Withdraw the Indian Threat of War

San Diego Union-Tribune, June 9, 2002

‘A situation far more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis’

India and Pakistan have toned down the rhetoric of nuclear war in the last few days, but the threat of conflict between these traditional rivals continues to loom. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage are visiting the region to deliver a terse message from Washington. The United States wants Pakistan to clamp down effectively against militant Islamists responsible for terrorist attacks in the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. India, on the other hand, will be asked to back off from its belligerent posture so that Pakistan can continue to assist the United States in its military operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan.

But the United States must go beyond telling India and Pakistan, “Don’t start your own war because we need to finish ours.” It must engage in South Asia to eliminate terrorism, promote democracy and prevent conflict involving nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan are home to more than a billion people, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s population. They share a legacy of mutual mistrust, dating to the partition in 1947 of British-ruled India. That partition resulted in the creation of two states, Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Like partners in a bitter divorce, both states accuse each other of undermining their interests. And they have a custody battle to resolve: the question of who will control Kashmir, a beautiful region in the Himalayas bordering both India and Pakistan.

The majority of Kashmir’s population is Muslim, but its Hindu ruler at the time of independence announced its accession to India. Pakistan contests that accession, backed by United Nations resolutions calling for a plebiscite to determine the wishes of Kashmiri people.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars in 54 years and Kashmir has been the center of an insurrection since 1989. India accuses Pakistan of supporting the insurgency in Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir with the induction of Islamic militants, at least some of whom share beliefs similar to those of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

When India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons in 1998, some experts expressed the hope that there would be no further wars between them. Nuclear weapons served as a deterrent to war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it is a widely held view that the prospect of nuclear annihilation creates a “balance of terror” that in turn forces protagonists to talk to each other.

India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, but do not have in place any of the other elements of deterrence. They do nothave clearly identified “red lines,” the crossing of which would result in a nuclear strike. There are no arms control talks, no detailed nuclear doctrines and no hotlines to guard against triggering accidental nuclear clashes. Given the geographic proximity of the two states, their reaction time in case of a missile attack is barely a few minutes. And neither side can nuke the other without having to bear some of the fallout.

Deterrence already has failed in part between India and Pakistan since their nuclear tests. Their armies clashed in Kargil, a glaciated part of Kashmir in 1999. Since last December, following a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, 1 million troops from both sides have massed along their 2,000 mile border. Such confrontations have never occurred with such frequency between the world’s other nuclear powers.

U.S. diplomacy in the shape of a shuttle mission by Secretary of State Colin Powell helped avert an India-Pakistan war in December. Another terrorist attack last month, this time on an Indian military camp, led to the current stand-off, which the United States is now working to resolve.

The situation in South Asia has received less attention in Washington than it deserves, partly because the Bush administration considers the war against al-Qaeda its top priority. But the latest twist in the 54-year old rivalry between India and Pakistan is directly linked with America’s war against terrorism.

For the last 13 years, India has accused Pakistan of sponsoring the Kashmiri militants and Pakistan’s vehement denials of that charge are not believed in the world’s capitals. Pakistan promised a change in policy toward Islamic extremists after Sept. 11, but its crackdown on the militants is thought to be insufficient.

In the last few months, the terrorists have intensified their attacks in Kashmir and India. There also have been attacks in Pakistan, to protest its recent support for the United States.

Searching for a battlefield

Both India and Pakistan have ignored the view that the militants’ latest attacks are planned to provoke these traditional adversaries into war. According to this view, the exponents of global jihad seek a battlefield that stretches from Kabul in Afghanistan to Kolkata in India. And Pakistan falls right in the middle of that battlefield.

