Treading A Nuclear Fault Line Clinton Can Help Ease Tensions Between India And Pakistan.

Posted: March 17, 2000

A couple of months ago, I was sitting with a think-tank expert in Delhi who was calmly discussing the likelihood that Pakistan would nuke India.

He speculated that the Pakistani military might drop a small warhead on an advancing Indian column and questioned whether India would nuke Karachi in return for losing 1,000 soldiers. The expert, Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research, argued that India needed an invincible fleet of nuclear subs to deter the Pakistanis.

That's the kind of discussion you hear often these days in India and Pakistan, where President Clinton is headed next week. Since the two countries waged a mini-war last year over control of the Himalayan region of Kashmir, their relations have deteriorated so fast that many fear the outbreak of the first nuclear war.

But even the great communicator won't find it easy to damp down the tensions that are pushing India and Pakistan toward disaster.

The situation hasn't been this tense between these hostile neighbors since 1971, when India helped eastern Pakistan split off from the western half of the country and become Bangladesh. But that war took place before India conducted nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, and before Pakistan followed suit.

What makes the current situation so tragic is that those tests seemed to have convinced both governments that they needed to undertake confidence-building measures to lesson the danger of nuclear conflict.

A year ago, Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee made a historic journey to the lovely Pakistani city of Lahore to meet with then-Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif. The two men drew up a list of proposals for ensuring nuclear safety, preventing unauthorized use of nuclear weapons and so forth, and planned to hold talks on Kashmir. People-to-people exchanges began - musicians, sports teams, plans for tourism and direct cross-border commerce.

So Indians were stunned to learn that, shortly afterward that Pakistan had infiltrated fighters across the mountainous line of control that separates the two sides in Kashmir. Heavy fighting raged for months before Pakistan pulled its troops back with strong U.S. encouragement.

By then the Lahore process was crippled. It died when the Pakistani military, led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, overthrew Sharif and further ratcheted up the tensions in Kashmir. Pakistani officials don't seem fully aware of the level of bitterness and sense of betrayal felt by their Indian counterparts.

These days, the Lahore proposals for nuclear risk reduction are gathering dust. There has been a breakdown of normal diplomatic contacts between India and Pakistan. There are no people-to-people contacts. Even a group of Pakistani scientists who wanted to attend a New Delhi conference on rice cultivation were denied visas.

Years of behind-the-scenes dialogue, known as Track II, have been halted. "There is zero engagement," says South Asian expert Shirin Taher-Keli, who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations and has organized Track II meetings. "There is less engagement than there was between the United States and the Soviet Union."

But 30 minutes of flight time separated U.S. and Soviet ballistic missiles from their targets, according to the Federation of American Scientists' John Pike, while Indian and Pakistani missiles, if operational, would need no more than 10 minutes to wipe out cities.

Thirty minutes was barely enough to reverse the process in case of error, says Pike, whose organization has just released satellite photos of Pakistani missile sites to stimulate awareness of the dangers. "Ten or 15 minutes," he says, "is a come-as-you-are party."

So it is crucial for President Clinton to try to lower tensions over Kashmir - without getting involved in mediation. He can ask both sides to tone down the rhetoric. He can warn Musharraf that Washington won't rescue him if Pakistan provokes more violence across the line of control in Kashmir.

And the President can urge the two countries to reestablish contacts as a prelude to renewed dialogue about nuclear-risk reduction. Neither country will give up its nuclear option, or its right to make nuclear weapons, so the United States must try to lessen the risk that either will use them.

This is where the President should focus his persuasive powers.

Trudy Rubin's column appears on Wednesdays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is

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