Published on Sunday, June 2, 2002 in the Observer of London
Nuclear Neighbors Teeter on Brink of Armageddon
India and Pakistan could be just hours away from a fight feared by the entire planet
by Jason Burke and Peter Beaumont
Tonight, in the forests of Kashmir, figures will be moving in the darkness. They are fighters using terrorism to overthrow Indian rule in the disputed state.
New Delhi says these militants take their orders directly from Islamabad. The Pakistanis say they are independent. Neither claim, according to inquiries by The Observer, is accurate. And it is through the gap between these stories that 1.25 billion people could fall into a nuclear nightmare.
This weekend tens of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces are being readied for war. The Pakistanis have withdrawn troops from their western frontier, where they were deployed against al-Qaeda, and sent them to face the Indians.
Artillery duels rage along the length of the line of control that splits Kashmir, the only state with a Muslim majority in predominantly Hindu India. American officials say the situation is as dangerous as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The world watches in fear.
Indian military planners know that if war comes, a crushing victory is essential. 'War is one game that you cannot lose or draw, especially if you are the bigger country,' retired General Ved Prakash Malik, the former Indian army chief of staff, said. The Indian options, however, are limited.
Air strikes against militant training bases or headquarters in Pakistan have been ruled out. In previous conflicts the Pakistanis have picked off India's warplanes and, as one Indian defense analyst, said, 'such strikes would only have symbolic value... these camps are ramshackle structures ... and can be rebuilt easily.'
Commando raids to destroy the militants' Pakistan-based infrastructure are out too. There is no guarantee of success, and casualties could be prohibitively high.
Instead India is considering two options. The first is a 'salami slice offensive'. After a 48-hour bombardment Indian jets would try to establish air superiority before troops attacked along a 100 miles of frontier between the city of Muzaffarabad and Mirpur. The aim: to secure high ground and mountain passes that allow militants to cross into India. The territory could be used as bargaining chips in any negotiations.
Both sides have been preparing for such an operation since the last full-blown war between India and Pakistan 30 years ago. Instead, says retired Air Marshal Kapil Kak, an Indian defense analyst, something 'unexpected, innovative, inconceivable which pays fast dividends' is more likely. Speed is of the essence. Indian planners reckon they have only 72 hours before a Pakistani leader, his defenses collapsing, reaches for the nuclear button.
So the second option is far more ambitious and dangerous: to teach Pakistan a short, sharp lesson and then move swiftly to negotiations. After an artillery bombardment and air strikes, Indian paratroops would seize points on a long salient stretching deep into Pakistan from the border near to the northern Indian town of Kargil. Ground troops would push down valleys to link the seized positions up to 50 miles into Pakistan. Talks could then start from a position of strength.
The world now wants to know: will war happen? And if it does, how fast could it go nuclear?
In the past seven days the sense of impending catastrophe has deepened exponentially in London and Washington, driven by Pentagon alarm over 'unusual Indian troop movements' which US Defense Intelligence Agency analysts believe signal that Indian forces are all now in position for an imminent assault.
Sources in London said concern within Whitehall was 'white hot'. In recent days Cabinet ministers have met in the 'Cobra' war room beneath Whitehall - reserved for wars and national emergencies - as a chilling realization dawned that despite a threatened nuclear 'cataclysm', Indian may still risk waging war against Pakistan.
'Dates for a possible Indian attack have been mentioned,' said one Foreign Office source. 'The time of greatest risk has been assessed as the beginning of the second week of June. You cannot believe the level of concern.'
Senior officials of MI6, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development and MI6 'are working 18-hour days', said one civil service source. 'They are working flat out right through the jubilee weekend.'
The MoD and the Foreign Office officials are drawing up a contingency plan for an 'ordered' emergency evacuation of British citizens, using British Airways jets.
'We are talking about the risk of war breaking out not within weeks but days,' said one senior diplomatic source. 'Anything could trigger it now. When you have a million and a half men under arms, you have a tinder box.'
'It's like the First World War, with both sides mobilizing on automatic,' said retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who frequently dealt with Pakistan when he headed the US Central Command in the late Nineties. 'When they see an action on one side, there is a pre-programmed counter-reaction.'
