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Trembling on the brink

By Michael Hammerschlag

 

January 17, 2002—Americans would do well to start worrying less about the handful of US fatalities and more about the dozen-odd dead in border clashes between Pakistan and India. Enraged by Pakistani separatist attacks on the Kashmiri Parliament and the Indian Congress in New Delhi, the Indians, after stewing for a month, have edged the nations towards a war that neither could probably control.

Well over a million troops are mobilized on both sides, the greatest since the catastrophic Partition in 1947, when almost a million died. The difference between earlier border wars (1971) over Kashmir is that both countries now openly have not only dozens of nuclear weapons, which they proved in tit for tat detonations in 1998, but also the missiles to deliver them—missiles that can reach almost every square mile of their putative enemy.

The Parliament terrorists thought that attention would be diverted by Afghanistan, instead the paradox of the US forcing Pakistan to help destroy their own protégés (the Taliban) focused attention on the hypocrisy of ignoring Pakistani-sponsored terrorism like nothing else could. The Indians have suffered periodic attacks, and have reacted massively to the specter of gunmen blasting their Congress (imagine, say, if Cuban gunman shot up the US Capitol). But, like the often brutal Israeli campaign against the Palestinians, they seem unable to ratchet it down, even after Musharraf's powerful pledge and initiation of a crackdown on terrorists. Once they have the rapt attention of the Pakistanis, it's hard to release it. Musharraf has reason for fear: despite a rough qualitative equality in their nuclear forces, India has four times the area, seven times the population, two times the troops, and two-three times the nukes. Yet his bending over backwards to assuage Indian demands, while eminently wise in the short run, may make his position domestically untenable, since support of Kashmir is one of the only issues uniting the fractious Paki factions. The extremists will probably strive for further outrages if only to derail the attempted peace. Musharraf promised to turn over at least the Indian-citizen terrorists the Indians are demanding and his moderating the maniacal madrassas schools that teach jihad from a butchered Koran could save America from the next generation of holy warriors.

What is happening now, though, has never happened before: a nuclear face-off between countries with only a few dozen weapons and missiles—which is far more dangerous than when they have thousands, because the paranoia about the enemies' launching will create an irresistible pressure for a first strike to destroy their missiles on the ground, which is only possible with such a tiny number of targets. (America had functioning accurate quick launch ballistic missiles before the Soviet Union—the so-called missile gap never really existed.) Periodically a thousand people are hacked to death in religious "disturbances" in India, both peoples are highly excitable, and often seem to hate each other more than the Israeli's and Arabs.

 "It's so stupid, they're the same people," moans a Pakistani-American in Seattle. Indian PM Vajpayee comes from a hardline nationalistic faction. His General has claimed India was fully prepared for war and promised the use of nukes by Pakistan would be "punished so severely" their survival would be doubtful. With spectacularly bad timing, the Indians are going ahead with two annual large scale war games on the border, including measures "to prepare for a nuclear attack." To the rattled Pakis, these measures could appear offensive, not defensive. One report has Pakistan almost dropping a nuclear bomb in response to Indian war games in 1990. India has pledged to use nukes only in defense, but it's not clear if Pakistan could resist using them if faced with a large conventional defeat.

In a chilling comment that flitted through the press, China has pledged to assist Pakistan in a nuclear war, which could turn a regional nightmare into a global one—something both America and Russia shouldn't allow. China has only 30 or so aging liquid fueled missiles, but they can't resist meddling. According to a Pakistani defense website, "Pakistan is thought to possess about 42 nuclear capable missiles ready to launch in 7-10 minutes," the biggest of which—Ghauri 3—might reach Calcutta; and 24-50 nuclear weapons. India's Agni-2 missile can reach all of Pakistan and China, and they are estimated to have 50-100 nuclear bombs. All these bombs are supposedly "little" Hiroshima-like fission bombs, 6-20 kilotons, though both countries have the capability to build thermo-nuclear bombs 50 times larger. Even these primitive weapons could kill 30 million in a war against cities. Pakistan does have mobile truck-mounted missiles that would argue against any first strike because they are so difficult to target.

Both countries have paid dearly for their nuclear aspirations. Pakistan spent $5 billion and lost several times that much on aid from the US embargo, while India spent $10-25 billion over 10 years; meanwhile they sit 138th and 139th in world countries on the human development index, behind such luxurious places as Nigeria or Kenya. India has 400 million souls making under $1/day and Pakistan has rung up $37 billion of foreign debt.

Both countries are trembling on the brink—anything: a flock of birds, a radar failure or error, a weather rocket launch, or a computer glitch could convince one side that the other is launching nuclear missiles and provoke a full scale retaliatory launch . . . and the nuclear hell on earth that the US and Russia prepared for so assiduously for 45 years. Leaders don't initiate a nuclear attack to destroy their enemy; they do so because they are convinced the enemy is about to attack them. Even if they manage, as it looks now, to defuse this crisis, that danger will remain for the next decade, unless they settle the open sore of Kashmir and retrap the evil genie of nuclear-tipped missiles.


Michael Hammerschlag has studied the threat of nuclear war for three decades and written three long papers on it, including commentaries for Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser; Moscow News, Tribune, and tbe Guardian. He spent two years in Russia/SU, where he studied the multiple ongoing wars in the southern Moslem CIS republics. His website is
http://mikehammer.tripod.com. Email: hammerschlag@bigfoot.com


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