Fission for compliments
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Fission for compliments

The main N-deal debate should be whether or not the deal, in its present form, ensures, enhances or impairs India’s strategic interests, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2007 22:03 IST

It would seem that push has finally come to shove. Not too long ago, Washington launched its Ultimate Weapon with the landing of Henry Kissinger in New Delhi. He, of the guttural charm and Germanic weltenschaung, did not come just to receive a bouquet from the Leader of the Opposition. He came to generally render gratuitous advice to sign on the dotted line of the nuclear deal. Henry Paulson, George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary, was here too, lauding the benefits to India from the deal. Fatwas from Washington and heavy breathing in New Delhi gives US officialdom the finesse of a battering ram.

There has been controversy about the implications and benefits of the 123 Agreement or how this agreement and its enabling legislation, the Hyde Act, will be interpreted by the US and India in the future. The intense debate, mostly outside Parliament, was divisive for the country, threatening at one stage the continuation of the government. Essential questions, even basic ones like the price per unit of nuclear energy, remain unanswered. Doubts about long-term strategic implications have been lost in hopeful obfuscation that the deal holds the key to superstardom.

Assuming that the deal is the best thing that has happened to India in a long time, why has the US been pushing it with such single-minded dedication? Why is the US willing to welcome India to this elite club as an honorary member when the pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation has been an article of faith with that country? Why the hard sell? What is it that we are all collectively missing? Surely the obvious gains — Indian markets, defence sales to India and engaging India (as the Chinese fear) as part of the US strategy to encircle China — could have been achieved without the Indo-US nuclear deal. Logically, therefore, there must be a larger US interest beyond the obvious.

The US naturally wishes to maintain its global superiority. Nations attain this status not through magnanimity or virtue but through the use of military might, superior technology, fixity of purpose and ruthlessness. The Republican Party’s foreign policy commandments have their origins in the neo-con thinking of the Defence Planning Guidance of 1992. One of the many guidelines was that “we [the US] must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role”. Another document of importance, ‘Rebuilding America’s Defences — Strategy Forces and Resources for the New Century’, in 2000 reaffirmed that the 1992 document provided the blueprint for maintaining US pre-eminence and preventing the rise of a rival power. All this led to the National Security Strategy of September 2002, which also laid out the justification for an endless war on terror against phantom enemies and the need to strike at them pre-emptively anytime anywhere. Simultaneously, the US must continue to have access to cheap energy and control its distribution. Any disruption of this is perceived as a threat to US security.

Fortress America was suddenly vulnerable to terrorist zealots on September 11, 2001, and a terrorist armed with a nuclear device was the ultimate horror. Pakistan was seen as the home of al-Qaeda, an unstable country with a thriving terrorism industry, possessing nuclear weapons and a dubious record of proliferation. This became an intolerable risk and US interests dictated that not only al-Qaeda and Taliban be destroyed, but that nuclear weapons in Pakistan be secured.

The new Bush doctrine formulated immediately after the 9/11 attacks (Nuclear Posture Review, March 2002) postulated that the US would not accept that governments in which they did not have confidence or countries where they could not verify facilities should hold nuclear weapons. Pervez Musharraf had come on board for the war on terror but the US wanted control of Pakistan’s nuclear capability, and quickly. It even wanted to place sufficient force on the ground to control access. Yet, since Pakistan was needed for the war on terror, its leaders could not be seen as having submitted themselves to nuclear blackmail for fear that this would arouse Islamic anger further.

There were reports that in March 2002, American troops, primarily drawn from Special Operations Command, along with scientists from Nuclear Emergency Search Teams arrived in Pakistan. According to George Friedman (America’s Secret War), they were deployed to all of Pakistan’s nuclear reactors. Inventories were quickly made and the Americans concluded that Pakistan was not in a condition to deliver a nuclear device to al-Qaeda, given the US monitoring of Pakistani facilities. The US discovered that there were “advanced Chinese plans for other devices that had not been built at that time but these would have made Pakistan much more dangerous by increasing the reliability and sophistication”. Friedman asserts that the US had secured Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, although it was only nominally observing them. Musharraf agreed to keep this a secret and also purge the ISI. It also appears that at the confirmation hearing of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State, she was asked about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities should something happen to Musharraf. Eventually, she reassured Senator Kerry that the matter had been taken care of, but did not elaborate. Recent debate in the American media about the safety of Pakistani nuclear weapons, accompanied by official assurances that they are safe, suggests that the US may have reason to be confident.

If correct, this should be good news. But no one was ever going to confirm this to the Indians as it would break the India-Pakistan hyphenation and leave India as the pre-eminent regional power. Besides, the National Security Strategy of 2002 categorised China and India as potential US rivals, though they were listed as current allies, and mentioned Russia as an emerging threat. US strategists would have some concerns about a militarily-strong, economically-powerful India 20-30 years from now, which might just as well go into a China-Russia-India or a Russia-Iran-India triangle with all its potentially anti-American possibilities. By then, India might even be able to master the three-stage cycle through breeder reactors that use thorium and not be dependent on imported uranium. This would leave India with adequate fissile material and energy production as well as make it independent of American control. All this could have devastating consequences for US interests and had to be prevented, alongside capping India’s nuclear weapons capability.

India had both to be stopped and enrolled as an ally, but the Pakistan route was impossible. The chosen route was the 123 deal, read with the India-specific Hyde Act flowing from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The Hyde Act says very clearly that one of the objectives is to “halt, roll back and eventually eliminate” India’s nuclear capability. It also mentions five times that if the US stops supplying nuclear material to India following a treaty violation, it will not allow other members of the NSG to supply this. Nicholas Burns reaffirms (Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2007) that with the deal, India will come into the international non-proliferation mainstream. There were sermons on India’s foreign policy on Myanmar and Iran, with the suggestion that India should buy US combat aircraft.

The debate should not be about whether or not we need modern technologies and American friendship. Of course we do. Instead, the debate should be whether or not the deal, in its present form, ensures, enhances or impairs India’s strategic interests.

Very often it is argued that if the deal breaks, then Indo-US relations will suffer a setback.

Any relationship that is based on just one issue is seriously flawed.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing

First Published: Nov 26, 2007 21:58 IST