A war over Kashmir is most likely to start with limited Indian strikes against
Islamist militant bases in Pakistani-controlled territory, military analysts and
intelligence sources said yesterday. But these could quickly escalate into a wider
military conflict, even leading to Pakistan using nuclear weapons, they warn.
This is the scenario which has been presented to the British and US governments
and prompted them to upgrade warnings to their citizens to leave the two countries
as soon as possible.
Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, were described yesterday
by a high-placed source as being "very gloomy" about the situation. "The Indian
military are psyching themselves up saying, 'Let's have a good battle and clear
Kashmir once and for all'," a senior military source said.
Meanwhile, General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, is still being
influenced by what one source described as "shadowy corps commanders who have
spent all their life fighting and preparing to fight the Indians".
One source familiar with the military hierarchy of the two countries pointed
out that Gen Musharraf was the architect of an offensive in Kashmir two years
ago when Indian troops forced back the Pakistanis.
He said it would be extremely difficult for the Pakistani leader to accept
defeat for a second time. His military commanders would say to him, "Use it [the
nuclear option] or go," the source suggested.
Indian military commanders are reported to have drawn up plans for air strikes
against lines of communications between Pakistani Kashmir and the rest of the
country, followed by the deployment of helicopter-borne troops to establish forward
positions from which they could monitor more easily the movement of Islamist groups.
"The idea would be to destroy as many terrorist camps as possible and even
'straighten out' the line of control," said Gary Samore of the London-based International
Institute for Strategic Studies.
India would argue that it is fighting terrorists just like the US in Afghanistan.
If its strikes were limited to Kashmir, the dangers of escalation would be significantly
less, some analysts and military observers said. "Pakistan would not use nuclear
weapons in the context of fighting limited to Kashmir," Mr Samore said.
But others said even Indian strikes limited to Kashmir could lead to heavy
fighting between ground troops, backed up by artillery, in which Pakistani forces
would eventually be overwhelmed.
The danger, according to intelligence assessments, is that Gen Musharraf would
then have little option but to escalate the conflict. "There is a hell of a risk,
the consequences of it getting out of hand are huge," a senior military source
He said that although Gen Musharraf was trying to control extremists in the
military, he had not fully succeeded. "There are fanatics in Pakistan who would
use nuclear weapons," he said. Analysts said the conflict could spill over into
the plains of Pakistani Punjab and threaten some Pakistani cities, including Lahore
and Islamabad. Pakistan, with an air force and army much smaller than India's,
would then face the choice of capitulating or using nuclear weapons.
That is the nightmare scenario being spelt out to ministers in London and to
the Bush administration in Washington, who share the same intelligence assessments.
The US yesterday stepped up its pressure on Gen Musharraf and his colleagues.
The question is whether it will succeed not only with them but also with the Indian
government. "But if the Russians [traditional allies and arms suppliers to
India] have not influenced them, no one could," one source said yesterday.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002