Other wars

Hypnotized by the impasse the United States faces between starting a war with Iraq and dampening the one in the Middle East, we easily overlook the other wars that are brewing. The most alarming and dangerous is the continuing confrontation between Pakistan and India. Provocations are exchanged, resources marshaled, civilians evacuated, and armies massed at their borders. This has happened before-most recently, in January after Islamic militants from Pakistan attacked the Indian parliament. Back then, the United States, Britain, and others intervened and the two countries backed off. Will they again? Can they again?

In the current state of belligerence, Pakistan’s provocative missile "tests" serve to remind the world that two nuclear powers are on the brink of a major and catastrophic war. Not that the war would necessarily start with nuclear weapons landing on Islamabad or New Delhi. The trouble, as usual, is focused on Kashmir where both countries are poised for a conventional war (a million soldiers are said to be facing one another across a porous line of control). But should hostilities break out and either side falter, there are no guarantees that President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan or Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of India would not reach into his nuclear arsenal or be compelled to do so by militants and nationalists to whom each is beholden. Even worse, the military in one country or the other might act on its own. India promises no "first use." Pakistan fudges the issue. More recently the Indian prime minister has threatened a "decisive battle" to end Pakistani incursions into Kashmir, while Musharraf promises that if attacked, his country "will unleash a storm and nobody will be able to stop it."

Not only are there no guarantees against nuclear use, there are no safety measures either. As a result of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union benefited from a number of built-in safeguards, perhaps the most important, the "hot line," a dedicated phone line by which two leaders could speak directly if nuclear attack threatened.

During the cold war, the world also benefited from millions of people terrified at the prospect, if not of nuclear annihilation, then of another Hiroshima. Movements for peace and nuclear disarmament (including in India) did not end the cold war or halt nuclear proliferation, but they reminded political leaders that the world was wary and watching. Imagine the reaction if a U.S. or Soviet leader with his nuclear weapons had threatened a decisive battle back in the sixties or seventies.

Today, the quiescence of massive numbers of "peaceniks," above all in the current standoff, is hard to fathom. Ironically, it is the Pentagon in a recent intelligence assessment that has raised the alarm bells of catastrophe, once the mainstay of antinuke movements. A full-scale nuclear exchange, the Pentagon report predicts, would kill 12 million people immediately, and injure 7 million others, to be followed by widespread radioactive contamination and radiation sickness. Significantly, or symbolically, the Department of Defense compares Pakistan’s nuclear warheads to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Once again, world leaders are rushing to calm the belligerents, as they should. But this time more than placating two leaders is required. A consistent and vigorous international effort must bring the two nuclear nations to accept the responsibilities of their foolish weapons build-up: to start with, promises from both sides of no first use and then safeguards to prevent an accidental attack. The United States, Britain, Russia, and China all have a heightened interest and potential influence in easing the forty-seven year conflict over Kashmir, which is seeing incursions of militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

With U.S. attention focused on Southeast Asia, both Musharraf and Vajpayee may be using this long-standing conflict and the threat of nuclear war to draw the international community into negotiations over a Kashmiri settlement. Maybe the two are once again, "crying wolf." But "crying wolf" doesn’t mean that the wolf isn’t there. Now is the time to act.

June 4, 2002

Published in the 2002-06-14 issue: 
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