The democratisation of Pakistan is our best chance of avoiding a nuclear war over Kashmir
The Guardian (London) – August 6, 2002
At CIA headquarters on the banks of Washington’s Potomac river, analysts review intelligence from vast human and technological sources. Each day, working with sister agencies including Britain’s MI6 and Israel’s Mossad, it determines possible sources of international conflict that could include weapons of mass destruction. For 15 years, the unanimous consensus has been that the place most likely to trigger a nuclear confrontation, and spark Armageddon, is south Asia. The issue is Kashmir.
Nuclear deterrence – the centrepiece of military strategy for both of south Asia’s nuclear powers – was designed to prevent conflict. Yet since India detonated nuclear devices in 1998, and Pakistan responded in kind, south Asia has thrice come to the brink of war. Deterrence value was replaced with an intoxicating sense of power and glory. That emotion churns the street and excites the barracks. I call it the Hijacker Atta Syndrome: “I may die but I will take more down with me.” Intelligence estimates, backed by published reports, suggest that a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, even if limited to five or six primary targets on each side, would cause millions of immediate deaths, and millions more after long and dreadful suffering from ensuing cancer on both sides of the border for decades to come.
Unfortunately, in both Islamabad and Delhi the foxes may be in charge of the chicken coops. With the military in Pakistan and Hindu nationalist hardliners in Delhi firmly in control, the options for dialogue and confidence-building appear remote.
When two sides believe they can both gain from a military conflict, it makes the world a much more dangerous place. The danger to the region increases with a military dictatorship in Pakistan unaccountable to the people. History teaches us that democracies don’t start wars, especially nuclear wars. With a military junta in Islamabad, and the world distracted by the US-led war against terrorism, the “public check” on political decision-making in the country has ceased to exist.
I believe the people of south Asia deserve a future that is better than the recent past. If India and Pakistan disagree on the territorial nature of Kashmir, we can still move ahead without prejudice to our long-held beliefs. The nuclear war threat can recede if the leadership on both sides of the divide has the courage to promote safe and open borders to socially unite the Kashmiri people.
The Kashmiri people are central to the dispute and it is the responsibility of the leadership on both sides of the divide to put these people first. If China and India can have a border dispute and still trade, India and Pakistan can do the same. In the absence of an elected civilian leadership in Pakistan that is accountable to the people, however, the possibility of such a dialogue is remote.
The worry is that the pattern of militant acts provoking a near-nuclear confrontation will continue at regular intervals until it erupts into a full-fledged nuclear war. In the post-nuclear-detonation region that south Asia has been since 1998, those who live there can ill afford a military conflict. In the post-September 11 world, the Kashmiri people can ill afford a world community where terrorism and armed conflict by an occupied people is still to be distinguished.
Catastrophe could also be triggered by accident: with artillery shells whizzing over the line of control when tension rises, hundreds of thousands of troops poised to strike, and elements on both sides willing to throw a match on to the fire, the situation is precarious.
Press reports indicate that nuclear weapons could be given to individual commanders with independent launch control. It is not clear whether these reports are accurate, but if so, the probability of an accidental launch jumps sharply. And with tension so high, an accident could never possibly be explained away and controlled. The genie would be out of the jar for the first time in 57 years.
With the doomsday scenarios in front of us, what can be done to prevent the insanity?
To return to an earlier point, democracies don’t start wars; democracies don’t provoke wars. Each of the three wars between India and Pakistan was fought under military dictators in Pakistan. The last three major incidents that brought the world to the precipice of nuclear war surfaced after my democratic government was overthrown and the military established ascendancy in the political arena. The best prospect for peace in south Asia is to support the democratisation process in Pakistan.
The past three years have seen three nuclear crises. The next three years could see even more. Each month of military dictatorship brings us closer to Armageddon. Political power must be transferred legally, peacefully and subject to the will of the people. Commentators believe that my party and I would be re-elected if transparent elections were held in Pakistan in October.
The international community could use its full resources to guarantee a fair and transparent electoral process by pressuring the military regime to implement opposition proposals for such a process.
The alternative is for the world community to be repeatedly sucked back into the region. The world walked away from democratising Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets in 1989. That departure led directly to the Talibanisation of the country and the September 11 atrocities. Walking away from democratisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan could lead to even more horrific results.
The ball is in the international community’s court. The stakes are nothing less than saving the world from nuclear war.