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India and Pakistan Gird for War
Tim Francis-Wright

The word inside the Washington Beltway at the beginning of 2001 was that grownups were finally in charge of American foreign policy. Condoleeza Rice, the new National Security Advisor, Donald Rumsfeld, the new Secretary of Defense, and Colin Powell, the new Secretary of State, were supposedly unparalleled in depth of experience and breadth of expertise. But despite this team of top advisors, the Bush administration has let its attention on the remnants of the al-Qaeda leadership distract it from the very real potential for nuclear war in Southwest Asia.

That danger comes not from some apocryphal weapons in Iraq or Afghanistan, but from very tangible weapons held by India and Pakistan. Many in the Bush administration want to extend the conflict to Iraq, because they are convinced that Iraq is a threat to peace. But India and Pakistan are actual nuclear powers, the only two nuclear powers to have fought each other in the last half-century. The threat of war is real: in the past few days, Indian and Pakistani troops have engaged each other in small arms fire.

On 13 December, Kashmiri separatists, aided and abetted by Pakistan, tried to shoot their way into the Indian parliament building. In the aftermath of that abortive plot, the governments of India and Pakistan have massed troops and missiles to their border. Each government withdrew some of its diplomats from the other's capital. India shut off rail and automobile connections between the two countries. Leaders of both countries have spoken of massive retaliation for any acts of aggression. Given the capabilities of the two countries, massive retaliation does not mean a major leafleting campaign.

The threat of war between India and Pakistan is a main reason for the many sanctions that previous administrations levied on Pakistan in response to its nuclear programs. George Bush the Elder applied those sanctions, of course, only after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989 and Pakistan was no longer needed to supply rebel forces. In 2001, George Bush the Younger removed sanctions on both India and Pakistan in order to combat Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

The Bush Administration has been trying to defuse tensions, but it has not tried very hard. As the New York Times has reported, an American envoy might visit Karachi and New Delhi in the middle of January. Meanwhile, President Bush and Colin Powell, both calling for restraint, have telephoned President Musharaf of Pakistan and Prime Minister Vajpayee of India. In October and November, while the Taliban was still a going concern and India and Pakistan were only wary of each other, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld traveled to India to meet with high-level Indian officials.

Back then, the stakes were high, because the United States needed a broad united front against one of the most dysfunctional countries in the world. The Taliban had regard for little more than religious extremism and had very little ability either to fight or to convince Afghans to fight with them. Now the stakes are apparently lower, because the only real risk in the region is that of a nuclear war between two of the most populous counties in the world.

A peace treaty or nuclear arms limitation pact could be a salvation for India and Pakistan. Potential adversaries can find treaties both useful and necessary. Ronald Reagan of all people once proclaimed that he liked to "trust but verify" what the Soviet Union was doing about nuclear weapons. Since the beginning of the year, the United States has expressed its disdain for both the ABM Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. When the United States does not believe even in any semblance of arms control, it is hard to expect India and Pakistan not to act the same way. And without substantial pressure from a common ally, they are unlikely to start serious negotiations.

Perhaps the most alarming side effect of the crisis in India and Pakistan is that Bush administration does not regard it as serious enough threat to get the president back to work. American presidents like to regard themselves as the leaders of the free world. In this case, the world's largest democracy is very near a war with our most important ally in defeating the Taliban and in establishing a new Afghan government. Do missiles have to fly towards Delhi and Karachi before the Bush administration takes this conflict seriously?

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