Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2001
December 30, 2001
For the first time since the October, 1962 Cuban missile crisis, two nuclear-armed powers, India and Pakistan, are in a direct military confrontation that could lead to a massive conventional war - and even to full-scale nuclear conflict. The armed forces of both old foes are on high alert and deploying to forward positions. India and Pakistan said last week their nuclear-armed missiles were ready to strike.
When `War at the Top of the World,' my book on Afghanistan and the Kashmir conflict first came out in 1999 (2000 in the USA, UK, and India), people asked, `who cares about that region?' I sought to explain, usually in vain, that this little-known, but highly strategic, part of the globe was about to erupt. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan, according to CIA studies, would kill 2 million people immediately, and injure 100 million. Equally apocalyptic, a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, and attacks on one another's nuclear power reactors, would send a cloud of radioactive dust around the planet.
India and Pakistan have already fought three wars over Kashmir. For the past twelve years, a score of Kashmiri Muslim insurgent groups have waged a fierce guerilla war against some 600,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir. India calls the Muslim insurgents `Pakistani-supported terrorists,' a position lately adopted by the United States. Pakistan calls them legitimate `freedom fighters' battling for the independence of Kashmir. India's has long rejected UN demands for a plebiscite to determine Kashmir's future.
The Kashmir insurgency has been an extremely dirty war. Some 50,000 have died, mainly civilians. Indian forces have resorted to brutal reprisals, arson, torture, murder of suspects, and gang rape of Muslim women. Kashmir insurgents have slaughtered Hindus, causing 250,000 to flee the Jammu region, and assassinated many state officials. Indian forces disguised as Kashmiri mujihadin have even attacked Sikhs in an effort to turn them against Muslims.
India has long threatened to attack Pakistan, which it accuses of arming and supporting the Kashmiri mujihadin. In fact, Pakistani intelligence, ISI, has quietly backed some - but not all - of the militant groups, as well as Sikh separatists and Christian insurgents in India's eastern hill states. India, in turn, stirs up sectarian violence inside Pakistan.
For India, the last straw came just before Christmas, when as yet unidentified militants attacked India's parliament building in New Delhi. This assault followed attacks against Delhi's trademark Red Fort and against the Kashmir parliament in Srinagar. India accused two new Pakistan-based Kashmiri insurgent groups - Lashkar-e-Toyiba and Jash-e-Mohammed - of staging the attacks with Pakistani backing. Interestingly, according to my information, neither of these extreme groups are run by Pakistani intelligence. But Pakistan was plunged into confrontation with an outraged India.
The attack on parliament in Delhi was an intolerable outrage. India's cautious prime minister, Atal Vajpayee, is under intense pressure to strike Pakistan - or at least Kashmiri insurgent bases in the Pakistani portion of divided Kashmir. Hindu fundamentalists, led by Home Minister L.K.Advani and Defense Minister George Fernandes, are beating the war drums. Even India's usually conservative generals are itching to `teach those bloody Paks a lesson.'
Pakistan is issuing its own threats and massing troops. The confrontation with India is a boon for Pakistan's military strongman, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, diverting public anger over Pakistan's recent debacle in Afghanistan and its unpopular new role as an American base. Unfortunately for Pakistan, Musharraf retired or sidelined the army's best generals under American pressure just before the confrontation with India.
India is massing troops, armor, and aircraft to forward attack positions along its 1,000-mile border with Pakistan. India's three powerful armor-heavy `strike corps' are poised to sever Pakistan's vulnerable waist in the Bahawalpur-Rahimyar Khan sectors. India's increasingly potent navy is ready to blockade Karachi, Pakistan's main port and entry point for oil. India's 1.2-million man armed forces, with 3,400 tanks and 738 combat aircraft, outnumber and outgun Pakistan's 620,000 troops, 2,300 tanks and 353 warplanes. India's arsenal is mostly modern Russian equipment, while Pakistan's is obsolescent. Equally important, Pakistan's limited industrial base allows only a short war, while India's much larger economy can sustain a long conflict.
The US is leading frantic diplomatic efforts to prevent war. But passion are running very high. The most likely war scenario: Indian commando and air attacks on insurgent bases in Pakistani Kashmir which could escalate to full-scale war. Pakistan probably cannot halt a massive Indian invasion without using tactical nuclear weapons. This, in turn, could trigger nuclear strikes against military and civilian targets. Hopefully, both nations will pull back from the brink, but a false report, or another militant raid, could set off a huge, devastating war with unimaginable consequences.