U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications for Regional Nuclear Rivalries

by Anand Datla

The security challenges facing South Asia following the drawdown of U.S. forces in late 2014 and complete withdrawal by 2016 go well beyond those highlighted by General Joseph Dunford (Commander International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan) in recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. Over the last twelve years, both Pakistan and India’s new nuclear capabilities have altered the potential for nuclear conflict in South Asia. These developments in nuclear force posture by the region’s nuclear powers suggest a potentially far more dangerous situation.

The effect of the U.S. military presence in the region to temper nuclear rivalries is underappreciated. Currently, neither India nor Pakistan wants to disturb Washington by raising the threat level in the region. Both countries realize any step towards nuclear escalation will distract U.S. forces from operations in Afghanistan and draw negative diplomatic attention from Washington. This leaves both countries in a stalemate, thus preventing tensions from escalating further. When U.S. forces begin departing later this year, it is difficult to imagine the nuclear deadlock will remain the same.

Nuclear tensions between Pakistan and India have changed considerably in the past two decades. Shortly before U.S. forces arrived in the region in 2001, both countries drew international alarm by conducting nuclear tests without warning. In May 1998, India’s Pokrahn II and Pakistan’s subsequent Chagi-I nuclear tests officially declared the countries as nuclear powers. The arrival of U.S. forces helped contain decades old tensions, as neither side wanted to upset the U.S. and its allies. By all accounts, the region has witnessed a relatively calm period in nuclear relations since September 11. During this time there have not been any further nuclear tests by Pakistan or India. However, this period also witnessed significant advances to both Pakistan and India’s nuclear weapons programs setting the stage for renewed nuclear rivalry. These new capabilities may change the nuclear landscape as the U.S. departs from the region.

For starters, over the last decade Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal grew in size and complexity. Currently, Pakistan holds between100-120 nuclear warheads, much more than India’s arsenal. The Pakistani arsenal now includes tactical low yield nuclear warheads for conventional force-on-force conflict. In order to support these warheads, a considerable effort is underway to improve weapon delivery options. Recent advances to delivery systems, such as the Shaheen I short range missile in April 2013, make it possible for Pakistan to reach targets up to 900 kilometers away. These advances are a concern for India, given Pakistan’s controversial first strike nuclear policy. This policy declares that Pakistan reserves the right to use nuclear weapons for threats to its national security.

India has also further developed its nuclear program over the past decade. The most recent advance is the development of a submarine launch ballistic missile (SLBM) capability. The successful launch of an SLBM in 2013 bolstered India’s existing nuclear triad capability. Although still in its early stages, this SLBM capability will support a second strike option and provide for an effective nuclear deterrent. There has also been a push to develop an advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. Following the Agni-V ICBM test launch in 2013, India now has a long range strike capability up to 5,000 kilometers. This gives India the ability to strike targets across Asia and Europe.

The most interesting question is what effect the U.S. withdrawal will have on Chinese nuclear force posture in the region. China’s sizable arsenal and strategic relationships with both Pakistan and India make it an influential player in the region’s nuclear dynamics. Present estimates put the number of Chinese nuclear warheads at 250, making it the largest nuclear power in Asia. Similar to Pakistan, China is developing tactical nuclear warheads. Over the last few years, there have beenquestions about the location of these weapons, particularly medium and long range missiles massed at the Indian border. While the existence of these missiles is disputed, there is considerable speculation that nuclear weapons are aimed at both India and Russia. In recent months, there have been claims that China intends to arm submarines with nuclear missiles. These nuclear developments are likely to draw reaction from India and others. As U.S. troops draw down in 2014, it is difficult to determine how Chinese nuclear posture in the region may shift.

These developments in Pakistan, India, and China’s nuclear programs suggest a more complicated picture ahead. The U.S. will not be able to exert the same level of pressure on Afghanistan or Pakistan without a “boots-on-the-ground” military presence in the region. Clearly, as we edge closer towards the 2016 withdrawal deadline, there are more questions about nuclear relations in South Asia than ever before. After the U.S. departs, a decade long barrier will be lifted, leaving open the possibility for renewed tensions with far more developed and advanced nuclear programs in the region.

About the Author

Anand Datla is a consultant and former Defense Department civilian who has worked on strategic planning, policy, and operations. He also served as a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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