Discover more from ali’s version
Oppenheimer: For a South Asian ‘Crybaby’
In his hit movie, Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan depicts an exchange between Oppenheimer and Einstein in which the two giants of science are shown regretting the hand-over of a capability for ending humanity to an undeserving political class.
Whereas Oppenheimer was persuaded by the need to beat Germany to the Bomb, since Germany fell out of the race, the development of the Bomb could have been discontinued. Oppenheimer preferred nuclear energy be placed in the joint hands of the Allies for collective stewardship lest its use in weapons be favoured.
In the event, even the timing of the nuclear test was determined to impress Stalin - then attending the Potsdam conference with Truman and Churchill. Though arguably inessential to ending the war in the Pacific, Truman went on to lob the Bomb twice-over on Japan.
Since Russians, having belatedly declared war on Japan, were racing down the Korean peninsula, the Bomb was not quite to end the War as much as to demonstrate the capability to the Russians. The Russians suitably over-awed and at the end of their tether at War’s end, were expected to acquiesce with a United States’ (US) underwritten post-War world order.
Instead history turned out just as Oppenheimer expected.
In the movie, in the scene on Oppenheimer’s calling-on President Truman, Truman dispels Oppenheimer sensing blood on his hands. Truman reasons that the responsibility for what the nuclear capability is put to is that of the political leader not of scientists who put together the capability. At his moment of presidential zenith, to Truman, Oppenheimer was a naysayer, a “Crybaby.”
Atypically for an intense movie, Oppenheimer, was a hit in India. Resonant with Indian audiences is the scene in which, as the Bomb test goes off, Oppenheimer mulls a phrase from the holy Bhagwat Gita: “Now I become Death. The Destroyer of Worlds.”
While the controversy over another scene in which a Sanskritic incantation is amidst a lovemaking scene may have helped at the box office, the profound phrase stands refreshed in Indian consciousness.
But, leaving this at a mere tickling of the revivalist bone in Nationalist Hindus would be to do injustice to the moment.
Instead, a relook at the South Asian nuclear sandpit - or tinderbox - is in order.
The latest India-Pakistan dust-up
India’s defence minister only recently warned off Pakistan, saying, “If we are provoked and if the need arises, we will cross the LoC (Line of Control).”
True to form, pat came Pakistan’s reply. It demanded India discontinue its ‘practice of dragging Pakistan into India’s populist public discourse, with a view to stoking hyper-nationalism and reaping electoral gains.’
Soon, Pakistan’s lame-duck prime minister went further, offering talks on “serious matters.” Yet, even his saying, “war is no longer an option,” that echoed Narendra Modi’s now famous homily, “no era for war,” cut no ice with India.
Though using the West-placating phrase coined by Modi in his meeting with Putin, Shahbaz Sharif’s sense was different. He reasoned, “Because war is no longer an option. Pakistan is a nuclear power, not for aggression but for our defence purposes.”
From the exchange, it is apparent that contrary to Sharif’s belief, for India war is an option. In his Kargil Day observations, Rajnath Singh while referring to the Russia-Ukraine War dwelt on the unpredictability of war, saying, “People should be mentally prepared, so that whenever the nation needs them, they should be ready to help the armed forces.”
To Shahbaz Sharif, since Pakistan has nuclear weapons, this should not be the case.
This divergence shows South Asia on a short fuse. While India wishes terror to cease so there is no war, Pakistan wishes for talks so there is no war.
Since neither condition against war is satisfied – terror keeps talks at bay - both war and nuclear weapons’ use willy-nilly get ruled in.
Dissenting voices, such as of Satyapal Malik, have it that after the experience of election year in 2019, anything is possible. Per Prashant Bhushan, anything includes black operations. The Pakistani image of a tricky neighbour is little different.
There is stench of a nuclear fuse, if on slow burn.
Increased probability of war?
The just released report of The Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, ‘Five Years Without an Elected Administration,’ shows there is cause for concern. Though the regime’s supplication in the Supreme Court hearing the Article 370 case has it that there is ‘unprecedented development, progress, security and stability’ and prevails, nine years into its reign it suffers from a credibility deficit.
Even if ‘unprecedented era of peace, progress and prosperity’ prevails, this has ‘no bearing’ (a Supreme Court phrase but in relation to the Center’s counter affidavit on petitions challenging the voiding of Article 370). Successive reports of the Forum have documented backsliding on majority of the 30 boxes ticked on human rights.
It’s not counter insurgency rocket science that tourist footfalls are no measure of normalcy. That the indices of violence the regime itself puts out don’t impress it any are evident from its skittishness.