Most chilling of all is the verdict of intelligence analysis from Washington and other European capitals that any Indian attack over the line separating Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir could rapidly escalate into a nuclear exchange.
'We do not think you could talk of a limited conventional war here,' said a senior Foreign Office source last week. 'India's two-to-one military superiority in ground and air forces would rapidly lead to Pakistan being very tempted to use nuclear weapons.'
Western intelligence analysis suggests India has factored this into its calculations. 'The Indians believe they can absorb whatever pain is inflicted on them by Pakistan in any coming war and win, including a Pakistani first use of nuclear weapons,' said one source. 'They know millions will die but they believe India will still be there afterwards.'
The Indian agenda, say diplomatic sources, is driven by its generals' belief that this may be their last chance finally to secure Kashmir. 'Indian intelligence believes that although Pakistan has viable nuclear devices it does not have a properly weaponized ballistic system to deliver them. The judgment is that Pakistan is at least 12 months away from having missiles which can reliably carry nuclear weapons.
'At best, India believes, Pakistan can field a fairly crude air-delivered device. The judgment is that if it is to do anything about Kashmir, it has to do it now.'
Yet what alarms seasoned observers of South Asia most is a belief that both sides are now psychologically committed to conflict. 'There is an incredible sense of imminence,' said one Foreign Office source last week. 'They have both entered a war mindset. Neither can see any sense. This makes the risk so cataclysmic.'
The experts are alarmed too about how either side would respond to a real nuclear threat. There is no hotline warning system between them and, worse, neither has clear rules for using the weapons. They are equally vague about how a conventional war might turn into a nuclear one.
If one side suspects a first use of nuclear weapons, there is little time for maneuver or margin for error. Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union, which had as much as 30 minutes to react between a suspected missile launch and impact in the Cold War, India and Pakistan are so close geographically that they would have less than eight minutes.
Thoughts are now turning to the unthinkable: how the world would deal with the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency calculates that the first hour of a full-scale nuclear exchange could kill as many as 12 million people and leave up to seven million injured. Millions more would die in other fighting or from starvation and disease.
In Britain government experts calculate that all Pakistan's water and food would be contaminated by even a limited exchange, with large areas of India rendered practically uninhabitable.
'We don't even know where to start in thinking about how to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale,' said one source. 'There are simply no models for it. We don't even know how we would get aid in in the immediate aftermath. No one has any experience of a humanitarian operation on this scale on a nuclear battlefield, and India and Pakistan have no mechanisms for coping with this.'
And it is not simply the fate of the combatant nations that frightens the planners. 'In a worst-case scenario,' said a senior Foreign Office source, 'we would be looking at contamination affecting Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh even China.'
The fear is global but the problem - and any solution - is local. The critical factor is the militants. A major attack by them could start a war. A genuine end to their activity could be enough for peace. But, in all the brinkmanship and sabre-rattling, it is very difficult to tell what is really happening.
Sources close to Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the main militant group, told The Observer last week they had been ordered by Musharraf to cease all cross-border activity immediately at least three days before the Pakistani President made a bellicose speech last Sunday that enraged the Indians .
'Concessions on the ground by Pakistan tend to be matched by strong rhetoric on the Kashmir issue,' said Alexander Evans, a Kashmir analyst at Center for Defensive Studies, London.
'There is a nationalist cage in both countries within which Kashmir policy can rattle around but no political leader on either side would risk the wrath of public opinion by unlocking the door.'
There are other pressures on Musharraf. He needs support within the army, and many senior generals are hawkish. Some see helping the Muslim Kashmiris as a religious duty. Musharraf even faces assassination.
And, as India points out, his own sympathies are unclear. He, after all, orchestrated the 1999 'Kargil' operation in which 1,000 Pakistani troops occupied a tactical ridge inside Indian Kashmir. Hundreds died in the fighting.
And there are militant groups that even Musharraf cannot control. The aggressive Jaish-e-Mohammed (the Army of Mohammed) is unlikely to obey his orders to cease fire. Other, 'home-grown' Kashmiri militants have stockpiles of weapons and funds independent of Pakistani support.
One man with a Kalashnikov and some dynamite could set off a blast that will make the entire world tremble.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002