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On Point

Triggering War on the Sub-Continent

by Austin Bay

Can you "tilt" in opposite directions simultaneously?

If you're the United States and the diplomatic mission is to halt an Indo-Pakistani war, the answer is, "Yes."

The prospects for shrewd diplomatic intervention are good. Neither India nor Pakistan really wants another full-scale war. Despite the hot rhetoric, an artifact of the U.S.-USSR Cold War holds extraordinary sway. Nuclear weapons have a chilling effect on war fever. American diplomatic yoga -- tilting just enough in all directions, as well as bending Indian and Pakistani arms -- should keep nukes holstered and armies leashed.

It would be foolish, however, to underestimate the danger. A conventional war would further complicate South Asia's precarious politics. Even a "limited" Indo-Pakistani nuclear exchange could leave several million dead or suffering from radiation sickness.

Diplomats must address the current difficult conditions, as well as plan for possible events that could trigger a war no one wants.

In 1994, James F. Dunnigan (now editor of StrategyPage.com) and I war-gamed several Indo-Pakistan war scenarios for a commercial project. At that time, the "most dangerous could-be war" involved China. Here's the short version: An Indo-Pakistani confrontation along the Line of Control (the ceasefire line dividing Indian-controlled Kashmir from Pakistan's sector) escalated. The mobilized Indian army had a large conventional military advantage over Pakistan. China, balancing the odds, entered the war as a Pakistani ally. This "worst case" wasn't a replay of the Indo-Chinese Himalayan War of 1962. That particular game stopped with India and China preparing for a nuclear confrontation.

Many of that scenario's assumptions aren't evident in the current, real-world crisis. The game gave India a strategic nuclear capacity it doesn't (yet) possess. In postulating "trigger events" in Kashmir, we didn't include global Al Qaeda-like terrorist organizations, but we did have Kashmiri Muslim guerrillas (whose activities began to increase in 1992).

Here's an updated look at the kinds of events that could trigger a war. Don't read the list as likelihoods or predictions, but as emerging or possible conditions that U.S. and international diplomacy must thwart or finesse.

India, fed up with terrorist attacks, calls Pakistan's nuclear bluff and launches air and special-forces strikes on terror bases in Pakistan and Pakistani Kashmir. India tells Pakistan it will no longer let the threat of nuclear war prevent it from destroying terrorists. Pakistan is forced to respond by launching air attacks on Indian military targets. (If it doesn't respond, President Pervez Musharraf's government collapses). Punch and counter-punch escalate to full-scale conventional war.

In order to increase the pressure on Pakistan to eliminate terrorists, India decides to embargo and blockade Pakistan by sea and air. It's tough for Pakistan to rely on land routes for trade. Pakistan responds by waging war in Kashmir.

An exchange of fire along the Line of Control becomes a battle. Indian commanders believe their troops are at risk. Indian armor begins to move forward. Pakistani officers interpret the move as a prelude to an offensive and launch airstrikes against the Indian tank forces.

Pakistani officers aligned with Islamic extremists topple Musharraf's government. India attacks Pakistani nuclear installations and nuclear delivery systems before the extremists can gain control of the nukes..

Islamist terrorists attack Indian military forces in Kashmir with chemical or biological weapons. India responds by attacking Pakistan. With chemical and biological weapons already employed, nuclear weapons are no longer a distant possibility.

A pressured Pakistan, facing fully mobilized Indian forces along the border, launches conventional air attacks on Indian political targets (cities?). The intent is to demonstrate, "We'll use nukes if you don't stop." India doesn't interpret it that way.

Mobilizing large armies is expensive. Lack of cash could force a military move. The side that feels the harshest economic pinch could decide that it must either use its mobilized forces or back down, lose face and suffer domestic political reprisal. One strategic analyst suggested to me that oil-rich Islamic countries might come to Pakistan's financial rescue and prop up Pakistan's forces. But who bankrolls India?

The question begged by each of these situations is, "What's China doing?" Watching on the sidelines? No. And no one else is, either, especially the United States. The challenge for American diplomacy is to make sure all of these "could-be's" remain fiction.

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