India Flirting With Disaster: Washington has a Moral Responsibility to Prevent War in South Asia

India is playing a highly risky game of brinkmanship in Kashmir. Its recent deployment of forces along the line of control (LoC), the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, and the extremely provocative rhetoric from Delhi have brought the region closer to a nuclear war than ever before.

India is probably betting that it can use the new international environment created by the American campaign against terror in the aftermath of 9/11 as a window of opportunity to not only suppress the Kashmiri uprising, but to also punish Pakistan for supporting and aiding the Kashmiri cause.

Its geopolitical gamesmanship notwithstanding, India does not want a war. Its leaders and most of its population understand that this is a war that they cannot win. India, which has a 3:1 advantage over Pakistan in conventional forces, a 7:1 advantage in manpower, and nearly a 10:1 advantage in economics, can easily overwhelm Pakistan in a conventional war. Both nations are aware of this fact. This reality implies that in order to defend itself Pakistan must immediately resort to nuclear weapons at the onset of war. Sure India will respond, and will probably wipe Pakistan from the map, but with it will go Bombay, maybe Delhi, and much of the population of Western and Northern India. While India may destroy Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that India will politically survive the conflict. It will most probably fragment into a failed state like Somalia. Its triumphant citizens, already poor, will be struggling with even greater poverty, as well as radiation and environmental problems.

Most people are aware of the devastating possibilities that I have sketched. So why, all of a sudden, is India acting so belligerently and risking disaster? There are two reasons why India is indulging in this dangerous game.

Domestic Politics

India has expressed outrage about the recent deaths of civilians in the conflict zone, where sadly the loss of innocent lives is routine. But such outrage serves to distract public attention from the massacre in Gujarat earlier this year. In March, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which rules at the Federal level, orchestrated a brutal massacre and arson of nearly three thousand of its own citizens in Gujarat, a state that it also governs.

In the past two months, India’s ruling party has been the target of international outrage and condemnation for its involvement in and mishandling of the Gujarat massacre. The domestic press as well as the international press was carrying story after story of government complicity in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, before and after the tragedy. The BJP–which had lost several regional elections last year–needs a “Lewinsky” to take away the focus from its failure in Gujarat and rally the nation behind it. The prospect of war with archenemy Pakistan is the answer to BJP’s domestic woes.

U.S. Rhetoric on Terror

The second reason is the new environment fostered by Washington’s diplomatic and rhetorical war on terror. Encouraged by Washington’s attitude of sacrificing rights and trampling democracy (at home and abroad) in its “war on terror,” nations like India and Israel now feel emboldened to use force and the threat of force to suppress legitimate struggles for freedoms. The Israeli incursions into the West Bank and the Jenin fiasco are a direct consequence of America’s rhetoric about fighting terror. India’s brinkmanship that at present threatens a nuclear war, which could lead to hundreds of millions of deaths in the region and a global environmental catastrophe, may well be the next consequence. The thinking in Delhi is that if the U.S. and Israel can use military force in response to terror, then why can’t India? If Israel can enter the West Bank and the U.S. can occupy Afghanistan, then why cannot India cross the line of control in Kashmir?

This means very simply that Washington has a moral responsibility to undo the crisis in South Asia. A crisis that has emerged because Delhi has been emboldened by Washington to act like Washington.

Steps to Peace

There are two goals that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld must pursue during his forthcoming visit to South Asia. Firstly he must try to ensure that India does not cross the actual line of control. He must convince India that Washington’s rhetoric on terror is not a license to begin nuclear conflicts.

He must also take steps to prevent accidental war initiation. This will require not only diplomatic efforts but also sharing satellite intelligence about troop movements at the LoC to let the two nations have real time knowledge of each other’s troops. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld could also suggest the introduction of international monitors (perhaps under UN purview) to patrol the LoC. Such a force will not only separate the two forces, but will also effectively seal the border and stem cross-border activities by Jihadi and Kashmiri militants.

Secondly, Washington must brush aside India’s refusal to allow American involvement and immediately bring the two nations to the negotiating table. The object of these talks would be to convince India to resolve the Kashmir issue democratically and in compliance with international laws and resolutions. At least some positive steps in this direction must be taken by India, which would give Kashmiris the hope that talks and not tanks will serve their cause.

Jihadis Must be Dismantled

Pakistan must reciprocate by quickly and effectively putting the Jihadis out of business. These groups are a national security threat to both India and Pakistan and a grave danger to the future of the region. The Jihadi groups are determined to cause trouble. They are trying to destabilize Musharraf’s government. The attacks on the French workers as well as the attacks in Kashmir are their revenge against Musharraf for his U-turn when the U.S. demanded Pakistani cooperation in operation Enduring Freedom. India’s saber rattling only aggravates the situation. It weakens Musharraf and exaggerates the impact of the Jihadis. It is imperative that India and the U.S. push to assist Musharraf in neutralizing the Jihadis’ influence and capabilities.

Pakistan has very few options really. Either it risks a civil war by aggressively disarming the militants that operate out of Pakistan, or it risks an unlimited nuclear war with India. If Pakistan cannot control activities within its own borders, then it must let India cross the LoC and do the job.

President Bush probably never anticipated that fighting a war on terror entailed peacekeeping in the most troublesome of neighborhoods. This time it is South Asia that interrupts his crusade, demanding his services as a peace broker.