The World's Most Dangerous Nuclear Threat

Special for the Huffington Post
Eric S. Margolis
December 18, 2008

The bitter struggle over the beautiful Himalayan mountain state of Kashmir is the world's oldest ongoing international conflict. India and Pakistan have fought three wars and countless clashes over this divided state since 1947, and remain at scimitar's drawn. Today, both have sizeable arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Kashmir had just about slipped away from the world's consciousness until the frightful November massacre in Mumbai. India is accusing the leading Kashmiri militant group of the outrage. And India and Pakistan's nuclear forces went on high alert as a result of the Mumbai massacre. The Indian government came under intense pressure to retaliate militarily against Pakistan, for which it also blamed the Mumbai attacks.

A decade ago, the respected U.S. strategic think tank, RAND Corp, estimated that a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan over Kashmir would initially kill two million people, wound 100 million, and send clouds of radioactive dust around the globe.

Since then, India and Pakistan have quadrupled their nuclear forces.
Fears an enraged India would attack Pakistan in revenge for the Mumbai massacre provoked grave alarm here in Washington. So, too, the threat Islamabad would withdraw two Pakistani army corps supporting the U.S. war in Afghanistan and redeploy them to face India.

In fact, India did come very closer to launching retaliatory military operations against Pakistan during the week of 7-14 December, according to my sources in the Pentagon and in India. Even limited air and ground strikes by India could have quickly escalated into a larger war and potential nuclear confrontation. Pakistan is outnumbered and outgunned by India at least 3:1 and would be forced to rely on tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a massive Indian armoured offensive into the plains of Punjab.

Washington quickly forced Pakistan to arrest the leaders of the militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba that India blames for the attack. Fortunately, India's commendable restraint and Pakistan's action in shutting down Kashmiri militant groups defused the military crisis. But these palliative actions did nothing to address the underlying conflict between old foes India and Pakistan.

Lashkar was founded at the end of the anti-Soviet Afghan War to channel jihadist energies into a new struggle aimed at freeing the two-thirds of divided Kashmir ruled by India.

Kashmir is India's only Muslim majority state. Muslim Kashmiris have sought independence from India since 1947. Most Muslim Kashmiris desired union with Pakistan, though an important minority called for total independence of the Himalayan mountain state, a position opposed by both India and Pakistan. Kashmir's Hindu and Sikh minority, about 35-40% of Indian Kashmir's 8.5 million citizens, wanted to remain part of the Indian Union.

In 1989, an anti-Indian uprising erupted. Some 22 Kashmiri Muslim jihadist groups, some secretly aided by Pakistani intelligence, battled Indian troops and police in a brutal, dirty war marked by constant atrocities on both sides. India has amassed 500,000 soldiers and paramilitary troops in Kashmir in an effort to crush the Muslim rebellion.

In the process, between 40,000 and 80,000 Kashmiris died, the majority Muslims. Indian human rights groups have repeatedly criticized India's tactics of repression in Kashmir that have included collective punishment, arson, assassinations, and gang rapes of Muslim women.

I visited many of the Kashmiri mujihadin guerilla camps in the Pakistani-controlled third of Kashmir, clustered around Muzzafarabad, and accompanied Kashmiri mujihadin on their operations against Indian forces, as I recount in my book, 'War at the Top of the World,' which is all about Afghanistan and the 61-year old Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir.

Two jihadi groups, Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammed, ran the biggest camps. Both were armed and financed until 2002 by ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service which used them as proxies in Kashmir and as a way of keeping India off balance and on the defensive.

India and the U.S. quickly condemned Lashkar and other Kashmiri jihadis of the Mumbai outrage. Delhi accused Pakistan and ISI of being behind the murderous attacks, but has yet to offer proof to outsiders. India routinely blames ISI for violent incidents. Pakistan, in turn, accuses India of fomenting violence on its Northwest Frontier and strife-torn Karachi.

Washington also claimed its old ally, former ISI chief Hamid Gul, was involved. General Gul is well known to me from the days of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad. Gul is a respected Pakistani nationalist, not a terrorist. His real crime in U.S. eyes: calling Taliban `freedom fighters' and blaming the U.S. government for the 9/11 attacks, a view 30% of Americans also share.

Pakistan bowed to U.S. pressure and arrested Lashkar's leaders.
Pakistan is bankrupt and engulfed by corruption. Its cash reserves were stolen during the U.S.-backed Musharraf dictatorship. Pakistan now subsists entirely on American money, a humiliating comedown for a nation founded as a beacon of good government, justice, and Islamic rectitude.

Most Pakistanis ardently support the Kashmiri liberation struggle as Pakistan's national cause and most important strategic concern.

But after 9/11, the U.S. put a gun to Pakistan's head, forcing Musharraf to both support to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and denounce Pakistan's ally, Taliban, and the Kashmiri jihadis, as `terrorists.'

The U.S. and India were delighted. India always claimed the Kashmir uprising was due to `cross-border terrorism' from Pakistan, though the revolt was a genuine national uprising against Indian misrule.

Pakistanis were outraged by this double betrayal, calling Musharraf an American stooge. Now, President Asif Zardari's feeble new government is continuing the same policy under U.S. pressure, to the anger and contempt of many Pakistanis. He is seen as being even more subservient to Washington than his hated predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistan has two governments: civilian and military. The generals and ISI have never abandoned their goal of a Pakistani-dominated Afghanistan, or continuing the Kashmir jihad. Both are seen as vital national interests. Pakistan's generals look with derision and distaste on Zardari, the widower of the slain Benazir Bhutto, who is dogged by accusations of gross corruption and malfeasance.

Washington has rented 130,000 Pakistani soldiers to wage war against Pashtun tribesmen allied to Taliban on Pakistan's Northwest Frontier. The U.S. pays their salaries and provides them with food and transport. These rented soldiers, or `sepoys,' as the British Raj used to call its native troops, detest their mission. The once proud Pakistani army has become a mercenary force fighting its own people at the command of Washington.

Now, in response to the fast deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is putting together a plan to send more divisions of its rented Pakistani Army to fight Taliban and other resistance forces in Afghanistan.

Few Americans understand the growing radicalization of Pakistan caused by Washington forcing Pakistani rulers and soldiers to go against the sentiments and interests of the nation.

Instead, the U.S. keeps listening to the westernized Pakistani elite, less than 1% of the population, and left-leaning 'experts,' like Ahmad Rashid, who keep telling Washington what it wants to hear, rather than hard truths.

The festering Kashmir conflict that pits nuclear armed India and Pakistan against each other lies behind the Mumbai massacre. Solving this dangerous business must be as high a priority for the great powers as ending murderous attacks on civilians. President-elect Barack Obama has laudably stated his intent to tackle the thorny Kashmir issue.

Endlessly repeating the mantra about 'fighting terrorism' will not solve the dangerous conflicts in South Asia or, for that matter, the Mideast.