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San Diego Union-Tribune
Washington, DC — Now that Gen. Pervez Musharrah has overthrown Pakistan’s democratically elected government, it is time for the United States to re-evaluate the threat of nuclear war in South Asia. The coup, to be sure, is a serious setback for regional stability. Indeed, it may signal the ultimate end of the nuclear consultation talks started by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian Premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lahore last February.
These talks, and the confidence they engendered, were crucial. During the past 18 months India and Pakistan have fought a 10-week war in Kashmir, detonated a total of 11 nuclear weapons, and test-launched ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and striking targets over 1,200 miles away.
What’s more, in July 1998, a former Pakistani nuclear weapons engineer warned that his country’s top military and intelligence officials had discussed plans for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on New Delhi. And last August, the Indian press reported that the armed forces had enough fissile material to produce at least 400 warheads, and were pursing a second nuclear strike capability. These are troubling developments for nations that have waged three wars in the past 50 years.
Even more troubling is the fact that the Indian and Pakistani governments have not developed a reliable command-and-control system for their growing nuclear arsenals. At present, Pakistan has no established balance of political and military decision-making and no organized order of succession should key decision-makers perish in a first strike. Moreover, neither country has a standardized system to prevent a false alarm from triggering a devastating nuclear exchange.
Nor is there much interest in creating a nuclear fail-safe system. Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee has repeatedly asserted that his country will ‘not create an elaborate command-and-control system like other nuclear weapons powers’, while Clinton administration sources openly acknowledge that Pakistan’s military—rather than civilians—ultimately has final authority over nuclear sites and weapons. While neither nation plans to build large nuclear arsenals, it is ultimately the control of these arsenals, not their size, which is crucial in preventing a conventional conflict from escalating into a nuclear nightmare.
Clearly, war between India and Pakistan would present a serious threat to global security and U.S. interests. And clearly, the Pakistani coup, combined with the social and political instability that caused it, underscores the importance of jointly implementing even the most basic nuclear command-and-control systems in both countries.
In short, the coup must not be used as a pretext for abrogating the Lahore agreement and ending the consultation process. To this end, the United States should pursue the following objectives:
First, regional tensions must be reduced. In the hours following the coup, Gen. Musharrah issued a clear warning to India not to take advantage of Pakistan’s political instability. The Indian government, in turn, placed its troops in Kashmir on high alert. With hostilities running high, the White House should immediately engage leaders in both countries in order to prevent the current chaos from creating a regional crisis.
Second, civilian rule must be restored. Analysts in India and elsewhere have already voiced alarm over the possibility of power struggles within Pakistan’s armed forces—struggles that would further exacerbate existing concerns over the control of that country’s nuclear arsenal. Only a civilian government—one that has both the support of the people and control over the military—will engender the level of trust in New Delhi necessary for continued negotiations.
Finally, nuclear safeguards must be required—required prior to any formal recognition of either country’s nuclear status. While the conflict between the India and Pakistan is their own affair, their respective nuclear capabilities are a matter of international concern. So long as Islamabad and New Delhi fail to implement an appropriate command-and-control system, they will continue to endanger their citizens, their neighbors, and the balance of power in Asia. This is unacceptable. Moreover, it is irresponsible.
Yet to continue to ignore the situation would be equally irresponsible. Without a determined effort by the United States and other members of the international community to address this new nuclear arms race, South Asia may one day be consumed by a disaster dwarfing the crises that have captured our attention in Kosovo and Chechnya.