Though mooted, there is no withdrawal of troops from the Valley. Where troops have thinned out from for redeployment on the China front, militancy has been resurgent.
The Supreme Court finally coming around check if the regime’s Article 370 action is constitutionally sustainable may unlock the logjam.
As with its Ayodhya judgment, the Court might let sleeping dogs lie. If status quo ante was ever an option, the case could have been taken up earlier. From its current day close questioning on the temporality of Article 370 reversion to the status quo ante can be ruled out.
However, a surprising return to status quo ante would receive a tumultuous welcome. A vengeful regime might yet overplay its hand and in a rear guard action instigate miscreant backlash. A restive Kashmir serves manifold vested interests, including that of those in camouflage pattern of every hue.
However, the Court has lately been a pillar in the democratic checks-and-balances scheme. It just let Rahul Gandhi back into parliament from which he was evicted in a Gujarati conspiracy.
Making for a status quo plus option, it might yet require that the promise of statehood be delivered on and early elections.
With the gerrymandering already under the belt, the regime will be happy to oblige. The G20 summit behind it, the regime could hold elections as early as winter, after studying its chances from results of the panchyat polls in late fall.
The gain for the regime is when India goes into national election it would have yet another feather in its cap – a Hindu Jammuite for India’s only Muslim majority state. Recent revelations on the voting manipulation at national level in 2019 mean doing so in Kashmir will be cake walk, as has historically been the case.
The people might hold their horses till formation of the new administration. If a Gupkar Alliance-like coalition can pull off another rabbit from its hat just as it outpointed Amit Shah’s chanakyagiri at the district development council, militancy can be averted. If a repeat of 1987 takes place, so shall a repeat of 1990.
For now, Pakistan is internally beset. Its Army is busy in fighting off the latest jihadi terrorist onslaught. Politically, it surveys a contentious national election, the result of which - now that Imran Khan is bowled out - is hardly likely to ease instability. Economically, it has been thrown a lifebuoy by the International Monetary Fund.
Though temporarily distracted, Pakistan is loath to abandon Kashmir. In fact, its bid to repair relations enables a case for seizing any opportunity Indian missteps might present it.
The asymmetry is also not as stark as India might like.
For its Article 370 caper, the regime has been put on notice by China. The two-front threat that was notional till then, has only manifested unambiguously thereafter. A former Chief recently cautioned that a ‘two front war’ is a completely different kettle of fish than a ‘two front threat,’ calling for a diplomatic winding down.
If the Chief is to be believed, Chinese intelligence interest in the North East continues, with Manipur showing up the region as India’s Achilles heel. Understandably therefore, India has chosen the China front to quieten. In his bespoke speech, Rajnath Singh thrice-over threatened to cross the LC, though there was nary a word on the Line of Actual Control.
Though it agreed to revert to normalcy with China, India kept this ‘consensus’ (a Chinese contribution to diplomatese) under wraps for a year. This unwillingness to own up to a soft spot owes to fear of an election-year ambush by the Opposition – a reverse Sharm es Shaikh of sorts.
Alongside, politically, the regime is faltering, evidenced by its checkmate through a no-confidence motion by the Opposition, forcing a reluctant prime minister to speak on Manipur. The trickle-down from rampant crony capitalism has been laggard, resulting in widening inequality and unemployment.
Internally, leveraging polarization is an increasingly enticing option to get out of an electoral hole.
Externally, the regime needs Pakistan as an electoral prop. Going gooey on China requires it to compensate by being assertive with Pakistan.
It messed up previous opportunities for clinching a deal on Kashmir. Its overkill in leaning on Nawaz Sharif caused the Army there to dump him. It did not take up the initially-outstretched hand of ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan. Its follow up on the LC ceasefire in secret meetings at National Security Adviser level failed. It missed the bus when a relatively amiable General Bajwa signaled accommodation.
In short, the regime in nine years of national security chest-thumping has not secured India any.
Just as Balakot was not a repeat of the landward surgical strikes, the next time round, there could be a seaward surgical strike, with lessons from the Black Sea as pointers. Pakistan’s Swift Resort-equivalent would also take a different mould, including offensive defence. Depending on receptivity in Kashmir, it could release ‘good terrorists.’
Recall in the Kargil War – the anniversary of which set off of the defence minister. At Kargil, though the earmarked formation was available, that the commander of the Forever-in-Operations Division was a charismatic leader and the division immediately at hand, clinched the choice of his formation. Resulting destablisation of the anti-infiltration and counter insurgency grid led to spike in insurgency, eventuating after the Operation Parakram in the two sides taking to the table.
