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More Than Bush Bargained For? American Involvement Has South Asia on the Brink of Nuclear War
6 January 2002 U.S. President George Bush's crusade against terrorism is going splendidly - except for a few minor hiccups, such as that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida remain elusive, the Russians have reoccupied half of Afghanistan, perhaps thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S. bombs and India is now threatening war against Pakistan.
Last Sept. 23, concerned that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan might spark a war between India and Pakistan, this column warned of the dangers of an "enraged U.S. bull in South Asia's nuclear china shop." Ten weeks later, India and Pakistan are on the edge of a nuclear conflict that could kill millions and spread radioactive dust around the globe.
The chain of events that led to this crisis is now plainly visible. America's "war against terrorism" and invasion of Afghanistan upset the delicate balance of enmity between old foes India and Pakistan, who have fought three major wars. The Bush administration, seeking new allies for its crusade against Muslim opponents, rashly signed a military alliance with India to fight "terrorism." To India, "terrorism" meant Kashmiri independence-seekers battling Indian rule and their patron, Pakistan.
The Bush administration, unaware of the dangers facing it, had inadvertently stumbled into the 55-year old Kashmir dispute between three nuclear powers - India, Pakistan, and China - just as it was getting drawn ever deeper into Afghanistan's murky tribal politics. Still unidentified terrorists staged a series of outrageous attacks on Indian targets, including the parliament in New Delhi, designed to bring simmering tensions between the two old foes to a boil, and upset India's new alliances with the U.S. and with Israel. Bin Laden's al-Qaida may have been involved. The attackers remain unidentified, though India claims they came from two Kashmiri militant groups harboured by Pakistan.
India threatened to attack Islamic militants based in Pakistani territory, as it has repeatedly done in the past. If the U.S. could attack Afghanistan because the elusive bin Laden was presumed hiding there, then India, according to President Bush's own self-proclaimed rules of international retribution, had just as much right to attack Pakistan. The Indians, of course, were absolutely correct. But the U.S. is now urging restraint on India, a virtue it failed to show in Afghanistan.
Off on the sidelines, China, another player in this drama, is also urging restraint on all concerned. Yet, at the same time, China is growing increasingly alarmed by what now looks like a permanent presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the threat of an Indian attack against its most important ally, Pakistan.
China's unease is being heightened by the accelerating strategic arms race with India, which in 1998 proclaimed China its "No. 1 enemy." India recently introduced its new Agni-II nuclear-armed missile that can hit most of China's major cities.
The U.S. has aggravated Indian-Chinese tensions by sharply tilting toward India and winking at its secret nuclear programs, while keeping Pakistan under a punishing sanctions regime. Washington clearly intends to use India in the game of Asian strategic chess as a potential counterforce against China. Russia is levering its revived strategic alliance with India to advance its geopolitical interests in South and Central Asia, most notably in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's military leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, finds himself squeezed between Indian threats and U.S. pressure. Musharraf has been trying to appease New Delhi without appearing to do so. Last week, in an embarrassing new low for Pakistan's image, Musharraf, who stoutly denied in the past that his nation gave anything more than "moral support" to Kashmiri insurgents, lamely announced his intelligence service would cut off arms and financing to "foreign" mujahedeen in Kashmir. The Indians, who have long accused Pakistan of "cross-border terrorism" and sending mercenaries into their part of Kashmir, crowed with triumph while Islamabad ate crow.
As India continued to mass troops on Pakistan's border, the U.S. repeated threats, made in September, to ruin Pakistan by cutting off the foreign loans on which it subsists.
Adding to these threats, the Indian Navy is poised to blockade Karachi, Pakistan's main port and principal entry point for oil. Spare parts for Pakistan's F-16 warplanes are critically short. Pakistan finds itself alone, facing the Russians to the north in Afghanistan, fire-breathing India to the east and ever-hostile Iran to the west.
Musharraf's enforced backdown over Kashmir may further undermine his support in the armed forces and among the public, already badly battered by the recent fiasco in Afghanistan and the arrest or muzzling, under American orders, of large numbers of Islamic activists and government critics. The two worst public jobs in the world today appear to be the presidencies of Pakistan and Argentina.
India, hopefully, will content itself with making the irksome "Paks" crawl and cry uncle. A new outrage by militants, a border clash, or a bombing could still plunge the region that holds 20% of the world's population, into a nuclear war.