Ever since India and Pakistan confirmed, in 1998, what the world knew, that they were both nuclear weapon powers, there has been a paradoxical calm in the background each time the foreground has lit up with fireworks on their hot-and-cold frontier. This stems from an ingrained conviction that since full-scale war has become too dangerous neither country will tempt fate beyond manageable provocations.
The evidence since Hiroshima deserves a thought or two. Nuclear power has not prevented conventional wars from changing the destiny of nations and shape of maps. Atomic bombs sat idly in megapower arsenals while war crawled to victory or defeat through its independent quagmires. Nuclear weapons have only established a contradiction: they are too powerful to be potent.
Just five years after Hiroshima, Korea went to war with itself, and America's nuclear domination could not ensure victory for its troops or prevent bifurcation of Korea. France tested its bomb, ironically, in the Algeria Sahara on 13 February 1960. It was four times as powerful as that which flattened Hiroshima, but it made no difference in colonialism's bloodiest war: Algeria defeated France and became independent on 5 July 1962. Nuclear might did not prevent America humiliation in Vietnam or a Soviet catastrophe in Afghanistan . Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands despite Britain's nuclear missiles. In 1973, Egypt and Syria were aware that Israel had the ultimate weapons of mass destruction, but went ahead with the Yom Kippur offensive. The Pakistan army attempted its daring gambit in Kargil after the nuclear race with India had been well and truly launched.
In fact, our subcontinent induces a perverse question: has the reassurance of nuclear capability become an encouragement for military mischief? Now that it is certain that there cannot be another 1971, when defeat split Pakistan, does this tempt the more radical or ultra elements in Pakistan , within and outside the army, to test the limits of conventional conflict?
Such questions become acute at a time of disarray in Islamabad, such as now. Events have unhinged the principal verticals of the Pakistan establishment — an elected executive, the self-perpetuating armed forces and judiciary — from any common mooring.
Pakistan's current dilemma is not a disoriented democracy but a dysfunctional state. To lose one Prime Minister on a corruption offence, as President Asif Zardari has done, might be a misfortune, but to lose two within seven months is, as they say, distinctly careless. Zardari can hardly afford to be careful about corruption, otherwise he would have to go before the electorate took any decision. His first Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was sacked by the Supreme Court for refusing to reopen corruption cases against Zardari. The second, Pervaiz Ashraf, has just been convicted of receiving kickbacks while handing out contracts for Rental Power Plants. Interesting as this is, the more point is elsewhere. Zardari has, so far, shrugged off the court order.
If the Supreme Court is not the last word in law, then there is no rule of law. Authority in Pakistan is not interlinked through the clauses of a Constitution in which supremacy of sectors is defined. It is a long-established fact that the armed forces run an independent empire, and the cursory interface with government exists largely for notional purposes. The most powerful intelligence agency, ISI, is not run by the elected government, but the army. ISI intervenes where it wishes, and operates its own security and foreign policies. Zardari did make an attempt to bring ISI under his control but he was slapped down sharply. He did not try again. Inevitably, the common speculation when a silver-tongued maverick like Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri storms political citadels is that he is the vanguard of a "soft coup": "Soft" means an indirect takeover, as opposed to the pistol-waving sort last seen in the heyday of Pervez Musharraf.
The Army is divided about the best strategy for Pakistan. Pragmatists, led by the chief General Ashfaq Kayani, follow the American prescription of concentrating on the western front. Ideologues, conversely , believe they share some common cause objectives with those America considers terrorists; terrorists are at best an irritation, India is the true enemy. This debate has frayed the Pak army's unity under command, and spread into the political discourse as well. But politicians are second-class citizens when it comes to India policy. Is there a pattern in the strands spread between cantonment and street? Talk of a "soft coup" did not begin in Delhi. But a coup needs justification. The army does not disguise its contempt for Zardari, or its lacerating confrontation with the judiciary; nor do summer elections offer any great prospect of stability.
A nuclear safety net eliminates the possibility of any existential threat if things go wrong, and confrontation along the Indian border raises the need for armed forces at the centre of power.