Kashmir Is the Tripwire to War


The unthinkable prospect of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan has come suddenly on to the international agenda as their leaders stoked up attacks on one another. Alarming warnings from intelligence services in Britain and the United States that this is a real possibility have led to intensifying diplomatic efforts to scale down the conflict.

The air of unreality about the dangers involved would be shattered by a transition to war. There are many deeply worrying elements involved in the dynamics of tension between the two states. Kashmir is the tripwire, the essential occasion for their conflict, provoked by continuing infiltration of Pakistani-based Islamic militants into the Indian-controlled parts of the territory. The particular dangers of this confrontation are based on political tensions building up in both states, driving their leaders into deeper water.

The Pakistani president, General Pervaz Musharraf, depends on his military for support, while they rely on Islamic fundamentalism for their legitimacy. The Indian prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, and his Bharatiya Janata Party are based on a strong Hindu nationalist movement stoked up by the Kashmir issue in their relations with the 150 million Muslims throughout the huge federation. Geopolitical factors reinforce this inter-state confrontation, giving it a more dangerous edge.

Indian leaders resent the way the Afghanistan war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda gave Pakistan so much leverage with the United States. They are furious that General Musharraf's undertaking on January 12th this year to rein in the Islamic militants they blame for successive attacks on Kashmir has been so little delivered upon. This has affected the ruling party's performance in recent Indian state elections. Along with communal violence in Gujaret state last March and a faltering Indian economy Mr Vajpayee has been prompted to respond by threats of force against his neighbour.

A especially worrying aspect of the crisis is that this carries popular support and military encouragement. Pakistan's leaders have similar political motives to respond belligerently. They believe themselves to have cover from the US because of Afghanistan. Provocatively, they have over the weekend proceeded with a series of missile tests, underlining their potential to carry nuclear warheads deep into India. Sufficient is known about both states' nuclear capacity to make this an extraordinarily dangerous moment.

One plausible scenario for a Pakistani resort to nuclear weapons would be if their army is overwhelmed by more numerous Indian forces. International pressure must be applied intensively to head off this confrontation and resolve it diplomatically. If this is not done and the two states slip towards war, the world could see the first use of nuclear weapons in a regional setting. That would be disastrous for south-west Asia and for the world as a whole. It must not be allowed to happen and should become the most urgent priority of international politics. The Kashmir issue should be part and parcel of the effort to scale the conflict down.