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Nuclear matchsticks
on the Indian sub-continent



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

December 15, 2008

LONDON - However tense becomes the relationship between India and Pakistan the government of Manmohan Singh is highly unlikely to initiate or participate in a nuclear war with Pakistan. That would go against the deeply held moral beliefs of the prime minister. Both he and Congress Party chairman, Sonia Gandhi , have told me privately that they both are utterly repelled by such an act. Nevertheless, Singh has had few qualms about suppo rting the build up of India's nuclear deterrent, regarding it as an inevitable process - given India's place in the world - and has been a passionate advocate of the new nuclear deal with the U.S., that has resulted in Washington lifting its thirty year-old embargo on nuclear supplies for India.

Although, immediately after the Mumbai atrocities, tough talk seem to billow out of quarters of India's military and foreign affairs establishment, Singh quickly fanned it away.

On the Pakistani side, President Asif Ali Zardari appears to be in a peace-making mood. Just before the atrocities he publicly abandoned his country's ”first use” doctrine, which meant t hat Pakistan could use its nuclear weapons even without an Indian attack. He has also, like his predecessor General Pervez Musharraf, reached out for a deal on the central flash point, the disputed stat e of Kashmir. Neither he nor Musharraf (once he was in power) ever showed they were the type to reach for their nuclear guns.

But does that mean we don't have to fear a nuclear war between India and Pakistan? Well it helps. But India could get more warlike if Singh and Congress go down to defeat in the coming elections. The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is the one that first publicly demonstrated India's nuclear deterrent. And on the Pakistani side there is a growing chance that the war in Afghanistan and the American attacks inside the borders of Pakistan could fan the militancy of a growing part of Pakistani public opinion, with hysterical consequences. But that is not all.

To look at the record of America's nuclear deterrent during the Cold War is to realize how precarious is a nuclear armoury- and in the U.S. controls on unauthorized or accidental use have been much more sophisticated than those in the sub continent.

What exactly has happened in the U.S.? Here are some examples:

At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, during the presidency of President John F. Kennedy, Castro and Soviet leaders argued for a tough response to the American demand that they remove the missiles. Khrushchev initially ordered work on the missile sites be accelerated and ordered Cuba-bound ships to ignore the quarantine.

At the height of the crisis, Soviet commanders in Cuba, acting on their own authority, ordered air defence units to shoot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane. Later that same day, another U-2 strayed accidentally over Soviet airspace - a seemingly calculated provocation.
During the crisis American officers, unknown to Kennedy, jerry-rigged one of the launch systems to give themselves the ability to launch their Minuteman nuclear missiles.

At the same time the Strategic Air Command deployed nine nuclear weapons at Vandenberg Air Force b ase. They used the tenth to launch a previously scheduled nuclear test, apparently oblivious to the possibility that Soviet intelligence was monitoring the base and could have reasonably concluded that this was the beginnings of a nuclear attack.

During the crisis U.S. radar operators mistakenly reported that a missile had been launched from Cuba.

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All through the Cold War there were accidental sightings of Soviet launches, evidence of some launch officers being drunk or drugged on the job, and revelations of trigger happy officers who would act on the first alert from Washington, failing to await a second confirming call.

Zibigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, tells the tale of how in the middle of the night the emergency phone rang and the duty officer said that a launch of Soviet missiles aimed at the U.S. had taken place. Brzezinski knew he had less than 5 minutes to seek confirmation and awake the president. Ninety seconds later he was called again to be told the attack was bigger than first thought. Again he demanded new confirmation. A couple of minutes later the phone rang to say it was a false alert. Brzezinski later was asked if he woke his wife. He wryly replied, ”What was the point? If it were true we would all have been incinerated within minutes.”

India and Pakistan should take note. Playing with nuclear matchsticks is a dangerous game.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

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The Story of Amnesty International

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