- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

Some wars are avoidable. It appears that the coming war between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region is not. We may not be able to act soon enough to stop war from breaking out, but we must take action to prevent the conflict from escalating to a nuclear exchange. An opportunity to take bold action arises from the war in Afghanistan and from an examination of the belligerents' order of battle.

India claims Kashmir as a result of a disputed "accession" signed at the time of Indian independence. Pakistan disputes that because the accession was to depend on a plebiscite in predominantly Muslim Kashmir that India has never allowed. An uneasy truce memorialized in the "Line of Control" cease-fire boundary resulted from the last major conflict that ended in 1972.

An attack on the Indian parliament last December heightened tensions between the two nations. A May 14 attack on an Indian base that left 34 dead mostly women and children was the last straw. Indian demands that Pakistan end the terror were addressed directly to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, whose January speech set him apart from other leaders of Muslim nations by denouncing the terror culture and the religious schools that teach it. But Mr. Musharraf now sounds like every other abettor of terrorism.

India's incendiary rhetoric makes clear that war is imminent. It has proclaimed Pakistan the "epicenter" of international terrorism and warned its soldiers to prepare for a "decisive battle." In response, Mr. Musharraf is making some very Arafat-like statements. In English, he said Pakistan would not start a war, and wants only peace. A moment later, in Urdu, he said, "Pakistan will always support the Kashmiris' struggle for liberation." Having been a strong ally in our war against the Taliban, Mr. Musharraf now is backing away. He insists cross-border terrorism is ended but describes "freedom fighters" in the words that any terrorist leader would use. India apparently plans to attack soon, across the Line of Control, and possibly into Pakistan. The two nations' order of battle will probably produce a stalemate. In desperation or in error, that could lead to a nuclear exchange.

A nation's "order of battle" its weapons, people, doctrine and intelligence capabilities tells a lot about how a war can be fought. India's army outnumbers Pakistan's by two-to-one, and India's air force has four-to-one numerical superiority. India has a much larger navy, including an aircraft carrier. But a general war between them could also be fought in the skies over both countries, and at sea.

Some of India's forces, such as its aircraft carrier, don't even enter into the equation. The carrier can't get close enough to strike Pakistan, because if it did it would be sunk by Pakistani land-based aircraft. India's army 1.3 million troops strong has about 2500 tanks, including many old Russian T-55s. Its main strength is in size, not mobility. India's army lacks the logistics "tail" that could enable it to mount the massive and sustained ground movements necessary to take and hold all of Kashmir. India's best option to avoid a wider war is limited strikes against terrorists in Kashmir. But it lacks the special forces and intelligence integration that would give it this option. Its only alternative is a massive ground campaign.

The nations share about 1,800 miles of border. The military buildup has been in the Kashmiri lowlands northwest of Jammu. "Lowlands" is a deceiving term, because the ground there is as almost as high and rugged as Afghanistan. An Indian attack would likely begin north of Jammu, and move northwest toward Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. In any Indian attack, the ability to move ground forces quickly in the first week of the war will be crucial. If the weather is bad enough to ground the Pakistani air force but still good enough to move on the ground, India could be within a few miles of Islamabad in seven to ten days. If the weather is good, and the Pakistanis use their air forces to best advantage, India will be stopped in its tracks.

India's air force is no match for Pakistan's. About one-third of India's combat aircraft are barely flyable. Maintenance is poor. Pilots are in short supply. India's air force is simply not combat-ready or sustainable. Pakistan's air force is better trained and equipped. It flies American F-16 and French Mirage multi-role fighter-bombers that can penetrate Indian air defenses and deliver weapons up to 800 miles into Indian territory within 25 minutes of the beginning of the war. They could be carrying nuclear weapons.

Both nations have nuclear arsenals, but Pakistan has a greater ability to deliver them. This was demonstrated last weekend when the Pakistanis conducted three days of successful tests of long and short-range missiles. Pakistan claims to be able to hit 11 of India's 12 largest cities and 65 million people with nuclear weapons. We cannot count on common sense preventing the use of nuclear weapons.

While diplomatic pressure must continue, it is very unlikely to succeed, and war may commence at any time. If it does, we must act to defuse the conflict before it escalates to nuclear war. Our opportunity to do so arises from reports that one of the terrorist groups in Kashmir, Lashkar-e-Omar, is headed by former Taliban chief Mullah Omar. There also are reports of Taliban and al Qaeda operating there. If their presence can be confirmed, we and our allies should ask Mr. Musharraf's permission to attack, and make clear that we will not take "no" for an answer. At the same time, we have to make India understand that it will not be allowed to take advantage of our intervention to conquer all of Kashmir. American troops should never be used as a buffer for both sides to shoot at. But if we're doing the shooting, India and Pakistan may stop long enough for real peace talks to begin.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration.

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