Thinking nuclear war

YOU CAN ALMOST see the wheels turning as Bush officials weigh the costs and benefits of a nuclear war on the Indian subcontinent.

Consider this segment from a story in the June 2 London Observer:

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency calculates that the first hour of a full-scale nuclear exchange could kill as many as 12 million people and leave up to 7 million injured. Millions more would die in other fighting or from starvation and disease.

In Britain, government experts calculate that all Pakistan's water and food would be contaminated by even a limited exchange, with large areas of India rendered practically uninhabitable. "We don't even know where to start in thinking about how to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale," said one source. "There are simply no models for it. . . . "

In North America, half a world away from South Asia, such talk has seemed fantastical, far removed from U.S. concerns or influence. Don't trust these assumptions: Whether the standoff escalates into Armageddon tomorrow or drags on for years, the United States has, in fact, been knee-deep in this crisis in a variety of unpalatable ways. Sadly, there is no obvious, long-term solution in Kashmir.

There seems little doubt that the Bush team has cast its lot with the terrorism-sponsoring military dictatorship of Pakistan, rather than democratic India, and that it has done so purely out of perceived self-interest.

As happened while Israeli tanks flattened whole West Bank cities in April, a high-ranking U.S. official—this time Donald Rumsfeld—has taken his sweet time wandering over to the scene; his European counterparts got there two weeks sooner. Much of his message is for Pakistan's military dictator, "President" Musharraf—not concerning Kashmir, but demanding that Musharraf stop redeploying troops from Pakistan's western border regions with Afghanistan, where they are reinforcing the American hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

After casting his lot with the Americans, and at least symbolically breaking with the Islamic extremists that Pakistan has long trained and deployed in its effort to "liberate" Kashmir, Musharraf's grip on power is tenuous at best. The White House is committed to keeping Musharraf in power; the alternative is seen as a seizing of power and nuclear weaponry by those same fundamentalist movements.

India's leaders have also used Bush—specifically, his post-Sept. 11 promises to prospectively invade scores of countries around the world. India cites Dubya to justify its buildup along the 450 miles of Kashmir border. At the same time, India distrusts Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials. In 1999, the U.S. convinced India to hold its fire and send an envoy to Pakistan seeking peace talks, and Musharraf promptly seized several key mountain passes. And Muslim extremists have carried out attacks inside India after each of the last three visits by a top U.S. official. Another one could set off war.

India also remembers—unlike our government—that the Islamic extremist movement now wrangling over Kashmir was in large part trained, armed, and encouraged by the U.S. (both directly and through Pakistani and Saudi intelligence) in its 1980s anti-Soviet campaigns.

Bush, unfortunately, is in the midst of setting an even more dangerous precedent. This week, the United States officially pulls out of the 1973 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Pentagon, White House, and congressional hawks openly agitate for use of "battlefield" nuclear weapons and space-based weapons, as well as the idea of a first strike against non-nuclear nations. Similar Clinton administration insistence on nuclear domination in arms control talks prompted both India and Pakistan to bring their secret nuclear programs out into the open with testing four years ago. Now, thanks to Bush and his Strangelovian buddies, it's open season.

Some of the hawks Dubya has given power don't seem to mind. Beyond legitimizing such weapons, they seem to be thinking escalation in Kashmir might keep Musharraf in power, keep a prospective theocracy away from Pakistan's nukes, and allow either Musharraf or his Indian military foes to severely damage the Muslim militants' movement. To the Pentagon and the Bush White House, that's far more important than the fate of, say, 12 million people. Repeat these rationalizations often enough, and they sound reasonable. And if the leadership of Pakistan and India seem crazy for approaching their nightmare scenario with equanimity, recall that only a few months ago Bush and the Pentagon were ready to let several million Afghans starve to death rather than interrupt U.S. bombing.

Weakening the Islamic extremist movement at the cost of more people than live in all of New York City really isn't all that different.

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