With knowledge that the Bajwa doctrine flopped and the Musharraf formula succeeded, Pakistan might weigh its options accordingly. In conjunction with the electoral compulsions of the regime, stability could rupture.
The storm in the nuclear teacup
Speaking at Pakistan’s Yom-Takbeer observance, a key player in its nuclear weapons’ journey, Khalid Kidwai, said, “Vertically the spectrum encapsulates adequate range coverage from 0 meters to 2750 kms, as well as nuclear weapons destructive yields at three tiers: strategic, operational and tactical.”
Indian strategists took issue with the phrase, ‘Zero Meters.’ They complain that, ‘Lt. General Khalid Kidwai has sent shockwaves across the region.’ Since ‘Zero Meters’ was not elaborated on by Kidwai, to them, it could well imply Pakistan is or intends fielding frontline nuclear weapons – artillery delivered or as atomic demolition munitions (ADM).
When tactical nuclear weapons were advertised as Pakistan’s answer to Cold Start, India came up with the operational level innovation of surgical strikes. Does ‘Full Spectrum’ in Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD), require Pakistan to plug the gap well below the nuclear threshold exploited by India for surgical strikes?
Indian strategists overhyped surgical strikes. Taunting Pakistan that India had cocked a snook at FSD by going for sub-Cold Start offensive actions, they gave the tactical level deterrent fielded under FSD a role it never had - of stymieing surgical strikes.
Arguably, the Nasr was not even meant for stalling Cold Start offensives, unless these cumulatively over-whelmed Pakistani defenders. Incidentally, the Indian conventional war doctrine called Cold Start colloquially and Pro Active Operations (PAO) officially wasn’t designed to pose an insuperable threat to Pakistan. It was not meant to defeat, but punish.
With the Indian pivot to the China front, Pakistan doesn’t need nuclear weapons to take on PAO - for now. The Indian vehicle for execution of PAO – corps coordinated integrated battle groups - is as yet a work-in-progress and Indian weapon acquisitions a long term investment. India is also facing a structural and cultural overhaul, which isn’t the right time to also try and prevail in war.
Whereas Pakistan may have once believed it needs nuclear weapons to deter India from deep operations by Strike Corps, the lesson from the Ukraine War is that if Ukraine can hold its own, so can Pakistan.
Even if it cannot, the US experience in Iraq and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s in Afghanistan – and lately of the French in Sahel - shows that external forces’ control of jihadi-infested territory is impossible.
Therefore, just as Indian strategists like to taunt Pakistan that India’s surgical strikes have called their nuclear bluff, Kidwai seems to be getting one back with this bit of nuclear signaling – by having Indians walk on egg shells even if it’s only yet another tame surgical strike across the LC, information war directed interlay making up for lack in strategic heft.
Reading the tea leaves
The good part is that Khalid’s expatiation on counter-massive retaliation cautions India against massive retaliation. South Asian deterrence is now unambiguously based on MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction.
The bad part is that if a nudge comes to a push, push to a shove and a shove comes to nuclear use, both seem to have settled on quid pro quo plus responses. Since they don’t have any mechanism to get off the escalator or slide – whichever way the metaphor is conjured – exchanges are liable to get uglier – genocidal and suicidal.
Consequently, the good part is that deterrence holds. India is not about to launch PAO and Pakistan an ADM on a surgical strike.
The bad part is that there is no guarantee against narcissism of strategists, institutional pathologies and moral corruption of politicians. Even if war strategy has no use for nuclear weapons, politics might have uses for it and strategists are aplenty to beat a nationalist - or Islamist - drum.
A dose of ‘Oppenheimer’
Oppenheimer was no wilting flower. He was onboard with a nuclear weapons enforced war termination on the European front. However, he was against nuclear weapons as currency of power, which is how they turned out in political hands.
Oppenheimer predicted that though the damage from nuclear weapons is unthinkable, the logic of ‘more is better’ (in terms of a bang and bean count) might take over. Oppenheimer knew if someone had the capability, the other side would get it soon enough.
Like Einstein, Oppenheimer was uncomfortable with an invention liable to be misused. He was unafraid to speak truth to power and was willing to pay a personal price for it.
He used his position as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ to stall getting to the H-Bomb. The H-Bomb was not required in and of itself. But Truman needed going down that route once the Russians caught up. Russians closed that gap far sooner and surged ahead with the Bomba.
South Asia is in similar straits as in Oppenheimer’s times. To save itself and the world, it needs a Truman-defined ‘Crybaby’ of its own.