The fact that responsible individuals and governments are talking about the casualties that would be created by a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan is a powerful indication of how close the prospect of war between the two countries truly is. Both the Indian and Pakistani governments deny that there is any likelihood that their conflict will escalate to that point, but these assurances ring hollow. The two countries have already fought three wars and skirmish virtually all the time. More worrying still is the prospect of radicals in both countries exploiting the tension and confusion to trigger war by miscalculation.

There has been concern that a confrontation between Delhi and Islamabad could go nuclear since 1998, when the two countries engaged in tit-for-tat nuclear tests. It is estimated that the two countries have developed arsenals that hold dozens of weapons — the upper range is almost 100 in India’s case and about half that for Pakistan. Both governments pooh-pooh the critics, maintaining that the nuclear threshold will not be breached. They note that nuclear weapons were never used during the four decades of the Cold War, despite several “hot” conflicts. They also argue that any claim that South Asian governments are any less rational or careful with their nuclear arsenals smacks of racism or nuclear apartheid. Only last week, Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf reiterated the standard line, noting that “one shouldn’t even be discussing these things, because any sane individual cannot even think of going into this unconventional war, whatever the pressures.”

Unfortunately, both governments have also made it clear that their national security strategies include the use of those arsenals. India has promised never to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict; it does not have to, since its conventional forces are superior to those of its rival. Predictably, Pakistan has made no such pledge and has stated that it would use whatever it has in its arsenal if “the nation’s survival” were at stake. India thinks it knows where that line is drawn and has given quiet assurances it will not cross it. At the same time, however, nationalists in India have reportedly made suggestive comments that hint at pushing Pakistan to the brink.

Neither government plans an all-out war. Pakistan apparently believes that its nuclear arsenal provides an umbrella that allows Islamabad to provoke Delhi without fear of retaliation. The Delhi government, tired of Pakistan’s promises — and failure — to halt cross-border insurgents and subjected to increasing domestic criticism for failing to take action against Islamic militants, is considering limited strikes against the terrorist training camps.

The assumption that escalation can be controlled is a dangerous one. Leaving aside questions about operational command and control of the arsenals, the facts do not give much ground for confidence. Unlike the Cold War, these two rivals share a border, which means there would be little response time in a crisis. The two governments have developed missiles to deliver the arms; such platforms encourage governments to “use them or lose them.”

The greatest danger is that militants in either country could take matters into their own hands. With 1 million troops squaring off across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir, the region is a powder keg. Angry nationalists in both countries are eager to strike at the other in the name of national honor or ethnic pride. Extremists on either side of the Line of Control would welcome a conflict to resolve the long-standing division in Kashmir — and some think partition in 1947 was a mistake.

For all the uncertainties, one thing is sure: A nuclear exchange would have catastrophic consequences. According to a U.S. Defense Department report, in the worst case scenario of an all-out nuclear war between India and Pakistan as many as 12 million people could die, and as many as 6 million others could be injured. A “limited” war, with 10 bombs exploding in the major cities of each country, would kill more than 3 million people in the immediate blasts and from radiation.

Fears that these are not merely abstract calculations are mounting. Last week, foreign ministers of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations issued a joint statement declaring that they were “gravely concerned about the risks inherent in the current crisis between India and Pakistan, which could destabilize the region and beyond.” Governments and international organizations such as the United Nations have advised their dependents to leave the two countries. That is a rational reaction to the mounting crisis in South Asia, but it is not enough. The world must make its position clear: Soundly condemn the terrorist campaign that is supported by Pakistan and pressure Pakistan to end its support for Kashmiri militants. Above all, the nuclear specter must be dispelled.

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