Extremists looking towards Osama bin Laden for inspiration do not recognize national boundaries. They want to polarize the world between Muslim and non-Muslim. Jihadi publications and websites talk of the final conflict between iman (belief) and kufr (disbelief). And that final conflict, according to Jihadi folklore will start in the region known in much of Islamic history as Khurasaan (present day Afghanistan). Jihad in Hind (modern India) is described as having been mentioned in the attributed sayings of Prophet Muhammad, although this is not considered an element of the religious beliefs of the vast majority of the world’s 1 billion Muslims.

India and Pakistan inadvertently have become hostages to the agenda of the Islamic militants. The United States should pressure the leaders of both countries to join hands against the terrorists. A war between India and Pakistan will result only in the realization of the Jihadi groups’ vision of extensive violence, leading to fulfillment of their version of apocalypse.

India and Pakistan so far have responded only partially to U.S. appeals for restraint. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee refuses to talk directly to Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf until the end of “all cross-border terrorism.” India withdrew its ambassador from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad last December and recently expelled the Pakistani Ambassador from its capital. Historically, nuclear-armed nations always have maintained communications with each other, to avoid escalation of conflict that can result from lack of communication.

The total absence of dialogue between India and Pakistan, coupled with the general ignorance of their impoverished peoples about the implications of nuclear weapons, creates a situation far more dangerous than that between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.

Direct dialogue needed

New Delhi and Islamabad cannot afford to depend exclusively on the United States to defuse tensions. They will have to resume direct dialogue that may, at best, be facilitated by the United States. Pakistan will have to act decisively against Islamic militants allegedly involved in attacks in India and Kashmir.

Indications are that Musharraf’s government may be doing that, albeit slowly. The presence of large numbers of Indian troops on the border discourages Musharraf from moving too fast against the militants. Supporters of the insurgents argue that they would serve as an important fifth column for Pakistani soldiers, sabotaging the much larger and better-equipped Indian army, in case of war.

Withdrawal of the Indian threat of war would help Musharraf fulfil his promises of ending militant infiltration from Pakistan. The United States could provide the mechanism for verifying Pakistan’s compliance with its commitments. And proposals for multinational or joint India-Pakistan monitoring of the Line of Control in Kashmir and to stop infiltration of militants ostensibly acting on their own also must be seriously considered.

Anti-Pakistan extremists in India’s ruling coalition are insisting on rubbing Pakistan’s nose in the ground. But it simply is not possible to “eliminate” or “liquidate” a neighbor with nuclear weapons without risking enormous destruction.

Keeping up military pressure is impairing Pakistan’s ability to cooperate in the war against terrorism. It could even give a boost to Islamic militants in Pakistan, thereby strengthening the cause of the terrorists. Conflicts with India tend to unite Pakistanis. If Musharraf’s regime is seen to be buckling under Indian pressure, support for the militant Islamists opposing him could increase.

Pakistan’s status as a country under military rule makes its position precarious. While supporting Musharraf in his efforts against Islamic extremists, the United States also needs to ensure that Pakistan moves towards democratic rule. Musharraf should be encouraged to initiate dialog with Pakistan’s major politicians, most of whom are currently living in exile.

In the past, India and Pakistan have managed to avoid military confrontation whenever civilians were in power in Islamabad, and a civilian democratic government in Pakistan would be less dependent on the military and the Islamic militants for support. Washington’s visible support for democracy will strengthen support in Pakistan for its efforts against terrorism. It also will ensure that Pakistani support against al-Qaeda continues even after a change of regime.

Defusing the current crisis is only half the battle. If the world is to stop living in fear of a nuclear clash in South Asia, the root causes of violence between India and Pakistan also must be addressed. America already is using its influence with Pakistan to force action against Islamic extremists. It also should persuade India to get serious about resolving the dispute over Kashmir. Pakistan needs to root out Islamic extremism for its own sake, not just to fulfil Indian and U.S. demands.

But India also must wake up to the fact that it will continue to have a Kashmir problem even after the current militancy there is brought under control. Instead of using elimination of terrorism as a pretext for ending all discussion of Kashmir’s future, India should seek a comprehensive settlement of its security problems with Pakistan.