- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Anyone watching the confrontation building between India and Pakistan has probably had the same thought: Are these people out of their minds? Here they are, armed with nuclear weapons, and they're trading threats like a couple of angry drunks, seemingly oblivious to the fact that, if they begin a war, it could turn into an unprecedented catastrophe for both countries.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has been beating the war drums for weeks, demanding that Pakistan stop its support of Islamic terrorists who have been carrying out attacks in predominantly Muslim Kashmir. Not long ago, he visited troops on the front line and told them to prepare for "a decisive battle."

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, responded in equally bellicose terms, vowing to "always support the Kashmiris' struggle for liberation" and warning Mr. Vajpayee that he would meet any attack "with full might." To underline the point, Pakistan carried out several tests of missiles capable of hitting targets in India.

The showdown has outsiders sweating bullets. If a full-scale war erupts, warned a high Japanese official visiting New Delhi recently, "nuclear weapons will be used, which will lead to massive tragedy." A senior Western diplomat told the New York Times, "There's a complacency that the weapons won't be used which I find baffling. People here haven't understood what these weapons can do."

The outsiders are right to warn of the grave dangers faced by India and Pakistan. The mistake is thinking the two parties don't know what they're doing. Neither wants war much less Armageddon. But they have serious and bitter differences over critical matters, and each is determined to protect its interests. So each sees something to gain not only from being ready to fight but appearing downright eager to fight.

The assumption that it's lunacy for nuclear-armed powers to threaten each other is groundless. During the Cold War, American presidents often found it useful to convey to the Soviets our willingness to go to war. Sometimes that meant taking the risk of a Soviet nuclear strike (as in the Cuban missile crisis) and sometimes it meant threatening to launch a nuclear strike (an option we held out in case of a Soviet attack in Europe).

But in each case, the missiles stayed in their silos. The Indians and Pakistanis are doing the same thing, and they're not likely to end up using their nukes either. Nuclear deterrence worked in the Cold War, and it should work in South Asia.

India, which enjoys conventional military superiority, has no reason to go nuclear first. Gen. Musharraf may threaten to respond to an Indian incursion by raising mushroom clouds over New Delhi. But he and his military officers know that would only assure an all-out Indian response that would turn Pakistan into a radioactive desert. So even a ground war in Kashmir isn't likely to lead to nuclear war.

You may think: Good theory, but what about the real world? In the real world, India and Pakistan actually fought a small war in Kashmir in 1999, which left more than 1,000 soldiers dead. Despite a humiliating defeat, Pakistan didn't press the button.

This time, the specter of doomsday weapons has undoubtedly induced restraint in New Delhi. But it has also emboldened Pakistan to bait the bear by continuing to support anti-India guerrillas in Kashmir. Gen. Musharraf, however, appears to be backing off now, rather than instigate a war with a far bigger enemy that has defeated Pakistan time and again.

But that doesn't mean the tension will dissipate entirely. Both governments have fundamental interests at stake. India had its own version of September 11 Dec. 13, when Islamic terrorists attacked the parliament in New Delhi, killing nine persons. With more than 100 million Muslim citizens, it fears such extremism could spread beyond Kashmir and even lead to the disintegration of the country.

Pakistan sees India's control of Kashmir as a challenge to its reason for existence, which was to provide a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. Pakistan's population was halved after India intervened militarily in 1971 to help separatist forces in East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. With the rise of Hindu nationalism, some Pakistanis accuse India of wanting to be rid of Pakistan entirely.

The matters that divide the two countries, in short, are not trivial but terribly important important enough to risk war and even to endure war. Neither, though, is deluded enough to think it can win a nuclear exchange.

Both have a powerful interest in avoiding that scenario. Both think they can manage the confrontation without precipitating catastrophe. So far, they've been right.

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