by Eric Margolis © 1998 Eric Margolis
CIA calls the border between India and Pakistan the world's most likely nuclear battleground. Over the past two weeks, relations between the two bitter rivals, who have fought three wars since 1947, have escalated sharply.
In Delhi, the new coalition government dominated by the Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata party called for open deployment by India of nuclear weapons and long-ranged missiles, an act that would accelerate the arms race with Pakistan and deeply alarm China. To date, India has kept its very extensive nuclear program secret, and denied possession of nuclear weapons. Intelligence sources estimate India has 25-40 nuclear weapons and stockpiled enriched uranium to produce 70 more. While Washington creates an uproar over Iraqi strategic weapons, which may not even exist, it turns a blind eye to India's surging military might, which includes chemical as well as nuclear weapons.
This week, BJP Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, L.K. Advani, a hard-liner closely linked to the secretive Hindu fascist organization, RSS, warned Pakistan of `serious consequences' over disputed Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan's crack intelligence service, ISI, of sustaining the 8-year independence struggle by Kashmir's Muslim majority. In diplomatic jargon, `serious consequences,' means war.
Bill Richardson, America's capable UN ambassador, recently visited Delhi and Islamabad in an effort to calm this dangerous situation, and prepare for a Fall visit by President Clinton. Richardson's trip was not a success. India refused to stop developing its nuclear arsenal. As a result, so did Pakistan. Neither nation has singed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Meanwhile, the missile race between India and Pakistan is heating up. Delhi just announced a longer-ranged version of its `Prithvi' missile, able to deliver a 1000kg high-explosive, chemical, or nuclear warhead over 250kms. `Prithvi' can strike all Pakistan's cities.
India is also accelerating development of `Agni,' a 2,500 km-range ballistic missile with a mid-yield nuclear warhead - which can cover all Pakistan, and half of China and Iran. Reports have just come out that Russia is helping India develop a submarine-launched ballistic missile targeted at Pakistan.
Pakistan, with only one-seventh India's population, just scored a small psychological victory by unveiling `Ghauri,' a new 900-km range missile named after a 12th century Muslim emperor who defeated the Hindu ruler, Prithvi! Pakistan is estimated to have a dozen partially assembled nuclear weapons.
While the US has done little to oppose, and has even aided, India's growing nuclear capabilities, Washington has singled out Pakistan for severe and unusual punishment. This week, US officials claimed Pakistan's `Ghauri' was based on smuggled technology from North Korean's `Nodong' missile series. Gary Milhollin, an much-quoted expert on nuclear proliferation, who usually echoes the views of the US and Israeli governments, amplified the charges.
The US next tried to bribe Pakistan into halting missile tests by offering `to help resolve' the long-standing issue of impounded F-16 aircraft. Pakistan ordered and paid US $650 million for the 28 US-made warplanes over a decade ago. But in 1990, Israel got the US Congress to embargo the aircraft in a vain effort to force Pakistan to curtail its nuclear program. Israel has a long-standing policy of preventing any Islamic nation from developing nuclear weapons. Washington refuses to release the by now deteriorated aircraft - or to return Pakistan's money.
Pakistan's conventional and nuclear forces most defend that nation of 137 million from hostile India, which has 967 million people, and armed forces of 1,145,000. Islamabad has never shared nuclear technology with any other nation. Cash-poor Pakistan even turned down offers by Iran in 1990 to pay Pakistan's entire defense budget for 10 years in exchange for nuclear know-how. But the US, under heavy Israeli pressure, continues to embargo and punish Pakistan.
Ironically, by denying Pakistan warplanes to counter India's growing fleet of modern Russian MiG's and Sukhoi's, Washington forces Pakistan to rely increasingly on nuclear weapons for defense. Recent threats by India's BJP leaders to `crush Pakistan' and `reunite Mother India' underlined the threat to Pakistan's security - and continued existence.
The Clinton Administration is also trying to prevent the spread of Chinese and Russian military technology to potential foes of Israel by offering Beijing and Moscow large sums of cash, and at least $1.5 billion in contracts to launch American commercial satellites. Israel's supporters in Congress are threatening to cut off aid to Russia, and have held up billions of US civilian nuclear reactor sales to China until Washington certifies Moscow and Beijing have ceased sales of military technology to Pakistan, Iran and Syria.
This all amounts to a gigantic foreign policy mess, in which US strategic interests, domestic politics, and commerce are at loggerheads. India and Pakistan aren't likely to junk their nuclear programs. India insists, with reason, it won't disarm until China does. Besides, nukes give India self-confidence, big power status, and, as an Indian diplomat told me pithily, `it scares the hell out of those bloody Pakistanis.'
Pakistan rightly says its national survival against hostile, nuclear-armed India depends on nuclear weapons. Iran says it, too, must have nukes since hostile Israel, and potentially hostile India and Russia, have them. Israel maintains 200-400 nuclear weapons against any eventuality - and as ultimate life insurance against a second Holocaust. One day, Egypt and Syria will also go nuclear.
A nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan could kill millions. Their crude `dirty' weapons would contaminate the globe with radioactive dust. Defusing this threat should be the priority of international diplomacy. Alas, it is not.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]