On Wednesday, November 27, Pakistan test-fired the Ghauri ballistic missile (also known as the Hatf-V), which has a reported range of 810 miles. This isn’t game-changing news in itself, as the Ghauri was first tested back in 1998, and Pakistan has conducted seven other missile tests this year alone. Still, the recent test is a reminder that South Asia increasingly looks to be a more volatile nuclear flashpoint than Iran or North Korea.
Here’s a telling fact: the Ghauri missile that was tested this week is named after Afghan king Shahbuddin Ghauri, who conquered parts of India in the 12th century and established Muslim rule there. If that isn’t enough symbolism for you, consider this: the Ghauriwas specifically developed to counter India’s Prithvi missile – and Prithvi Raj Chauhan was the name of the Hindu ruler that Ghauri conquered.
The symbolic naming of the missiles tells us a lot about the underlying intensity of the India-Pakistan conflict, described just this week by Yale professor Paul Bracken as a “problem from hell.” Discussions about Pakistan among Western experts often revolve around the potential for Pakistani weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists, given the Pakistani government’s instability and its ties to terrorist groups. In 2010, a study by Harvard University’s Belfer Centre highlighted the nuclear terrorism danger, arguing that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal “faces a greater threat from Islamic extremists seeking nuclear weapons than any other nuclear stockpile on earth.”
But in focusing on terrorism, are we overlooking the broader problem of the nuclear standoff in South Asia? In September, Tom Hundley argued in Foreign Policy that perhaps we should be more worried about a South Asian nuclear arms race than we are about loose Pakistani nukes. Hundley pointed out that the situation on the subcontinent in some ways poses a greater risk than the US-USSR Cold War standoff – unlike the US and the USSR, India and Pakistan are in close geographic proximity, have already fought a number of wars, and haven’t put in place crisis-management measures like the Moscow-Washington hotline.
Such concerns echo those of Stimson Center co-founder Michael Krepon, a South Asia expert who has been arguing for some time that South Asia is an exceptional case because of the presence of extremist groups, the lack of joint efforts at counter-proliferation (such as arms control treaties), and the added factor of neighboring China, which is a main focus of India’s security concerns.
Indeed, recent shifts in the two states’ military and nuclear doctrines point to the distinctive nature of the South Asian arms race. In the early 2000s, India established its controversial “Cold Start” doctrine, which allowed for retaliation against terrorist attacks through conventional strikes on the India-Pakistan border. Cold Start was developed specifically in response to the Pakistani-backed attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.
In other words, the doctrine is the unique product of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist activity and the fact that India and Pakistan are neighbors. And although some observers have pointed out that we shouldn’t overstate the importance of Cold Start, the fact is that it played right into what some have called Pakistan’s “paranoid” national security calculus. Cold Start led Pakistan to place a greater strategic emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons.
There’s a lesson here for analysts in addition to “pay closer attention to South Asia.” More broadly, it’s important to keep in mind the limits of conventional frames when it comes to India and Pakistan. Comparisons with the US and the USSR only take us so far, and the common notion of a terrorist-rogue regime nexus isn’t the whole story, either. Yet at the same time, the Cold War should remind us of the dangers of overreliance on nuclear weapons and a mutually escalatory military posture. Moreover, the experience of the US-USSR standoff offers lessons about joint efforts at de-escalation and crisis management, such as arms treaties, the Incident at Sea agreement of 1972, and, of course, the famous hotline. We would all be wise to critically evaluate the narratives that inform our thinking on South Asia – not just every few months when a missile is fired, but in a sustained way that allows us to address this pressing challenge to global security.