A member of a leading trans-border Muslim clan, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, the head of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division retires this month from the Army. His earlier reflections on his country's nuclear threshold can be taken as authoritative since his charter of duties includes acting as Secretary to Pakistan's National Command Authority headed by President Musharraf. In his view the threshold for Pakistan to use its nuclear weapons would be certainly nudged, if not crossed, under a number of different scenarios: in case of major territorial losses, in the event of economic strangulation by India through a blockade, or looming military defeat, and even widespread disturbances threatening the survival of the Pakistani state.

This analysis shouldn't be taken completely at face value. There is always an element of obfuscation whenever military strategists talk of 'redlines'. Such public reflection on possible nuclear thresholds might also be a simple effort at deception - by spreading misinformation. A further possibility is that Kidwai may only have been trying to allay fears in the West about Pakistan's nuclear trajectory; he was, after all, responding to questioners from an Italian think tank. Moreover, his views were aired prior to the establishement of India's new conventional war doctrine, and therefore it should be assumed that Pakistan has subsequently revised its stance accordingly.

The question, however, remains: will Pakistan use its nuclear weapons only under the conditions outlined by Kidwai, or would it set a lower threshold for using them? This still needs to be answered by Indian planners independent of what the Pakistanis may declare publicly. India's war planners have determined not to be caught flat-footed as in the aftermath of the attack on Parliament, and intend to take the war to Pakistan if necessary. How they do so will partly be decided by the redlines Pakistan draws (such as in Kidwai's statements), and by how much credibility Indian planners assign to these.

A notable clue that India is alert to this question came from the appointment of the outgoing chief of the armed forces, General Vij, to the Cabinet-rank post of head of the Disaster Management Authority; this suggests that nuclear war is clearly among the 'disasters' for which the nation would like to be prepared. That there is a requirement for such preparation is evident from the sloven response to the earthquake in the likely setting of the next war - along the LOC in Kashmir. If in an atmosphere of mutual bonhomie the situation is as it is, it can only be much worse in wartime.

The appointment of General Vij to the Cabinet-rank post of head of the Disaster Management Authority suggests that nuclear war is clearly among the disasters for which the nation would like to be prepared.

 •  Second strike and false security
 •  An illusory battleground

Could such a disaster occur? Possibly. Since the advantages of a lower nuclear threshold would not have escaped Pakistan's military planners, early nuclear use in the next war would not be surprising. Pakistan has held on to its 'first use' option. It is the weaker power. In the event of an actual attack by Indian forces, Pakistan could well play the nuclear card at a much lower thresholds than it has publicly disclosed. If used defensively (on its own soil, against Indian troops who have already crossed the border) this might even escape much international criticism, and be seen as 'acceptable' first use. International pressure aroused by such defensive use will also likely stymie the Indian response. For Pakistan, collateral damage in the border area may be a price worth paying to save itself from greater suffering in its interior.

Perhaps it is with this scenario in mind that India's last National Security Advisory Board went so far as to recommend India rescind its long-standing commitment to 'No First Use'. If accepted, India would be jettisoning the core of its nuclear policy; that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not meant for war fighting. And the Cold War scenario would then be fully manifest on the subcontinent. Such changes are not unknown. Till recently India was sworn to nuclear use only against a nuclear attack. Now, it promises to respond with nuclear weapons to chemical and biological attacks also. The mutability of doctrines being of this order in peacetime, their credibility under the pressures of war would be nonexistent.

Agreements such as the recently concluded one on mutual notification of missile tests, though welcome in themselves, only serve to cover up the less discernible and more insidious moves. The 'spin' imparted is that the bilateral situation is fast improving. However it is occasionally evident - as in General Vij's appointment, or in kite flying by the NSAB - that preparations are apace for materialising and meeting worst-case scenarios – in this case the breakdown of both the détente underway, and, in short order thereafter, of nuclear deterrence. As has been proven repeatedly, in South Asia war clouds gather as quick as monsoon ones. Imagine an aftermath had the terrorists attacking the erstwhile Babri Masjid complex only a couple of months ago managed to get another few meters further than they did!

So far while much has been written about the mutual impact of nuclear doctrines, there has been no space devoted to the linkage between conventional and nuclear doctrines of the adversaries. Military planners are probably pondering this, but additionally peacenik watchers would do well to bring these moves to the fore for greater public scrutiny. While hoping for transparency would be naïve, probing doctrines meant for making us more secure is a good start point.