August 1914 in Pakistan

The New York Times, USA
June 14, 2002


Nuclear war isn't about to erupt here. I can say that baldly because if it does, then I'll be vaporized and won't have to eat my words.

But while Don Rumsfeld's relentless squinting at leaders here and in New Delhi may help stave off war for now, it still threatens just down the road. And that threat makes Pakistan an eerie place, with the flavor of the languid European summer of 1914.

Warhead-rattling resonates in every dusty alley I've prowled in northern Pakistan, along with shrugs at the risks. As a doctor told me cheerfully (she hid behind a black veil with only a slit to reveal her eyes and a bit of nasal cleavage): "I'm not worried about war, because life and death are decided by Allah."

Everybody here is behaving irresponsibly. Both India and Pakistan are cavalierly playing with nuclear fire and brutalizing the Kashmiris they claim to be championing, while the Bush administration intervenes tardily to defuse crises rather than taking the initiative to prevent them from occurring in the first place. If a new August 1914 is to be definitively averted, President Bush must show continuing interest in the region when it is hot and also when it is not. But judging from his lack of engagement in countries not in the headlines, I wouldn't bet that he will.

The next crisis will come with any new big terror attacks in Kashmir. Even if infiltration from Pakistan is halted, there are 2,500 militants already in Indian Kashmir. When they strike, the pressure within India to whack Pakistan will be enormous.

"The Indian Air Force and the Army are raring to have a go, and only political authority is holding them back," said Sumit Ganguly, author of the aptly titled "Unending Conflict," an excellent new book on India-Pakistan relations and the three wars between them since independence.

Hamid Gul, a rabble-rousing former lieutenant general and head of Pakistan's intelligence agency, says that the moment India strikes, Pakistan will call for a jihad against India and invite Muslims from all over the world to sneak into India and wage attacks. He added that Pakistan would also support separatist movements around India and might even bomb India's high-tech centers.

"If India attacks," said General Gul, "then it's `Come one, come all, it's Jihad!' "

Much of the visible Pakistani society (i.e. males) can be divided between the religious beards and the more secular cheeks, but many beards and cheeks alike seem quite prepared to think what is supposed to be unthinkable. Hamid Nasir Chattha, a prominent politician, noted in a newspaper essay yesterday that Pakistan had spent a fortune acquiring a nuclear capability and suggested that as a result it would be almost a shame not to use it: "If the use of nuclear is unavoidable for the survival of Pakistan, then it must be used with no hesitation."

A survey of Pakistani elites published in a recent book, "Pakistan and the Bomb," found that 98 percent believed that Pakistan would be justified in using nuclear weapons "if India were about to attack Pakistan across the international border."

The U.S. Naval War College held an India-Pakistan war game not long ago in which each country's leaders were played by officials from that country. The games began with a terrorist attack, grew into a border war - and then Pakistan covered its retreat by firing four nuclear weapons at pursuing Indian troops. India responded with 12 nuclear warheads. The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency estimated that the result would have been 15 million casualties.

So what can be done?

Many experts agree on what eventual peace in Kashmir will look like: The Line of Control will be turned into an international border between India and Pakistan, and India will grant real autonomy to its Kashmiris. So the Bush administration needs to rouse itself from its diplomatic duff. President Bush has done nothing substantial so far to reduce the risks emanating from any of the four most dangerous places in the world: the Middle East, India/Pakistan, North Korea and (in the longer run) China/Taiwan. Mr. Bush's aides have quelled crises as they arise, but they have not sought aggressively to make peace in any of these places.

It's time for the White House to take the initiative and prevent crises instead of just managing them. Appointing a special envoy for peace in Kashmir would be a good place to start.



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