The Thinkable Nuclear War

Newspaper headlines are filled with words like unthinkable, Armageddon, and nightmare. But as India and Pakistan continue their downward military and diplomatic spiral in a threat of nuclear war that American military analysts consider at least as credible as the Cuban missile crisis some 40 years ago, official Washington, D.C. seems considerably less aghast than the rest of the world.

In fact, you can almost see the wheels turning as White House officials weigh the costs versus benefits of a nuclear war on the Indian subcontinent.

As with previous crises in the last year -- notably the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Israel's invasion of the West Bank -- most international media accounts of this crisis, and its risks, are differing starkly from those of their U.S. counterparts. This time, however, the differences have less to do with the reporting of events than the significance attributed them. Elsewhere, possible war between India and Pakistan is daily, front-page, multiple-story fodder, and the reports aren't pulling any punches. Consider this segment from a story in the Sunday (June 2) London Observer:

"The U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency calculates that the first hour of a full-scale nuclear exchange could kill as many as 12 million people and leave up to seven million injured. Millions more would die in other fighting or from starvation and disease.

"In Britain, government experts calculate that all Pakistan's water and food would be contaminated by even a limited exchange, with large areas of India rendered practically uninhabitable.

"'We don't even know where to start in thinking about how to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale,' said one source. 'There are simply no models for it. We don't even know how we would get aid in the immediate aftermath. No one has any experience of a humanitarian operation on this scale on a nuclear battlefield, and India and Pakistan have no mechanisms for coping with this.

"And it is not simply the fate of the combatant nations that frightens the planners. 'In a worst-case scenario,' said a senior Foreign Office source, 'we would be looking at contamination affecting Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, even China.'"

It's easy to rationalize the difference in tone as one of distance; in North America, half a world away from the Indian subcontinent, such talk seems fantastical and far removed from American concerns or influence. But the United States is, in fact, knee-deep in this crisis in a variety of ways, and one of the most obvious of these is revealed by another, subtler difference in news coverage: in the U.S., the interviews and perspective come largely from the Pakistani side of the disputed "Line of Control" that divides Kashmir and defines the conflict.

There seems little doubt that the Bush Administration has cast its lot with the terrorism-sponsoring military dictatorship of Pakistan rather than democratic India, and that it has done so purely out of self-interest. Last week it was noisily announced that Secretary of Empire Donald Rumsfeld would at last be shuffling off to the subcontinent -- and presumably with some urgency, as most of his European counterparts had already made the trip. Much of his message is likely to be for Pakistan's military dictator, er, General, er, "President" Musharraf -- not concerning Kashmir, but demanding that Musharraf stop redeploying troops away from Pakistan's western border regions with Afghanistan, where they are reinforcing the American snark hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Reports out of Pakistan last week suggested that the majority of those fighters aren't in Pakistan's mountainous west at all -- they're in the cities. And this is Musharraf's dilemma, and what makes the current face-off with India so treacherous. After teaming with the Americans, Musharraf's grip on power is tenuous at best; at least symbolically he's now breaking with the Islamic extremists that Pakistan has long trained and deployed in its effort to "liberate" the largely Muslim Kashmir from Indian control.

The White House is committed to keeping Musharraf in power; the alternative, at this point, is those same fundamentalist movements potentially seizing power and, with it, gaining access to nuclear weaponry. And if the much more powerful Indian military attacks -- as its 750,000 mobilized troops, numerous intelligence reports, and two weeks of border skirmishes suggest may happen in a matter of days, not weeks -- the one fallback a desperate Musharraf has available is nuclear war.

Most terrifyingly, by all accounts political and military leaders on both sides are sanguine about the prospect of a nuclear exchange, resting on the two countries' enormous populations' ability to 'absorb' even large casualty figures. It's an extraordinary act of arrogance -- political leaders willing to consign millions to death (or worse), in order to either make an ideological point or hang onto power. Just like in Washington.

In several ways, the Bush Administration's response to the attacks of last September helped put this crisis in motion. First, there was the Bush doctrine -- reiterated in a speech this weekend in which Dubya essentially promised to invade 60 countries around the world, where the U.S. would "uncover terror cells" and strike before anything had actually attacked. India -- which has suffered not only repeated terror attacks by Islamic operatives penetrating into Indian territory, but a terrorist attack last December on its Parliament building in New Delhi -- has far more cause for preemptive attack than Washington, and is citing Bush's precedent in justifying its prospective attack along the 450-mile-long Kashmir border.

At the same time, India has a marked distrust of Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials -- exacerbated by an incident in Clinton-time, in which a 1999 U.S. entreaty convinced India to hold its fire and send an envoy to Pakistan seeking peace talks, during which Musharraf used the opportunity to seize several mountainous passes overlooking Indian supply lines near Kargil. And the Muslim extremists have marked each of the last three visits by high-ranking U.S. officials by carrying out attacks inside India. Another one could set off war.

Beyond that more recent history, India remembers -- if most Americans do not -- that the Islamic extremist movement now wrangling over Kashmir was, in large part, originally trained, armed, and encouraged by the U.S. (both directly and through Pakistani and Saudi intelligence) in its 1980s campaigns against the Soviet Union.

Most strikingly, both sides seem to have inherited George W. Bush's cavalier attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons. The U.S. officially pulls out of the 1973 ABM treaty on June 13; Pentagon and White House officials (as well as any number of prominent Congresspeople) have not only talked openly about development and use of "tactical" nuclear weapons as a desirable battlefield strategy, but have been pushing hard for the development of new generations of weapons that can strike instantly and kill millions. Please recall that a similar Clinton Administration intransigence over arms control negotiations -- essentially, the U.S. wanted to permanently lock-in nuclear superiority over the world -- prompted both India and Pakistan to bring their secret nuclear programs out into the open with testing four years ago.

Now that the Bush Administration has declared open season on developing weapons of mass destruction (and explicitly threatening military operations in scores of countries), militaries all over the world will be declaring it as well. And if there is any sort of nuclear exchange in South Asia, the world will be demanding the prohibition of such weapons -- at the exact time the U.S. will be championing them.

The prospect of nuclear exchange may or may not be a bad thing, in the minds of some of the hawks Dubya has put in positions of power. They don't see a nuclear exchange as providing the impetus for a ban -- they see it instead as legitimization of future use of such weapons, especially the smaller "tactical" ones. They also see it as a sales opportunity for militaries around the world wanting to buy American weaponry (if only to defend themselves from America).

Most importantly, given India's military superiority, the Americans seem to be banking on some sort of a confrontation that will keep Musharraf in power, keep a prospective theocracy away from Pakistan's nukes, and allow either the Pakistani dictator or his Indian military foes to severely damage the capabilities of the Muslim militants' movement -- which, in the eyes of the Pentagon and the Bush White House, is far more important than the fate of, say, 12 million people.

Repeat these sorts of rationalizations often enough and they begin to sound reasonable. And if the respective leadership of Pakistan and India seem crazy for being willing to consider that sort of nightmare scenario with equanimity, recall that only a few months ago the Pentagon was willing and ready to let several million Afghans starve to death rather than interrupt its bombing campaigns.

Weakening the Islamic extremist movement, at the cost of more people than live in all of New York City, really isn't all that different.

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