Published on Friday, June 7, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Nuclear Threat Has World on Edge
Tensions Highest Since Cold War -- Carnage, Environmental Destruction Could Reach Far Beyond Region
by Keay Davidson
It is more than 50 years since India and Pakistan achieved independence from Britain, and since then the two South Asian nations have argued and squabbled -- incessantly and sometimes bloodily -- over the contested state of Kashmir.
If a nuclear war between the two countries broke out, millions of survivors might be disabled, blinded or deafened by the nuclear thunderclaps. Radioactive fallout might poison soil and rivers and crops across South Asia and points beyond. A new Dark Age of political chaos -- exploited by religious demagogues, high-tech warlords and neighboring powers with their own strategic ambitions -- might descend upon these impoverished lands.
As to how many warheads each side has, in addition to conventional forces, estimates vary.
Assessing Countries' Bombmaking Abilities
India's known plutonium reserves indicate it has the potential to assemble at least 65 weapons, according to veteran defense analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. In theory, India and Pakistan could make even more bombs through clever designs and miniaturization techniques, similar to those the United States and Soviet Union developed during the Cold War to "get more bang for the buck," as the nation's weapons designers loved to say. In 1998, Indian officials said they had enough fissile material to make 125 bombs. Other Western estimates go as high as 200 Indian warheads.
Pakistan has enough weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium to assemble up to 25 bombs, according to analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Also, Pakistan's heavy-water research reactor at Khushab, which was completed in the mid-1990s, is "estimated to be capable of generating enough plutonium for between one and two nuclear weapons annually," Cordesman notes.
Fallout from nuclear blasts could travel hundreds or thousands of miles, even around the world, depending on prevailing winds, weather conditions and how close to the ground the blasts occur. Low-altitude blasts, which are more likely to destroy hardened targets such as bunkers, could boost mountains of "radioactivated" dirt into the sky. The resulting fallout could rain across Asia, spoiling farmland across an overpopulated continent already desperate for every inch of tillable soil.
Fallout May Spare Americas, Europe
Even if winds blew fallout around the world, however, the radioactivity would be so diluted it would have negligible health impact on Europe and the Americas, some experts say.
"Neither side seems to pay (in) public much attention to factors like fallout, collateral damage from inaccurate strikes, and problems with reliable calculation of height of burst," Cordesman notes in "The India-Pakistan Military Balance," a report he recently wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As a result, the report said, "Either side could launch a strike with far more civilian casualties than it planned, triggering a much higher level of retaliatory escalation than it intended."
Western analysts are divided, though, on whether the India-Pakistan conflict is a nuclear disaster in the making or an overblown crisis.
Each side's apparent confidence that it can militarily and politically navigate through the quarrel without plunging into an atomic abyss is justified, according to some experts, who accuse Westerners of underestimating the maturity and sophistication of the Pakistani and Indian leaders.
"There is almost a racist tendency to depict these guys as a bunch of mango republic nut jobs, and they aren't," says one high-placed U.S. analyst, referring to Indian and Pakistani leaders. The analyst, who has extensive field experience in Pakistan, declined to be identified.
Still, surprise shocks can ruin politicians' best-laid plans, transforming semi-stable regional tensions into bloody cataclysms, just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 hurled Europe into World War I, other observers warn.
"The dynamics of the situation could overcome the carefully scripted plans of the political leaders if there's one (more) major terrorist attack" on India by militants operating out of Pakistan or the Pakistani-run sector of Kashmir, warns Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
"I'm very pessimistic," Cirincione adds. "Unless the United States can delay this for two more weeks, I think we're going to go to war, and it has a very high probability of going nuclear."
Analysts believe the next few weeks are decisive because India is unlikely to take military action after the summer monsoon season starts in late June. The seasonal rains would make it difficult to move troops and equipment through the mountainous terrain of Kashmir.
Defense strategists in India, which has by far the greater conventional military might, have discussed several major options including:
Pakistan Already 'A Failing State'
The trouble with such Indian schemes is that they must succeed without oversucceeding. That's because Pakistan is already politically unstable, held together mainly by its army, according to some Western experts. If Pakistan collapsed under a crushing Indian onslaught, then there'd be no entity left to control Pakistani guerrillas just beyond India's border -- unless India itself took on that task.
Pakistan already is "what people mean by a failing state," Cirincione says. "If there is no Pakistani government, then there's nobody to crack down on and there'll be an increase in terrorist attacks" against India. Thereafter, for India, "it starts to look a lot like Vietnam."
And that raises the specter of nuclear war: If Pakistan thinks its survival is threatened, its surviving leaders, whether civilian or military, might deploy nuclear weapons as desperate last-minute defenses.
In recent years, Western analysts have conducted many computer-assisted scenarios about hypothetical India-Pakistan nuclear wars. These "war games" simulate conventional and nuclear conflicts.
One such scenario was described in a report co-written in the late 1990s by David Shlapak, an international policy analyst at the Rand think tank whose experience with war gaming goes back to the Cold War. The report depicts a hypothetical India-Pakistan war that breaks out in 2005. Participants in the scenario "gamed" what happened next. They based their actions on their knowledge of the region and its leadership.
Here's what they anticipated: "In the spring of 2006, India dramatically increases its counterinsurgency operations in both Kashmir and Punjab, and the rebels are pushed into precipitate retreat," the Rand report says. "Pakistan responds by infiltrating a number of special forces teams, which attack military installations supporting the Indian operations.
