The more the rulers of countries like Pakistan and India emulate, collaborate with, or strain to demonstrate their loyalty to, hegemonic powers like the United States, the more they caricature themselves-and mock at their own national interest. That is what happened during the exchange of hostilities between Pakistani and US troops in Southern Waziristan when Washington asserted its “right” of “hot pursuit” in the “war against terrorism” and went on to bomb a madrassa.

The US has once again shown just how disdainfully it treats its allies. This is not the first time it has done this, least of all to a state outside its core-alliance, NATO. America routinely treats NATO members much like an emperor treats his vassals. Within an alliance which is asymmetrical and demands unquestioning obedience from the top, the minor allies are at best “consulted”, or simply told what to do.

For instance, there has never been a “dual trigger” on NATO’s weapons, one operated by the host member-state, and the other by the US. Operationally, there has always been a single, unified, line of command. Therefore, it’s not for nothing that the UK, America’s most loyal ally, has been called its “Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier”. The latest report of a Pakistan-US deal on “hot pursuit”, albeit to be conducted “quietly”, underscores the same asymmetry.

India may soon experience Pakistan’s sense of hurt and humiliation thanks to its two latest acts: signing away some of its sovereign rights in Washington’s favour, and doctrinally emulating the US. On December 26, India signed a “bilateral” treaty with the US which gives impunity to their citizens who may be wanted by multilateral agencies or third countries for human rights offences including genocide or crimes against humanity. By signing it, India has joined the ranks of states like Gambia, Tajikistan, East Timor and Israel.

These bilateral pacts are worse than Status of Forces Agreements. They are meant to sabotage the worthy global effort to bring into force the International Criminal Court, to try crimes against humanity. As of now, 139 states have signed the ICC’s Rome Statute; 87 have ratified it. Notable exceptions are the US, China, India and Pakistan. The US was originally a signatory, but “unsigned” the Statute under Bush.

That isn’t all. America blackmailed the UN into delaying the functioning of the ICC and is asking a host of states to bypass the Court altogether. That means that, say, if Henry Kissinger were to be hauled up for war crimes while on a visit to India, New Delhi would refuse to surrender him. This will work against the interests of Indian (and American) citizens-as the Bhopal case shows.

The second example, of imitation, is worse. On January 4, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security offered a general commitment to no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. But closely following the December 2002 US “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction”, it said India would use nuclear weapons in response to “a major attack against India or Indian forces anywhere” made with “biological or chemical weapons” too. This means killing lakhs of non-combatant citizens in response to chemical or biological weapons which kill on a smaller scale ie, a few hundred soldiers.

This further dents India’s claim to nuclear “restraint” and sobriety-even assuming that the embrace of horror weapons, and search for “security” based on them, is compatible with “restraint”. This is part of New Delhi’s further plan to “operationalise” its “nuclear deterrent” by setting up a Nuclear Command Authority.

The NCA announcement validates this Column’s assessment that India and Pakistan are “hurtling towards inducting nuclear weapons into their armed forces” and getting into a form of rivalry from which they will find it hard to extricate themselves. The establishment of India’s NCA comes almost three years after Pakistan set up its own command. The principal difference between the two NCAs pertains to two items.

First, in India, authorisation for a nuclear strike is solely vested with the civilian leadership, the Political Council, chaired by the Prime Minister. The Executive Council, which is expected to have military personnel and bureaucrats on it, will have a limited role: eg, advise on security threats, etc.

In Pakistan, the military is unlikely to easily give up its hitherto-unquestioned control over nuclear weapons and policy. In February 2000, Islamabad announced that the NCA would be chaired by the Head of Government. Then, the head was Chief Executive Musharraf. Today, he is Prime Minister Jamali. But going by the NCA meeting last Monday, which Jamali “attended”, declaring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to be in “good hands”, he seems loath to assert his authority over the NCA.

Exclusive control over nuclear weapons by the military poses a problem: no military has the popular mandate to take a life-and-death security decision, although civilian control doesn’t guarantee “responsible” decision-making-witness Hiroshima-Nagasaki.The second difference is doctrinal. Pakistan has a nuclear first-strike policy. India doesn’t, but is under pressure to abandon NFU. According to one report, the last National Security Advisory Board-whose first avatar in 1999 produced the “Draft Nuclear Doctrine”-had recommended that New Delhi rescind NFU. In practice, it is unclear, given the lack of “strategic distance” between India and Pakistan, if NFU will mean much once hostilities break out. The temptation to retaliate the moment a strike is considered imminent will be high. Differences notwithstanding, both India and Pakistan face three similar problems in operationalising their “deterrents”; neither says how it proposes to resolve them. First, there is the question of survivability of nuclear “assets”, and, very important, command structures. This problem is acute in a situation of “decapitation” of military and political leaderships.

Second, and related to this, is succession within the command authority and the ability of each state to install uninterruptible communications channels between different levels of succession. The general technological backwardness and accident- or disaster-proneness of both societies will complicate matters here.

Third, India and Pakistan will inevitably have to move towards demonstrating their capacity to inflict “unacceptable damage” upon each other. This means they must be far more transparent in projecting their capabilities: through deployment and high-alert readiness to pull the trigger. This will impel both to escalate from a state of “existential deterrence” to actual threats, backed by battle-readiness.

Given the secrecy prevalent in the subcontinent’s military establishments, the absence of adequate testing of many sub-systems, and lack of symmetrical perceptions of each other’s specific capacities, this could make for terrible strategic miscalculation and panic reaction, greatly raising the chances of a pre-emptive or launch-on-warning response.

The only way to contain these risks is to undertake Nuclear Risk-Reduction Measures, discussed in this Column (July 4). But that presumes a high degree of transparency and the will to negotiate. That seems infeasible in today’s situation, marked by the lowest point in bilateral relations-lower even than in 1971.

This makes a Nuclear Armageddon likelier than before-unless India and Pakistan urgently pull back from the brink. Kargil happened barely a year after they overtly crossed the nuclear threshold. With their NCAs and their ramshackle nuclear deterrents, the present situation may be infinitely worse-to the collective peril of 1.3 billion South Asians.