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24 January 2000

Two nations on the nuclear brink

Relations between India and Pakistan, say diplomats, are now worse than they ever were between the U

By John Elliott

America, a retired Indian diplomat said to me a few days ago, is “the main beneficiary” of India’s great Christmas hijacking drama. This, he explained, was because the US could now strut round the west, whipping up support for pushing India and Pakistan into a settlement on Kashmir before these two nuclear states stumble into another crisis.

The remark says more about India’s ultra-sensitivity to US interference than it does about Kashmir; but the diplomat had a point. Certainly there are no rival beneficiaries, apart from hijackers, who have shown that they can sometimes win concessions (in this case, the release of prisoners). India has not gained because its poor handling of the eight-day hijack of one of its national airline flights has only underlined its frighteningly bad disaster management. Pakistan has not gained either. It is being loudly accused by India and other countries (armed with wire-tap intelligence from the US) of abetting terrorism by helping the hijackers. And the people of Kashmir, for whose independence the hijackers were campaigning, have not gained because peace is no nearer in their beautiful mountain valley of Srinagar.

But what the hijack did do was to increase sharply international concern about the two countries’ relations which are now at their worst since the last of their three wars in 1971. “There is less interaction and less understanding of each other’s perceptions and capabilities than the US and the Soviet Union ever had, even at the height of the cold war,” says a western diplomat.

The risk of a nuclear conflict has not led to a reduction in border warfare since the two countries carried out nuclear tests in May 1998. Instead, Pakistan is being more openly aggressive, stirring up problems in north-eastern India as well as the north-western border state of Kashmir. Despite a soldier-to-soldier appeal to Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, from General Sir Charles Guthrie, chief of the British defence staff, there are no signs that Pakistan will stop its terrorist attacks. Not surprisingly, the British government has decided to continue its ban on arms sales to Pakistan.

What particularly worries Britain and America is that India seems bad at handling crises. The Indian government was slow to react when the hijacking began, allowing the plane to land and then take off from India’s northern city of Amritsar. The government remained on the back foot through most of the crisis and dealt very insensitively with the relatives of those on board. The basic problem was India’s hierarchical, seniority-bound bureaucracy. Officials were scared to take decisions or go ahead with meetings without authorisation from the prime minister’s office or the cabinet office.

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This was the fourth major example in two years of India’s bungled disaster-management. The list starts with its insensitive mishandling of international diplomacy immediately after the nuclear tests. The dilatoriness of intelligence forces and top army officers then allowed Pakistan’s troops and Afghan militants to infiltrate across the border, seize territory around the Kashmir town of Kargil and prompt the first armed conflict in history between two nuclear states. Then, last October, the eastern state of Orissa bungled its reaction to a hurricane which devastated coastal regions and caused 20,000 deaths. Orissa’s state administration collapsed and local and national politicians played politics instead of mobilising assistance.

As for Pakistan, the west is concerned about its crumbling debt-laden economy and the real intentions of its military ruler. It is also worried about close links between Pakistan and the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and evidence that the Taliban is broadening its jihads (holy wars) to areas like Chechnya.

So we have two conflict-prone nuclear states which are slow and uncertain when it comes to managing a crisis. No wonder the west is desperate to reduce the tension. But if it wants a settlement on Kashmir, it will be disappointed. There is no prospect of any such settlement for at least a generation, and maybe for 20 years or more. The two countries’ sections of Kashmir are divided by a 500-mile line of control (or temporary border) that was fixed in 1949. India would probably accept a permanent settlement which recognised this line as the official border. But Pakistan is determined to acquire extra territory, notably the Srinagar valley, and to that India would never agree, short of defeat in war. Nor will it agree to ask the Kashmiris themselves what they want – it has resisted a plebiscite since the 1950s.

So there is a stalemate which no amount of international diplomacy and intervention will break in the foreseeable future. Equally, there is no prospect of either country responding to international pressure to reduce its nuclear capability. There is a faint possibility that they will both sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the next two months before President Clinton visits the region on a trip planned for the end of March. But that will not stop them developing their nuclear capabilities; India, in particular, sees its nuclear weapons as an essential protection against possible attack by China, as well as Pakistan.

For decades, the US sided with Pakistan in preference to India, which it misunderstood and distrusted.

That has changed as India has opened up its economy and, in the past two years, emerged as a responsible non-aggressive nuclear power, in sharp contrast to Pakistan’s corrupt and crumbling economy and its terrorist activities. (Britain’s Labour government, and especially Robin Cook, who started off as a resolutely pro-Pakistan Foreign Secretary, has made a similar switch in the past two years.) However, neither the US nor any of the multilateral agencies want to break links with Pakistan, not only because it is such a precarious nuclear state, but also because there is a serious risk of creeping Islamic fundamentalism taking over the government and army. Furthermore, the US owes Pakistan for help both during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and in relations with China, and it needs it now for links with the Middle East.

India’s immediate problem is how to deal with the situation in Srinagar where there are almost daily attacks by militants on army installations and other official establishments as well as civilians. Some Indians would like to see Israeli-style raids on terrorist camps across the Pakistan border; but it is unlikely that India would be willing to face the risk of either failure or international criticism. Others would like to see an India-led economic blockade – a ban last week on cotton imports from Pakistan could be seen as the first step in such a campaign, though the official reason was that the cotton was contaminated with pests.

The long-term solution is for the unsolvable issue of Kashmir to be put on one side while the two countries develop closer economic and other ties. But Pakistan’s current stance prevents that happening. The west therefore needs to take the long view and recognise that there is no chance of a quick fix.

Its best hope is to accept that the conflict will go on and to persuade both countries to develop adequate nuclear control systems. In that way, it will at least minimise the chances of a future crisis turning into a nuclear disaster.