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Nuclear poker, South Asian-style

Among the nations of the exclusive “nuclear club,” there is great fear that the two newest members, the gate-crashing Indians and Pakistanis, are about to prove that the old guard were right to bar the door for so many years.

Among the nations of the exclusive “nuclear club,” there is great fear that the two newest members, India and Pakistan, are about to prove that the old guard were right to bar the door for so many years. Like most gate-crashers, the Indians and Pakistanis now act as if the rules of the nuclear club do not apply to them. This is a classic flaw of the newly rich, or the newly nuclear, and one that can easily lead to tragedy.

A dark flashback to the bad old days of the early 1960s appeared to take hold of news editors around the world last week as headlines and bulletins warned of nuclear Armageddon.

The vocabulary of atomic death, dusted off in mid-May for a more cheerful story — the U.S.-Russia arms control treaty — suddenly seemed as though it had never left us. Experts unheard from since the end of the Cold War found their ways onto television to opine about the “yield” of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads. Former deputy assistant mucky-mucks from the Bronze Age wondered whether India is suffering from a “missile gap.” Distinguished analysts and heads of state debated whether “deterrence” still works. There was even a game of nuclear dominoes in one of William Safire’s columns when, in a serious outbreak of Tomclancyitis, he warned that al-Qaida was trying to goad India and Pakistan into a nuclear war that would cause China to attack India’s ally, Russia, touching off a global nuclear exchange. All of it made for great headlines.


That was last week. This week, American officials are speaking of “eased tensions” and claiming credit, quite rightly, for backing Pakistan away from the brink. Practically speaking, this amounted to an order from Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to his security services to stop the flow of armed militants, often trained by Pakistan’s intelligence agents, into India’s portion of Kashmir where they mount bloody attacks on soldiers and civilians alike.

Unlike previous periods of tension between these two South Asian nations, this time American officials had to act. The United States currently has some 20,000 of its own troops operating out of Pakistani military bases at any given time, and in such a situation, war between India and Pakistan simply is not an option. So, for the second time since Sept. 11, Washington made Musharraf an offer he could not refuse. The first time, in October, Musharraf was forced to join the “war on terror.” This time, somewhat ironically, Washington demanded that the same Pakistani leader stop a war of terror directed by groups on his territory against Indian rule in Kashmir.

How could Pakistan be fighting the war on terror yet waging a war of terror all at the same time? Very simply: the United States decided last autumn that Musharraf could survive turning his back on the Taliban and al-Qaida, but that he would have to be allowed to continue posing as the potential liberator of Kashmir — the holy grail of nationalism in both India and Pakistan.


It did not seem that way last year. On Oct. 1 last year, with the horrors of Sept. 11 fresh in everyone’s mind and Pakistan a new recruit to America’s alliance, Pakistani-backed militants attacked India’s regional parliament in Kashmir, killing 30. In December, an even bolder attack on India’s national parliament killed 14 people. By January, under U.S. pressure, Musharraf publicly vowed a crack down and the jails began to fill with “Kashmiri” radicals.

Alas, the crackdown was a ruse. One-by-one this winter, cell doors began opening around Pakistan for the militant Islamist leaders who had been rounded up in the fall after a particularly vicious attack on India’s parliament building in New Delhi. Pakistani courts, which can show surprising backbone at the worst times, played their role.

But so did politics. Musharraf had pledged to return Pakistan to democracy by 2003 after overthrowing its democratically elected (and fabulously inept) government in October 1999. To make it seem like he was keeping that pledge, he held a referendum on his rule on April 30 — in effect, an election as reminiscent of the bad old days as all the talk of nuclear throw weight. It was an election with one candidate: America’s man, Gen. Musharraf.

Musharraf’s “betrayal” of the Taliban hurt him among a significant portion of Pakistan’s electorate. Add another third or so of the population who are tied to the traditional parties — the corrupt old guard Musharraf overthrew and has banned ever since — and you can imagine what America’s candidate was facing. The old-line parties announced a boycott of the vote. The hard-line Islamists would never forgive him for the Taliban.

So, with America holding its nose, Musharraf began letting “Kashmir freedom fighters” out of jail to save his political neck. The result: the same kind of 97 percent election “victory” for sole candidate Musharraf that South Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Thieu won in 1967 with America’s backing. Such victories, almost always, are Pyrrhic.


Another result: nuclear brinkmanship. As the snows that block the passes between Pakistani- and Indian-held territories began to melt, India watched as a new wave of militants gathered for the crossing. Already last October, India’s government had been ridiculed by its own opposition for failing to strike back after the attack on its parliament. America’s interests played a large role in that, and the unspoken deal between Washington and New Dehli was: Pakistan in our pocket is better than Pakistan at your throat.

But again, two weeks ago, the attacks in Kashmir resumed. Thirty died in an attack on an Indian army camp. The main moderate Kashmir nationalist, whose sin was to oppose Indian rule with his mind rather than a gun, was murdered. So, despite its nuclear inadequacies, India went back on a full war footing, and the Pakistanis, unwisely, followed.

To understand the nature of the minefield the world just traversed, you need to think back again to the bad old days. India and Pakistan, though they haughtily deny it in the presence of nuclear club members, are immature nuclear powers. This is not a comment on their dispositions or intelligence; rather, it is a matter of physics.

One of the key ingredients in “deterrence” is the knowledge that, if you were to launch a nuclear strike against your opponent, that opponent would still be able to hit back hard enough to have made the entire enterprise self-defeating. (I realize how bloodless this sounds, but we are talking about “bad old days,” remember). In effect, that means each side needs “survivable” nuclear arsenals — missiles and warheads that can be counted on as a retaliatory force. For much of the Cold War, this dynamic held fingers in check both in the Kremlin and the White House.

Neither India nor Pakistan has such weapons. In their case, it is entirely plausible that a “first strike” could result in complete victory for one side. The short distance missiles have to travel adds to the peril. This fact also increases enormously the pressure on one side to launch everything it’s got at the slightest hint of an attack by the other side.


The Bush administration was painfully aware of all this last week, and in part, this accounts for some of the more overheated reports that wound up in the American media. Despite what might be called “the deterrence gap,” India played its less-than-full deck masterfully, making threats that sounded plausible with full knowledge that America would never let it come to that.

Sadly, though, India’s success — if, indeed, Musharraf has called off the dogs — may encourage a more brazen form of brinkmanship in future standoffs. It could also convince India that its own absurd position on the Kashmir conflict — that it is not an “international issue” but a bilateral affair between India and Pakistan — is in no need of revision. If that thinking was ridiculous in 1997, before the two nations became nuclear weapons states, it might have been written off as simply the thin-skinned pride of a former colony. Today, with both aiming Jurassic arsenals at each other that could spew nuclear fallout all over the planet, it is downright stupid.

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