Crucible of experience

Are India and Pakistan likely to stumble into nuclear war? This appalling possibility has long been kept alive by conflicts between the two nuclear neighbours, but it may have been pushed closer to fulfillment by a catastrophic failure of U.S. foreign policy in South Asia.
In a cover story in the Economist on the world’s “most dangerous border” described Pakistan’s intent to militarize its nuclear capacity, and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned of a pre-World War I, Balkans-like scenario in South Asia that could lead to a global conflict.




by Shamshad Ahmad


As I write these lines today, I am reminded of US President John F. Kennedy’s famous but alarming address to the nation and the world on October 22, 1962, giving an ultimatum to the Soviets that if they did not remove their missiles from Cuba, the US would remove them in a military strike. This incident between two superpowers fifty years ago suddenly made Cuba, a tiny island country less than a hundred miles away from the US coast, a global hotspot pushing the world to the brink of a nuclear abyss.

My thoughts also go back to a hair-raising conversation that 11 years ago we, as a group of ambassadors at the UN, had with former US Defence Secretary, now late Robert S. McNamara on this very subject. It was a luncheon meeting held at his invitation on October 17, 2001 as a back-to-back event prior to a public presentation he made on nuclear disarmament in the context of “lessons from the Cuban missile crisis” at UN Headquarters’ Hammarskjold Library Auditorium in New York.

During this meeting, McNamara spoke at length about disarmament issues but what struck us most was his emphasis on how casually a nuclear conflict could be triggered. He said it all starts with unreliable warnings or erratic intelligence on the basis of which it is decided whether to launch or not to launch within only a few moments.

And in the end, the buck really stops with just one man to decide what to do. In McNamara’s view, a nuclear exchange even between drastically reduced nuclear arsenals would be catastrophic. Furthermore, he said, the combination of launch-on-warning policy and human error make an inadvertent nuclear war a very real possibility as long as the weapons exist in their current deployment.

A longtime advocate of the total elimination of nuclear weapons through verifiable treaty regimes, McNamara criticised US plans for a ballistic missile defense system on two counts. First, he said that deployment of such a system would threaten “strategic stability” by undermining deterrence, a doctrine that McNamara was instrumental in developing during his tenure as secretary of defense.

“Strategic stability does not require nuclear parity,” McNamara stressed. “At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, we had 5,500 strategic offensive warheads. We believed the Soviets had 350.” However, “stability existed, because we did not believe we could launch our 5,500 against their 350 and destroy so many of them that so few would be left that they couldn’t inflict unacceptable damage. This is absolutely fundamental to security.”

Second, he said, deployment of an elaborate ballistic missile defense system would be a clear indication of “our determination to maintain large offensive nuclear forces indefinitely.” Because this intention is a “direct violation” of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which binds the five declared nuclear-weapon states to eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, McNamara said, it will further undermine the nonproliferation regime, possibly leading to its collapse.

“And if it collapses, we’re not going to then have three aircraft bombs killing 7,000 people,” he said, referring to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. “We’re going to have three nuclear bombs killing 7 million people. This will lead to the total erosion of the nonproliferation regime with “latent, pent-up demand for nuclear weapons in many, many parts of the world.” He was obviously against the country-specific self-serving waivers that Washington was contemplating at that time.

In response to my asking if addressing the root causes of conflict will eliminate the risk of another nuclear Armageddon, McNamara agreed and suggested that the US and other UN members must “cede sovereignty to the UN” to make it more effective in resolving disputes and preventing war. “We’re going to have to move in that way, and it requires all of us to help do it,” he emphasised.

In his presentation on the Cuban crisis, McNamara said the whole episode now meant that as long as “we and other great powers possess large inventories of nuclear weapons, we’ll continue to face the risk of their use and the destruction of our nations.” As a key player in the management of that crisis, he explained that a nuclear disaster will occur not as a result of calculated strategy but of “miscalculation, misjudgment and misinformation.” He then recalled specific instances of intelligence failures and misjudgment on both sides that took the world closest ever to a nuclear war.

According to McNamara, before the Soviets moved missiles to Cuba, they thought the United States planned to invade the island. They also thought they could secretly move their missiles there and make them operational before the US would find them. Meanwhile, the US believed that the Soviets would never move their missiles out of the Soviet Union. Leaders on both sides continued to make dangerously false assumptions after the discovery of Soviet missile installations in Cuba triggered the crisis.

McNamara then went on to narrate his conversation on the crisis with President Fidel Castro in 1992, in which he asked the latter about the nuclear weapons in Cuba. “I said, ‘Mr President, first, were you aware of the Soviet deployment of tactical nuclear warheads and the plans for their use; and secondly, what was your interpretation or expectation of the possible effect on Cuba? “And Castro’s answer sent a chill up my spine. I can still feel it to this day. President Castro replied, ‘Now, we started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt; we were certain of that. We’d be forced to pay the price. We would disappear.’” Castro also confirmed that he not only knew about the Soviet weapons but also did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used in case of a US invasion.

According to McNamara, the force of the crisis threatened to overwhelm capable leaders on both sides, neither of which wanted a nuclear war. “We were all in an extraordinarily tense, ambiguous, volatile situation and nobody was in control, nobody! Events were slipping out of control.” With the majority of President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet in favour of an October 25 invasion, only Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw the weapons from Cuba in return for removal of American Jupiter missiles from Turkey prevented the full-scale nuclear war.

“In the end, we avoided war not because the crisis was well managed, but because we lucked out, absolutely lucked out, on both sides,” McNamara said. This is the moral of the story. The 13 agonising days that the Cuban missiles crisis lasted represented the firewall that was so important between the crisis and the outbreak of nuclear war.

India and Pakistan can learn from this historical incident. Given our fractious history, we may not be fortunate to be “lucked out” and do need a political mechanism and space for diplomatic efforts to avert the prospect of a nuclear war. India and Pakistan represent the only nuclear equation in the world that developed totally unrelated to the Cold War, and as a direct offshoot of a legacy of unresolved disputes.

Over the decades, the two nuclear-armed neighbours may have built all sorts of CBMs but the only sure way for them to avert the prospect of a nuclear conflict is to not only develop a mutual restraint and stabilisation regime but also move steadily from conflict-management to conflict resolution.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email:

Related Post:

1. Can India and Pakistan live in Peace
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