"India mobilizes for war," the report continues, "and launches major attacks all along the international border, accompanied by an intense air campaign. . . . As Indian forces continue to press forward, Pakistan detonates a small fission (nuclear) bomb on an Indian armored formation in an unpopulated area of the desert border region; it is unclear whether the weapon was intended to go off over Pakistani or Indian territory.
"India responds by destroying a Pakistani air base with a two-weapon nuclear attack. Condemning the 'escalation' to homeland attacks, Pakistan attacks the Indian city of Jodhpur with a 20-kiloton weapon and demands cessation of hostilities."
Then "India strikes Hyderabad with a weapon estimated to be 200 kilotons and threatens 10 times more destruction if any more nuclear weapons are used. Pakistan offers a cease-fire in place." The war game ends shortly after the cease-fire.
The report doesn't estimate the likely number of deaths in such a war. Some other scenarios have estimated the number of dead in an India-Pakistan war at up to 17 million.
The report also details the extreme difficulty of post-atomic war Western humanitarian efforts in the region, where the atomic blasts have rendered many air fields inaccessible.
Media Accused of Overplaying Threat
Are such frightening scenarios overblown, though?
"This whole thing about nuclear conflict is overplayed. The Western media feeds on the frenzy," charges an Indian-born analyst, Gaurav Kampani, a research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey. He was speaking of Western speculation about a South Asian nuclear war in general and not referring to any specific nuclear scenarios.
Even if Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is overthrown, he probably wouldn't be replaced by grossly irresponsible leaders, Kampani says. "I don't see the plausibility of hard-liners replacing him. Pakistan is economically bankrupt. It's surviving on handouts from IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. It is politically isolated and under a spotlight. So it would be very foolish for hard-liners to replace Musharraf."
In interviews with The Chronicle, other analysts depicted the "crisis" as a kind of publicity stunt by the Indians. As the analysts see it, the Indians hope that by rattling their nuclear sabers, they'll scare the United States into insisting that Musharraf rein in the militants.
If that was the Indians' plan, then they've apparently succeeded: By early this week, according to news reports, U.S. officials informed the Indians that Musharraf had promised he'd take action. Russian leader Vladimir Putin is trying to bring about face-to-face discussion between Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, so far unsuccessfully. At an international conference this week, the two men refused to acknowledge each other's presence although they sat only a short distance apart.
"I personally think this nuclear issue is blown well out of proportion," says Chris Fair, an associate political scientist at Rand's headquarters in Santa Monica. "It's more stable than you'd think. . . . Pakistan well knows that if it were to use its nuclear weapons and India were to retaliate (with nuclear bombs), Pakistan would never be able to recover."
Even if the Indians' and Pakistanis' nuclear bombast is strictly for show, though, it might boomerang, some Western critics warn.
"The problem is not one of Indian or Pakistani leaders being 'irrational' in any way. I think they are as rational as any American or (Soviet) leader was during the Cold War," says Scott Sagan, co-director of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Rather, "the problem is they have found themselves locked into a crisis where it will not be easy for either side to back down at this point," Sagan says. Hence, "I'm extremely worried . . . I think it's the most dangerous nuclear situation the world has seen since the Cuban missile crisis" 40 years ago this autumn.
The crisis is a long-term relic of the collapse of British imperial power in the region more than a half-century ago. Their coffers and manpower exhausted after World War II, British forces departed the region in relative haste. They left behind leadership vacuums, confused borders and ethnic rivalries that seethe to this day -- especially in the contested state of Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
In the latest episode of the Kashmir melodrama, India is furious over the repeated militant attacks on its soil. These include a murderous assault on its Parliament in New Delhi in December.
Pakistan's defenders insist that most or all of the terrorists are rogue elements beyond Musharraf's control. Besides, they charge, India has invited the attacks by suppressing democratic freedoms in the Indian-run sector of Kashmir.
India's conventional military muscle is greater than Pakistan's: India's "military expenditures have recently been 3 to 5 times higher," Cordesman says.
India "has a much larger defense industrial base, can manufacture and assemble more advanced arms, and gets most of its arms from Russia. . . . Pakistan imports most of its arms from China and Eastern Europe and they are notably less advanced than those imported by India."
Pakistan's Terrorists Present Wild Card
Even so, India's conventional muscle could be of little use in deterring attacks by terrorist bands, which roam and hide with near impunity in the mountain ranges of the contested Kashmir borders.
In any case, Musharraf has limited room to maneuver, Cirincione says. "My opinion is (Musharraf) doesn't control these groups. But like (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat, he's afraid that if he cracks down, they could topple him. . . . (In Pakistan), there's a perception (among many Muslims) that he has abandoned Afghanistan. If he's now perceived as abandoning Kashmir, he may be committing political suicide."
And if Musharraf falls, who replaces him? More importantly, into whose hands will Pakistan's military -- and its nuclear weapons -- fall?
"Right now, the weapons are under very tight control by the (Pakistani) army," Cirincione says. "But if the army disintegrates, who's controlling those weapons? Where are their loyalties? There'd be a very high risk those weapons could fall into terrorist hands."
The Indians and Pakistanis can learn a few things from the U.S.-Soviet Cold War experience, says Michael May, former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
One lesson, May says, "is the importance of communicating," as U.S. and Soviet leaders did via the famous "hot line" telephone. Recently, "I was troubled by the refusal of the Indian leader to talk to his (Pakistani) counterpart. It's important to communicate during a crisis."