INDIA boasted yesterday that it would survive a first strike by a Pakistani atomic weapon, but that its neighbor would be wiped out in a swift nuclear counter-attack.
As troop reinforcements continued to pour into the frontier zone, and tens of thousands of people fled border villages, the specter of all-out war between two nuclear powers prompted America and Britain to intervene directly.
President Bush spoke by telephone to India’s Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and to President Musharraf of Pakistan, urging them to show restraint. He also discussed the crisis with Tony Blair. The Prime Minister, who issued his own appeal yesterday for both countries to back down, has agreed to launch a diplomatic peace mission when he visits the region early in the new year.
Everyone is raring to go. In fact, something that actually bothers them is that things might now reach a point where one says there is no war.
George Fernandes, the Indian Defense Minister
A serious intervention from the outside world could not come too soon. India is determined to avenge the attack by Islamic militants on the Delhi parliament that killed 14 people, including five assailants, on December 13. Unless Pakistan arrests and hands over those responsible, India seems determined to act unilaterally.
Pakistan says that it has held at least 50 militants and frozen assets and last night Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the head of the group blamed for the attack was arrested for “making inflammatory speeches to incite people to violate law and order”. But India says that is not enough and wants the suspects handed over.
Both countries insisted that they wanted to avoid war. But on the ground they both ordered the biggest military build-up for 15 years in what looked like a prelude to the fourth Indo-Pakistani war since independence in 1947.
Mr Vajpayee won the backing of opposition parties yesterday to take whatever action was needed. On the other side of the border Adbul Sattar, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, said that his anxieties were “mounting, not only by the day but by the hour”.
Part of Pakistan’s concern is the increasingly bellicose message from Delhi, whose conventional and nuclear forces are roughly double those of Pakistan. In an interview published yesterday George Fernandes, the Indian Defense Minister, said that his military, from the top down, was eager to fight and that thousands of Indian reinforcements would be in place by the middle of this week.
Speaking after a visit to frontline positions in Kashmir, he told the Hindustan Times: “Everyone is raring to go. In fact, something that actually bothers them is that things might now reach a point where one says there is no war.”
Of greater concern were his remarks about the possible use of nuclear weapons. He warned Pakistan not to consider the use of a first strike, which he said would be tantamount to national suicide. “We could take a strike, survive and then hit back,” he said. “Pakistan would be finished. I do not really fear that the nuclear issue would figure in a conflict.”
However, military experts point out that in the event of a conventional war, Indian forces would heavily outnumber the Pakistanis and could score swift victories. In that case Pakistan’s weapon of last resort would be its atomic bomb.
Certainly General Musharraf suggested yesterday, after meeting most of the country’s political leaders, that he would not walk away from a fight with his bigger neighbor
“I stand here addressing the people of India . . . that Pakistan stands for peace. Pakistan wants to reduce tensions . . . Pakistan wants to de-escalate,” he said. “However, Pakistan has taken all counter-measures. If any war is thrust on Pakistan, Pakistan’s Armed Forces and the 140 million people of Pakistan are fully prepared to face all consequences with all their might.”
The West is caught in the middle. It needs Islamabad’s help to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda leadership, many of whom may already be hiding in Pakistan. Pulling Pakistani troops away from the Afghan border to fight India could seriously hamper that effort.
At the same time, the West sympathizes with India’s battle against terrorism and militant Islamic groups in Kashmir which have in the past kidnapped and killed Western hostages.
But above all Washington and London want the stand-off resolved peacefully.
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd