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Not Oblivious to Oblivion

Pakistan and India are aware of the stakes.

June 07, 2002|SUMIT GANGULY | Sumit Ganguly, a professor of Asian studies and government at the University of Texas at Austin, is author of "Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947" (Columbia University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002).

Like Mark Twain's death, reports of imminent nuclear war in South Asia have been greatly exaggerated by the news media and policymakers in the West.

Pakistan's feckless support for insurgents in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, whose decade-long attacks have become particularly brazen in the last six months, has driven India to mobilize nearly 750,000 troops along the border between the two countries. Pakistan's leaders, in turn, have placed their forces on high alert and have begun moving troops from the country's western borders, where they have been engaged in a half-hearted search for Al Qaeda and Taliban stragglers, to its eastern borders with India.

Political leaders on both sides have exacerbated tensions with saber-rattling public statements. The doomsday reporting that has predominated in the American news media and the overblown rhetoric of U.S. policymakers, however, would have us believe that decision makers in New Delhi and Islamabad do not understand the strategic significance or the terrifying properties of nuclear weapons or the ruinous consequences of even a limited nuclear war.

Rest assured: They do understand. Many are old enough to remember the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the rest have studied military history.

India and Pakistan developed nuclear capabilities to deter nuclear blackmail and large-scale conventional military attacks. India acquired nuclear weapons primarily to protect itself from China and from China's nuclear client, Pakistan. India's overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons, in turn, especially after its unequivocal military victory over Pakistan in 1971, drove Pakistani decision makers to acquire nuclear weapons to deter a possible Indian attack.

If Indian and Pakistani leaders meant to use their nuclear weapons, they would have built shelters for their critical decision makers and formulated elaborate plans for post-attack recovery. There is no evidence that either side has so prepared. The lack of panic on the streets and in the government buildings of Islamabad and New Delhi, cited with such disdain by Western reporters, is a sign not of naivete but of equanimity.

Some analysts in the U.S. have contended that nuclear deterrence may not hold in South Asia; that in the midst of a crisis fraught with the prospect of miscalculation, one side might be tempted to carry out a preemptive strike against the other's nuclear weapons. This scenario draws too heavily on the superpower context of the Cold War, when both sides possessed extraordinarily large arsenals and even developed nuclear war strategies. Fortunately, neither India nor Pakistan possesses adequate conventional or nuclear capabilities to carry out a decapitating preemptive strike, nor is either likely to possess any such assets in the foreseeable future.

Recent media reports also have focused on newly revealed evidence about Pakistan's movement of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles during the conflict in the Kargil region of Kashmir in May 1999. These movements are cited to illustrate how close the two sides came to a nuclear war three years ago. But more than one inference can be made from that evidence. Pakistan may have moved those missiles knowing full well that Indian (and American) intelligence sources would take note; such movement was an effective reminder to India not to expand the conflict in Kargil.

Nonetheless, the possibility of nuclear war in the region remains exceedingly small. The energy and rhetoric that the news media and policymakers are devoting to conjuring doomsday scenarios would be better spent addressing the root causes of the current crisis: Pakistani support for terrorism in Kashmir and, underlying it all, the legitimate grievances of the Kashmiri people.

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