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Pakistan and India Play With Nuclear Fire



LONDON--India and Pakistan have had a jolly month playing with matches. Just to show the world how responsible they are with their new-found nuclear arsenals they ve traded fire almost daily over and around the border that separates the two halves of the disputed state of Kashmir, killing over 90 soldiers and civilians. Not a bad month s work for two nations that in their pre-nuclear state twice have been to war over this idyllic piece of Himalayan real estate.

Both Indian and Pakistani policy makers seem blithely unaware of the immense self-discipline that kept the U.S. and the Soviet Union from letting off their missiles in the days of their nuclear stand-off, aptly named the Cold War. Fighting of any kind, much less nuclear war, was frozen. There was never a single Russian or American soldier killed by the other side.

Just as important was the military self-discipline of both sides--the absolute, unwavering subservience of the military to civilian control. India may have that but Pakistan certainly doesn t. The finger on Pakistan s nuclear trigger is too intimately related to the supposedly independent guerrillas who do combat with the Indian army in Kashmir.

Above all, was the command and control systems of both superpowers. The technological sophistication necessary to keep nuclear weapons bolted down and safe from illicit use was of a very high order. All the indications are that Pakistan and India have not given enough priority to this aspect. Nor do they have the real-time intelligence to give decision makers safe and accurate assessment of what the other side may be up to. We now know, too, what we didn't know at the time that, for all the superpowers' safeguards, there were a number of times when the USSR and the USA came dangerously close to launching their nuclear weapons through political miscalculation, accident and, in one very serious case, military deceit.

India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965. The events of this year are uncannily following the exact pattern of 1965. India accuses Pakistan of sending in irregular soldiers. Pakistan denies this but insists loudly on a free election in which it knows Kashmir s Moslem majority would vote to become part of Pakistan. But India remains adamant that Kashmir belongs to India, threatening war if Pakistan insists on rocking the status quo.

The original division of British-ruled India into Moslem-dominated Pakistan and Hindu-dominated India resulted in appalling carnage and laid the foundations for today s enmity and mistrust. Western opinion, in as much as it has a point of view, tends to blame Mohammed Jinnah of the Moslem League for the break up of a united India--that was the message, for example, from Richard Attenborough s cinematic masterpiece, "Gandhi".

But there is another opinion, perhaps even more persuasive. It is argued by the Indian scholar H.M. Seervai, whose great work on the subject, published some eight years ago, shows that the unity of India was not sabotaged by Jinnah but by Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India s first prime minister, who repeatedly miscalculated by refusing to take Jinnah seriously. At one time Jinnah would gladly have kept India whole as long as Moslem sensibilities were recognized.

Today India is again on a weak ground. It still denies a free vote. But Pakistan will not make progress by always upping the ante and sending in covert forces. Pakistan has long played with fire but with nuclear weapons out in the open it is a suicidal game that gives every indication of ending with mankind s single greatest disaster. This is not to overstate it.

In 1965 the world was so seized by the Kashmir crisis the UN Security Council sent secretary-general U Thant to try and broker a peace. Unsure if he had been successful he returned to New York to hear that Chinese troops were reported to be massing on the Indian border in support of Pakistan.

In the end Soviet prime minister Alexei Kosygin went into overdrive and engineered a cease-fire and withdrawal of forces. Where is the secretary-general today? Where are Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin? There are some well-thought out compromises waiting to be pushed-- one cleverly worked out by the former Pakistani minister of finance, Mahbub ul Haq, who died last month. Also there has been the suggestion that India be granted a permanent seat in the Security Council, if it would permit a free vote in Kashmir. The world itself is playing with fire if it leaves these two antagonists a free hand to work themselves up to the point when their pride pushes them to devastate a fifth of the planet.


August 12, 1998, LONDON

Copyright © 1998 By JONATHAN POWER

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