South Asia: Waiting for the USA

By J. Sri Raman

June 1 2002

The whole world outside the India-Pakistan subcontinent is watching the situation here with extreme anxiety. Never in the past two decades, it is generally agreed, has the humanity been closer to a nuclear holocaust. Conspicuous by its absence,  however, is any sign of  serious concern on this score among the establishments of the two countries involved. What explains this strange smugness?

In the case of India, one factor certainly is nuclear illiteracy that formal education alone cannot eliminate. Reports of studies showing that a 'limited ' India-Pakistan war can lead to three million deaths and an unlimited one to 12 million deaths have not ruffled the expressions on the faces of strategic analysts, including some in the national security council, in their increased appearances on the television. A second factor behind the complacency is an apparent and entirely unfounded confidence that they can pull off a miraculously last-minute pull-back from the nuclear brink. This, however, is not all.

Added to these factors, in Pakistan's case, is a sense of desperation. The deployment of about 750,000 Indian troops on the borders threatens to destabilize the military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, with less than full democratic legitimacy despite the recent referendum. A single military reverse, and he may have to face the hitherto low-lying internal opposition at its fiercest. From the author of the Kargil conflict, which followed in the wake of nuclear-weapon tests by both the countries, the first-strike threat should come as no surprise. There is, however, more to it than this.

All these factors only compounds the seeming complacency on the nuclear count. The simple explanation for the smugness is that the rulers of both India and Pakistan are waiting for Uncle Sam in an unlikely reincarnation as George Bush. They are counting on the USA to intervene and save the subcontinent not only from a nuclear conflagration but from a major military  conflict.

The irony of it all is that the extremely tense regional situation is the result of the newly shared relations of both the rivals with a war-mongering Washington. The immediate reaction of India to the infamous September 11 was that it vindicated its own stand as a victim of terrorism, that the tragedy held out hopes of close ties with the USA. The hopes were raised to a hysterical pitch when the 'global war on terror' was launched in Afghanistan. It was only a matter of time - so it was suggested - before India's war against 'cross-border terrorism' in Kashmir became part of the US-led 'global war on terror'. The hopes were apparently belied when Gen. Musharraf's Pakistan turned against the Talibans and regained, even reinforced its status as the frontline state in the region for the USA. The same hopes are being held out before the Indian public during the current standoff with Pakistan.

The hawks in both India and Pakistan nurse the hope of US intervention in their favor. Each is interpreting statements and signals from the endless stream of US and Western emissaries to the region over the recent period in terms that encourage them and exacerbate the tensions. Islamabad and the Pakistani media see theirs as a beginning of international intervention on the Kashmir issue, New Delhi and the Indian media talk of similar intervention on the side of India against "cross-border terrorism".

The new relations of India and Pakistan with the USA have also promoted the prospects of a nuclear war between the two South Asian neighbours. The Bush Administration, which is now claimed to be "working overtime" to avert a nuclear holocaust in this region, hastened to lift sanctions against both the countries imposed after their nuclear-weapon tests in 1998. Even before that, in return only for India's support or the National Missile Defense and Theater Missile Defense programs (on the specious ground of the "deep cuts" these would effect in the US nuclear arsenal, Washington had certified that India had developed only a "minimum nuclear deterrent".

A US-brokered peace or truce between India and Pakistan, particularly in Kashmir, can have only one conceivable objective: to ensure the peaceful coexistence of the two countries as allies in the US-headed "multinational coalition" against "global terror". This cannot, as experience already makes amply clear, ensure peace in the subcontinent even in the short term and eliminate the alarmingly real possibility of a nuclear conflict in the region.

J. Sri Raman: Sri, a freelance journalist, was a  leader-writer with the daily Indian Express when India carried out five nuclear weapon tests in May 1998.  With the help of friends, he founded the Journalists Against Nuclear Weapons (JANW).  The JANW is now one of the over 30 organizations to come together in an umbrella structure called the Movement Against Nuclear Weapons (MANW), with Sri as the Convener. An affiliate of the Global Network since 2001,  MANW represents  scientists, workers, writers, women, youth and students among others. Sri now serves on the Advisory Board of the Global Network.

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