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India and Pakistan Must Be Stopped From Going to Nuclear War, But How?



June 30, 1999

LONDON- A nuclear war creeps up on the world by an unmarked path. As India and Pakistan confront each other daily over "the line of control" that marks the temporary division over their rival claims for the state of Kashmir the chance of their conflict spiralling out of control can no longer be dismissed. And if that happens the nuclear weapons that both sides exhibited to the world for the first time last year are within a hairtrigger of being used.

"The first false alert could be last", said one seasoned observer not very long ago. We should think of Kashmir as a permanent Cuban missile crisis, when in nose to nose nuclear brinkmanship the risk of inadvertent nuclear war is unacceptably high. With only 4 or 5 minutes warning time before a nuclear weapon fired from one country would detonate in the other there is no time for second thoughts before making a decision on retaliation. In fact India's Prithvis missiles stored at Jullunder and Pakistan's M11s stored at Sargodha lie within range of each other. It is difficult to imagine a more unstable arrangement.

India and Pakistan are living far more dangerously than the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did during all the dark days of the Cold War, the Cuban crisis excepted. Moscow and Washington at least had half an hour's warning to think what to do before the other side's rockets would arrive and, despite the many proxy and semi-proxy wars they made sure they never once themselves fired a shot in anger at the other side. Perhaps most important psychologically, in their long histories the two countries have never been to war.

But are India and Pakistan really heading for all out war? There still seems to be an air of slow motion unreality about it. The non-official Muslim militants of Pakistan together with regular Pakistani troops clash with Indian elite troops high up on near impenetrable Himalyan peaks, engaged in heroics of combat and mountain climbing. It is a scene from some rather old-fashioned melodramatic war movie that surely is too remote from down to earth reality to be the powder trail to modern day nuclear war.

Politically, the "play acting" of the principles is for now equally rarified. They talk as if war is imminent, but then that is invariably the language of Kashmir even in less fraught times. Both India and Pakistan temperamentally have a capacity for exaggeration. Moreover, neither government has its feet firmly on the ground. The Indian government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee no longer commands a parliamentary majority and has to go to the polls in September. The Pakistan government led by Nawaz Sharif, despite its comfortable majority, in the opinion of many informed observers is not actually directing this particular drama. It is the army and its irregular acolytes who are setting the pace. Indeed some of the best informed argue that they see the civilian finger on the nuclear trigger as only one among two or even three others.

By comparison, Moscow and Washington not only had sophisticated command and control systems (but even so accidental use of nuclear weapons nearly occurred three or four times), but the lines of political authority were very clear and even in the worst of times they always knew who to phone. The idea that the decision to go to war or not to, to pull the nuclear trigger or to abstain, lies with shadowy figures neither elected nor in public political office is the most disturbing of all the elements in this latest confrontation.

I have been a friend of Sartaj Aziz, the foreign minister of Pakistan, for a good thirty years. I think I know him as well as any outsider. He is a highly educated, highly principled man. But if I tell you that I believe he'd never be party to nuclear war, and probably not even to another conventional war, my observation, I'm afraid, means very little. I do not believe his hand is on the tiller.

If normal channels of authority, normal chains of command and the normal disciplines of nuclear actors are no longer germane in this highly charged situation what can the rest of the world do? Can it sit back and trust India and Pakistan simply to sober up? That is to take an enormous gamble.

India has always insisted it would brook no "internationalising" of its quarrel over Kashmir.But when nuclear war is a real possibility is this a viable posture? The question should answer itself. The world has no choice but to get involved, as it did with the UN resolutions on Kashmir in 1948 and 1949 and again in 1966 with the successful mediation efforts of Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin.

Fifty years ago the UN mediated an agreement to a four part sequence--a cease-fire in Kashmir, followed by the withdrawal of Pakistan's forces from all occupied areas, the thinning of India's military presence and, when that was all completed, a plebiscite to ascertain to which country the people of Kashmir wished to belong. Only the first two and a half of the four steps were taken.

These steps look uncannily right for today's situation (especially when there is an agreed line of control to withdraw behind). The world cannot abolish or even diminish Pakistan and India's stock of nuclear weapons. But it should work to remove the one, and probably only, issue that could precipitate a war between them.

The world, however, has little influence. The use of economic sanctions has been spent on a foolish attempt to punish the two countries for going nuclear. (The Western powers should punish themselves first for setting such a bad example--look at what little progress they have made on dismantling their nuclear armouries since the end of the Cold War.) The fact is the people most hurt by sanctions are the poor who then become prey to even more nationalistic impulses.

Ideally the Security Council should intervene en bloc, beseiging the two errant countries with its authority. Yet after Bill Clinton, Tony Blair et al decided to ignore the strictures of the UN Charter when they decided to bomb Serbia the standing of that body is now much reduced.

Perhaps we outsiders have no choice but to enter the thin air of the high mountains ourselves and see if nuclear deterrence really works. After all, they always said it did.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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