HONOLULU — Senior American envoys like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage deserve praise for their seemingly successful efforts to move India and Pakistan back from the brink of war once again. As history has brutally demonstrated, even a conventional armed conflict between these two South Asia adversaries would cause untold human suffering on both sides. It would also seriously detract from Washington’s continuing war against terrorism and could even put U.S. military forces based in Pakistan directly at risk. But alarmist reporting notwithstanding, the current confrontation was and is not likely to denigrate into a nuclear confrontation.

Both Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf have made it clear, publicly and privately, that the use of nuclear weapons is not being contemplated. For its part, New Delhi is on record proclaiming a nuclear weapons no first-use policy. More importantly, India not only doesn’t need to resort to nuclear weapons but actually puts itself at a strategic disadvantage if it were to do so, given its overwhelming conventional superiority.

Meanwhile Islamabad, while appreciating the role of its nuclear arsenal as the “great equalizer,” also fully understands the “last resort” nature of such weapons. Unless the survival of the nation is at stake — and India’s clear objective is not Islamabad but terrorist camps inside Pakistani Kashmir — use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan makes no strategic sense; in fact it would hasten the end of the Pakistani state.

As long as both countries’ nuclear arsenals remain firmly in the hands of the respective national command authorities, deliberate, accidental, or precipitous use of nuclear weapons remains an extremely slim possibility.

Herein lies the rub. Strategic planners in both countries remain unsatisfied merely in possessing such weapons of mass destruction. They continue to plan for the operational field deployment of nuclear warheads atop surface-to-surface missiles pointed at each other’s capitals and other key targets. Were this to happen, the prospects of accidental or even deliberate pre-emptive use could increase significantly. More importantly, it would increase the likelihood of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups or those sympathetic to their cause. Current preoccupation with “dirty bombs” should not detract us from the even greater threat caused by actual nuclear devices falling into the wrong hands.

One of the great ironies of India’s 1998 decision to come out of the nuclear closet by declaring and demonstrating its nuclear weapons capability — an action which Pakistan, to no one’s surprise, quickly echoed — is that this action has actually limited rather than expanded New Delhi’s options. Would the world’s leaders be rushing to South Asia and speaking out so forcefully against Indian strikes against Islamic terrorist bases in Pakistan if both countries were not self-declared nuclear weapons states?

It is the possible consequences of a nuclear exchange — with estimated death tolls ranging from 3 million to 12 million — that has driven international pressure against India’s otherwise seemingly fully justifiable retaliation (notwithstanding the low probability that such weapons would actually be used).

If becoming a nuclear power has limited India’s military flexibility, field deploying such weapons would be even more counterproductive. This is not because India lacks the expertise or discipline to maintain effective command and control over such weapons; it probably does. But, as was the case following India’s 1998 nuclear tests, an operational deployment of nuclear weapons by India is almost certain immediately to be followed by a similar move by Pakistan. The Pakistani military’s ability — indeed, some would argue even its desire — to keep such weapons out of the hands of Islamic extremists who would not hesitate to use them against India (or Washington, or perhaps even the Musharraf government) is much less certain.

This is not a new concern. At the July 1998 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila shortly after the India and Pakistani nuclear tests, the assembled foreign ministers urged both countries “to refrain from undertaking weaponization or deploying missiles to deliver nuclear weapons,” recognizing that such a step would be a serious threat to peace and stability in the region. But this critical aspect of the South Asia nuclear equation is today being completely overlooked. It must not be ignored any longer. Otherwise, future crises could prove much more explosive.

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