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The month of May has special significance in South Asia’s recent history. Half a century ago, during this month, India conducted its first nuclear explosion in the Pokhran desert. 24 years later, during this very month, India claimed to have conducted five more nuclear tests, and unlike the past — when it tried to shield itself behind the farcical assertion of “peaceful nuclear explosion” — acknowledged itself to be a nuclear-armed state. Less than three weeks later, Pakistan carried out its nuclear tests.

Soon after its independence in 1947, Pakistan had to grapple with an adversary many times bigger than itself, India, with whom the seeds of the acrimony were sowed at the time of the subcontinent’s partition. The dispute over the future of princely states, especially Jammu & Kashmir, the unfair division of British India’s assets, communal riots, and the large-scale cross-border movement of refugees at the time of partition laid the preliminaries for what would later be called “enduring rivalry” between the newly independent states of Pakistan and India. To add to these were the rhetorical statements from senior Indian leaders who didn’t expect Pakistan to survive beyond a few years and made no secret of their keenness to re-annex the territory.

Owing to its threat perception from India, it made logical sense for Pakistan to seek external balancing by joining the US-sponsored SEATO and CENTO alliances during the 1950s. Nevertheless, the substantial US military support for India during and after its border war with China in 1962 and the proven unreliability of external balancing during the wars of 1965 and 1971 with India, left Pakistani policymakers with no choice except to change course and vie for internal balancing.

The 1971 war – which resulted in the loss of its Eastern wing – especially proved to be a watershed: not only did it cement the belief in Islamabad that India posed an existential threat to Pakistan, but also solidified the views that given its resource constraints, Pakistan couldn’t offset India’s ever-growing conventional military advantage. Thus the decision in principle to pursue the nuclear weapons option was taken during the historic Multan meeting in January 1972. The quest was further catalyzed by India’s nuclear test of 1974, which in effect turned the development of the nuclear weapon option into the pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

The worst fears of Pakistan’s leadership about security threats emanating from India and nuclear blackmail were realized following India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani counseled Pakistan to “realize the change in the geo-strategic situation” and blustered that India is ready to “deal firmly” with Pakistan vis-à-vis Kashmir. The hostile messages from New Delhi couldn’t have been more obvious: India wouldn’t hesitate to use its overwhelming conventional and nuclear advantage to threaten Pakistan’s territorial integrity and force Islamabad to concede its core strategic interests. Therefore, to restore the strategic balance in the region and ward off security threats from India, it became a compulsion for Pakistan to carry out nuclear tests in 1998.

As Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry put it soon after, the May 1998 tests proved to be “Pakistan’s finest hour”. The tests restored the strategic balance in the region and made Pakistan’s defense impregnable. Not only the fallout of India’s nuclear weapons for Pakistan’s security was offset but also India’s conventional advantage was neutralized, which essentially eliminated the possibility of a war between India and Pakistan thereby guaranteeing peace in South Asia.

The deterrent effect of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is visible in India’s ever-shrinking options vis-à-vis Pakistan, despite having a definitive conventional advantage and the obvious harboring of offensive intentions. Since the late 1980s, India envisaged plans to impose a blitzkrieg-style war on Pakistan, first exhibited during the Brasstacks crisis. The badly messed up Operation Parakram proved to be the last Indian attempt to impose an all-out war against Pakistan. Thanks to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence, the operation failed to achieve its objectives. India was coming to terms with the reality of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence.

Soon after Indian military leadership revamped their warfighting strategy by envisaging a limited war under the nuclear overhang, which was later transformed into the Cold Start Doctrine. But when the push came to shove during the 2008 Mumbai Crisis, once again nuclear deterrence proved its efficacy and India couldn’t execute even its limited warfighting strategy. Visibly frustrated, India further narrowed down its military objectives by resorting to so-called “surgical strikes” in 2016 and 2019 – the latter evoked a Quid Pro Quo Plus response from Pakistan resulting in an even bigger embarrassment for India. If India has been compelled to progressively narrow down its military strategy from fighting an all-out war to the so-called “surgical strikes”, it is Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence at play, period.

It is worth mentioning that at the narrowest level of so-called “surgical strikes”, it’s not the quantitative military advantage that proves decisive but the qualitative advantage, which Pakistan does seem determined to maintain. This, however, doesn’t rule out the possibility of the escalation spiral coming into play and smaller exchanges leading to bigger escalation with possibly catastrophic consequences — an aspect that Indian leadership doesn’t seem to have grasped and appreciated.

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