirred the people of India, who continue with their more mundane struggles in life, believing their government, inept as it may be, will take care of the business. But Americans are less karmic, and you can bet your last buck or rupee that they have, even with a sized-down arsenal, factored in and gamed out all the scenarios, including Munir Akram's "use it or lose it" threat. When the time comes, Pakistanis, unless they reverse course, won't even know what hit them. Like it happened one day in Abbottabad.


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