Dispatches From The Edge: Dangerous Crises in South Asia

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 09:52:00 AM

If most Americans think Iran and Georgia are the two most volatile flashpoints in the world, one can hardly blame them. The possibility that the Bush administration might strike at Teheran’s nuclear facilities has been hinted about for the past two years, and the White House’s pronouncements on Russia seem like Cold War déjà vu. 

But accelerating tensions between India and Pakistan, coupled with Washington’s increasing focus on Afghan-istan, might just make South Asia the most dangerous place in the world right now, a region where entirely too many people are thinking the unthinkable. 

At the heart of this crisis is a beleaguered Pakistan, wracked internally by economic crisis and deep political divisions, fearful of India’s burgeoning military power, and pressured by Washington’s growing alarm over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.  

When the New Delhi government accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) of being behind the recent bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, it revealed what journalist J. Sri Raman calls a “secret war” between the two nation’s intelligence agencies. The Indians charge the ISI of being behind a string of bombings in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Jaipur, while the Pakistanis accuse India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW), of encouraging a separatist movement in Baluchistan and undermining Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. 

The two countries have fought three wars since the 1947 partition, and came perilously close to going nuclear during the Kargil incident in 1999. In the latter flare-up, separatist guerrillas backed by the Pakistani Army, attacked Indian troops in Kashmir, leading to a bitter 11-week war. According to Bruce O. Riedel of the National Security Agency, Pakistan began arming its nuclear warheads, and only pressure from the White House got Islamabad to back down. 

There are elements in both countries who have long considered “the unthinkable”—nuclear war—quite thinkable. When Pakistan-sponsored Kashmiri separatists attacked the Indian parliament in December 2001, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s right-wing BJP prime minister, told the army to prepare for a “decisive victory,” setting off a round of arrmagedon saber rattling. 

Pakistan’s General Mirza Aslam Beg, former Pakistani army chief, said that Pakistan “can make a first strike, and a second strike, or even a third,” and dismissed the consequences that such an exchange would inflict on both populations. “You can die crossing the street, or you could die in a nuclear war. You’ve got to die someday anyway.” 

The talk on the Indian side was no less hair-raising. India Defense Minister George Fernandes said that “India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot.” Indian Defense Secretary Yogendra Narain said, “A surgical strike is the answer,” and if that fails, “We must be prepared for total mutual destruction.” 

A U.S. intelligence analysis of a war between India and Pakistan found it would kill up to 12 million people immediately and injure seven million more. A National Resource Defense Council study projected that more than 22 million people would absorb lethal doses of radiation, and another eight million would be seriously irradiated. 

Part of the problem about “the unthinkable” is that while leaders in both countries talk quite openly of fighting a nuclear war, the populations of both nations are largely in the dark over the potential threat. A BBC poll found that the Pakistani public has an “abysmally low” understanding of the threat, and that for most Indians, “the terror of a nuclear conflict is hard to imagine.” 

The Bush administration has ratcheted up the tension with its proposed nuclear deal with India. Under the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement, the United States would supply India with nuclear fuel for its civilian program, despite the fact that India refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The deal would allow India to divert its own meager domestic uranium supplies to its nuclear weapons industry, whose factories would remain “off limits” to inspection. 

In a July letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, Pakistan warned that the 1-2-3 Agreement “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kusuri, told the Financial Times that if the pact is approved by the U.S. Congress, “The whole nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will unravel.” 

India has a “no first-use” policy, but Pakistan refuses to sign such a pledge, in large part due to the superiority of the Indian military, a superiority that grows day by day. India will import over $30 billion in arms over the next five years, including modern fighter planes, helicopters, tanks and warships. The Indian Air Force is currently the world’s fourth largest.  

Pakistan simply can’t match those figures. Its economy is smaller, and it has been hard hit by rising fuel and food prices. Inflation is close to 15 percent, cooking gas is up 30 percent, and wheat is up 20 percent. According to a June 2008 survey, some 86 percent of Pakistanis are finding it increasingly difficult to afford flour on a daily basis. Pakistan currently spends 35 percent of its budget on the military. 

Pakistan’s newly elected and deeply divided government is also confronting intense U.S. pressure to halt the cross-border movement of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan. 

“The situation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border presents a clear and present danger to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West in general, and the U.S. in particular,” U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden told Congress in March. 

Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says, “I don’t believe we can get to the right outcome in Afghanistan as long as these militant sanctuaries [in Pakistan] exist.” 

But Islamabad has been increasingly unwilling to play spear-carrier for the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the Guardian that it is “unacceptable that while giving peace to the world we make our own country into a killing field. If America wants to see itself clean of terrorism, we also want our villages and towns not to be bombed.” 

The United States has sent dozens of armed drones across the Pakistan border to attack Taliban leaders, many times killing civilians in the process. According to Pakistani officials, U.S. helicopter-borne commandos crossed the border Sept. 3 and killed up to 20 people.  

The current government was elected on a platform of making peace with the Taliban, and, in any case, attempts by the Pakistani Army to occupy the frontier have failed rather disastrously. That is hardly surprising. As British General Andrew Skeen noted during the colonial period, “When planning a military expedition into Pashtun tribal areas, the first thing you must plan is your retreat. All expeditions into this area sooner or later end in retreat.” 

Even Washington’s allies recognize that the increasingly strident calls by Washington and the Afghan government to close off infiltration from Pakistan are impossible. “You cannot seal borders,” says British Defense Minister Des Browne. “We could not seal 26 miles of border between the north and south of Ireland with 40,000 troops.” The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is over 1,000 miles, much of it consisting of formidable mountains. 

While the White House and NATO are pushing for a military solution in Afghanistan, a recent study by the Rand Corporation, a think tank associated with the U.S. Navy, found that politics, not bombs, is the solution for terrorism. According to Rand, only 7 percent of the 648 terror groups it studied were defeated militarily: “There is no battlefield solution to terrorism. Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended.” 

Some in Pakistan’s current government seem to have reached the same conclusion. “We have to talk to the Taliban,” says Asif Ahmed, a member of parliament from the secular Pakistan People’s Party, the largest vote getter in the last election. “There is no peace in Pakistan or Afghanistan without it.” 

Many Pakistanis worry that war in the tribal areas could ignite a movement among Pushtuns on both sides of the border for an independent “Pashtunistan.” Pushtuns make up between 15 percent and 20 percent of Pakistan’s 165 million people. 

Islamabad also worries about increasing Indian influence among Afghan-istan’s non-Pushtun groups, and the possibility that Pakistan could lose its “strategic depth” in the region, a place to fall back to if they are overwhelmed by an Indian conventional attack.  

The United States has long tried to rope India into its efforts to offset growing Chinese power in Asia. Washington has stepped up arms sales to New Delhi, increased joint military training, and is willing to help India increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons. India, of course, has its own bones to pick with China, and still smarts from the shellacking it took in the 1963 Sino-Indian war. But an India powerful enough to help offset China looks very threatening from Islamabad’s point of view.  

The most immediate flashpoint is Kashmir, where heavy-handed Indian troops have killed more than two dozen people and injured hundreds. A miscalculation by either side could be disastrous. The flight time for nuclear-tipped missiles between the two countries is from three and five minutes. 

Every few years the U.S. military conducts “war games” on what the outcome would be to a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Every game ends the same: nuclear war. “It is a scary scenario,” Col. Mike Pasquarett, who runs the games at the U.S. War College, told the Wall Street Journal. 

Rather than escalating another war, arming India, and pressuring Pakistan, the United States should be pushing for the de-nuclearization of South Asia, peace talks with the Taliban, and a stand-down in Afghanistan.