Brinksmanship in South Asia: A Dangerous Scenario

Reports of military movement to the India-Pakistan border must raise alarums in Washington DC. The last thing that the incoming Obama administration wants is a firestorm in South Asia. There cannot be a limited war in the subcontinent, given the imbalance of forces between India and Pakistan. Any Indian attack across the border into Pakistan will likely be met with a full scale response from Pakistan. Yet, the rhetoric that seemed to have cooled down after the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks is rising again. It was exactly this kind of aggressive posturing and public statements that led to the 1971 conflict between these two neighbors. Pakistan has relied in the past on international intervention to prevent war. It worked, except in 1971 when the US and other powers let India invade East Pakistan and lead to the birth of Bangladesh. What makes the current situation especially dangerous is that both are now nuclear weapon states with anywhere up to150 nuclear bombs in their arsenal. If India and Pakistan go to war, the world will lose. Big time. By putting conventional military pressure on Pakistan, is India calling what it perceives to be Pakistan’s bluff under the belief that the United Sates will force nuclear restraint on Pakistan?

The early evidence after the Mumbai terrorist attack pointed to the absence of the Pakistan government’s involvement in the attack. Indeed, the government of Pakistan seemed to bend over backwards to accommodate and understand Indian anger at the tragedy. But, in the weeks since then, as domestic political pressure mounted on the Indian government to do more, talk has turned to the use of surgical strikes or other means to teach Pakistan a lesson. It was in India’s own interest to strengthen the ability of the fledgling civilian government of Pakistan to move against the militancy within the country. But it seems to have opted for threats to attack Pakistan, threats that, if followed up by actions, may well derail the process of civilianization and democratization in that country. India must recognize the constraints under which Pakistan operates. It cannot fight on two fronts. And it lacks the geographic depth to take the risk of leaving its eastern borders undefended at a time when India has been practicing its emerging Cold Start strategy in the border opposite Kasur. Under this strategy, up to four Integrated Battle Groups could move rapidly across the border and occupy a strategic chunk of Pakistani territory up to the outskirts of Lahore in a “limited war”.

For Pakistan, there is no concept of “limited war”. Any war with India is seen as a total war, for survival. It risks losing everything the moment India crosses its border, and will likely react by attacking India in force at a point of its own choosing under its own Offensive-Defensive strategy. (That is probably why it is moving some of its Strike Force infantry divisions back from the Afghan border to the Indian one.) As the battles escalate, Indian’s numerical and weapon superiority will become critical. If no external intervention takes place quickly, Pakistan will then be left with the “poison pill” defence of its nuclear weapons.

The consequences of such action are unimaginable for both countries and the world…

The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) conducted an analysis of the consequences of nuclear war in South Asia a year before the last stand-off in 2002. Under two scenarios, one (with a Princeton University team) studied the results of five air bursts over each country’s major cities and the other (done by the NRDC alone) with 24 ground explosions. The results were horrifying to say the least: 2.8 million dead, 1.5 million seriously injured, and 3.4 million slightly injured in the first case. Under the second scenario involving an Indian nuclear attack on eight major Pakistani cities and Pakistan’s attack on seven major Indian cities:

NRDC calculated that 22.1 million people in India and Pakistan would be exposed to lethal radiation doses of 600 rem or more in the first two days after the attack. Another 8 million people would receive a radiation dose of 100 to 600 rem, causing severe radiation sickness and potentially death, especially for the very young, old or infirm. NRDC calculates that as many as 30 million people would be threatened by the fallout from the attack, roughly divided between the two countries.

Besides fallout, blast and fire would cause substantial destruction within roughly a mile-and-a-half of the bomb craters. NRDC estimates that 8.1 million people live within this radius of destruction.

Studies by Richard Turco, Alan Robock, and Brian Toon in 2006 and 2008 on the climate change impact of a regional nuclear war between these two South Asian rivals, were based on the use of 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices of 15 kiloton each. The ensuing nuclear explosions would set 15 major cities in the subcontinent on fire and hurl five million tonnes of soot 80 kilometers into the air. This would deplete ozone levels in the atmosphere up to 40 per cent in the mid-latitudes that “could have huge effects on human health and on terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems.” More important, the smoke and sot would cool the northern hemisphere by several degrees, disrupting the climate (shortening growing seasons, etc.) and creating massive agricultural failure for several years. The whole world would suffer the consequences.

An Indo-Pakistan war will not cure the cancer of religious militancy that afflicts both countries today. Rather, India and Pakistan risk jeopardizing not only their own economic futures but also that of the world by talking themselves into a conflict. The world cannot afford to let that happen. The Indian and Pakistani governments can step back from the brink by withdrawing their forces from their common border and going back to quiet diplomacy to resolve their differences. The United States and other friends of both countries can act as honest brokers by publicly urging both to do just that before this simmering feud starts to boil over.

This piece appeared in The Huffington Post, 26 December 2008