University political science Prof. Ashutosh Varshney becomes animated when asked about the likelihood of nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

“Odds are close to zero,” Varshney said forcefully, standing up to pace a little bit in his office. “The assumption that India and Pakistan cannot manage their nuclear arsenals as well as the U.S.S.R. and U.S. or Russia and China concedes less to the intellect of leaders in both India and Pakistan than would be warranted.”

The world”s two youngest nuclear powers first tested weapons in 1998, sparking fear of subcontinental nuclear war a fear Varshney finds ridiculous.

“The decision makers are aware of what nuclear weapons are, even if the masses are not,” he said.

“Watching the evening news, CNN, I think they have vastly overstated the threat of nuclear war,” political science Prof. Paul Huth said.

Varshney added that there are numerous factors working against the possibility of nuclear war.

“India is committed to a no-first-strike policy,” Varshney said. “It is virtually impossible for Pakistan to go for a first strike, because the retaliation would be gravely dangerous.”

Political science Prof. Kenneth Lieberthal, a former special assistant to President Clinton at the National Security Council, agreed. “Usually a country that is in the position that Pakistan is in would not shift to a level that would ensure their total destruction,” Lieberthal said, making note of India”s considerably larger nuclear arsenal.

“American intervention is another reason not to expect nuclear war,” Varshney said. “If anything has happened since September 11, it is that the command control system has strengthened. The trigger is in very safe hands.”

But the low probability of nuclear war does not mean tensions between the two countries who have fought three wars since they were created in 1947 will not erupt. “The possibility of conventional war between the two is higher. Both sides are looking for ways out of the current tension,” Lieberthal said.

The Kashmir conflict

The longest-standing dispute between the two countries and the cause of two of the wars is over Kashmir. It is a mountainous border region in which Islamic militants some based in Pakistan have been fighting India for control for the last 12 years.

Since the Dec. 13 attack on the Indian parliament attributed to Islamic militants based in Pakistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to Indian demands that he crack down more harshly on such groups, which before had been allegedly supported or at least not hampered by the Pakistani government.

“I think Musharraf has genuinely turned on the jihad groups in Pakistan. My impression is that most people in Pakistan are pretty happy about cracking down on Muslim extremists. They never got more than about 4 percent of the vote when they stood for election. Despite the perception from the outside, the mainstream of Pakistani Islam is pretty moderate,” said history Prof. Juan Cole.

“This has not happened for decades in Indian foreign policy,” Varshney said of the hard-line stance India has taken in its demands.

Musharraf”s stance has also been strengthened by U.S. backing. The Bush administration”s handling of the issue has been widely commended for allowing Pakistan to save face.

“The administration has played this issue rather well. It has from the start identified the groups in concern in Pakistan as terrorists, not Pakistanis, and it is known that Pakistani military and intelligence have aided them,” Lieberthal said.

The conflict, in which the Associated Press reports that 32,000 civilians, militants and Indian troops have been killed in the last 12 years is ongoing. But with both sides massing troops at the border in response to recent tensions, the potential for escalation rises.

“Many of the shots being fired over the last seven years have been cover for infiltrators,” Varshney said. “Very little is known about how good the intelligence is on each side. In all probability, the intelligence is not very good.

Cole said that the Kashmir conflict also has larger implications.

“There are two kinds of conflict going on in the world right now: One kind is asymmetrical conflicts between terrorist groups and states, and that conflict states are pretty well positioned to win, if not in the short run, in the long run. I think the mujahadeen (Islamic militants) can be defeated by India, especially if the Indian government can convince Pakistan to crack down, and now the Pakistani government has its own reasons for doing that,” he said.

“But the second kind of conflict is the kind of sub-nationalism where entire people are essentially rising up against what they perceive to be a colonial domination by a foreign power or a neo-colonial one, and in that category we can put Northern Ireland, Palestine, Kashmir, the Philippines, and those conflicts can go on and on for literally hundreds of years. So to the extent that India and Pakistan relations are driven by the Kashmir problem, I think relationships are going to remain tense.”

“I think its more of the same until something happens to change the dynamics of the issue,” Cole added. “I think this will remain a potentially dangerous situation for weeks or months. These things are completely unpredictable. The steps that President Musharraf has taken do appear to meet the demands made by the Indian government, however, it”s often not remembered that this is a Hindu nationalist government and has extreme elements in it that are unwilling to compromise with Pakistan. In addition, one of the demands being made is that Musharraf control the terrorist groups and terrorist groups are notoriously difficult to control.

Solving the problem

“I don”t think India and Pakistan can come to the table with Kashmir as the only issue,” Varshney said. “Trade, people-to-people exchange or simply nuclear safety procedures are also important.”

Varshney said the two countries carry on about $200 million in trade with each other annually, a figure dwarfed by an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion in black market goods crossing the border.

“We don”t start talking about Kashmir without improving the atmosphere,” Varshney said.

“I don”t think anyone has figured out how to make full resolution,” Lieberthal said. “India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and in each country it is a highly emotional issue. I think the best that can be accomplished is measures to build confidence.”

Varshney said he is less than optimistic about the prospects of settling the Kashmir conflict. “It is an awful mess. Kashmir is a problem that has no winners. Each possible victory has such great costs it can only be called an intractable mess,” Varshney said. “Even if there are no good solutions, how long do you go on playing the game of attrition?”

Even if an agreement were reached, redrawing the borders of Kashmir would likely bring the same problems that created it in the first place. “Whichever way you cut it, there are significant minorities left,” Varshney said.

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