MADRAS, India — The world entered the New Year with a greater fear of a nuclear catastrophe. Adding to the alarm over North Korea’s disclosure that it possesses atomic weapons was Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s assertion that he was ready to use them during heightened tension with India early last year.

“I personally conveyed messages to India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, through every international leader who came to Pakistan, that if Indian troops moved a single step across the international border, or Line of Control, they should not expect a conventional war from Pakistan,” he told Pakistani Air Force veterans on the penultimate day of 2002.

The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two nuclear Asian neighbors — who have been quarreling over Kashmir, a region claimed by both — did not lead to a full-blown war, largely because of sustained international diplomacy. What is now of paramount importance is to try and convince both India and Pakistan to get rid of their nuclear arsenal. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.

While Washington has spared no effort to hound Iraq — purely on suspicion that it may have the means of mass destruction — and is actively trying to disarm a nuclear North Korea, U.S. policy toward New Delhi and Islamabad appears to remain beset by a strange sense of reluctance and inertia.

However, on closer look, American policy seems clearer. Despite all its efforts to play policeman in the global arena, Washington is guided by selfish interests. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, and U.S. ambitions to control this natural wealth are transparent enough. It is in Washington’s interest to have at least a friendlier regime that fits in with its energy security. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein does not fit.

As far as North Korea is concerned, atomic proliferation in the region is likely: Japan and South Korea may be forced to arm themselves in the event Pyongyang refuses to disarm. Also, Tokyo and Seoul are Washington’s closest allies in the east with a strong U.S. troop presence in both nations. Worse, North Korea is developing missiles that can hit Alaska.

On the other hand, a nuclear-armed India and Pakistan pose no direct threat to America; hence they are of little concern. U.S. President George W. Bush knew very well that Islamabad had helped North Korea acquire a nuclear capability; yet he underplayed this fact in a way that could be highly detrimental to peace in South Asia.

This is not to drum up support for New Delhi staying nuclear, but the dangers of a nuclear Pakistan far outweigh those of a nuclear India. Musharraf’s recent statement, and his subsequent sheepish denial, reaffirms a widely held notion that such deadly bombs in the hands of a regime as unstable as Pakistan’s spells trouble.

Yet, Washington will do precious little to force Pakistan to dump its nukes. Some analysts feel that “factors in Pakistan have an important place in the geopolitical and geostrategic considerations and related activities of the U.S.” The U.S. will not abandon Pakistan.

Let’s look at one example: New Delhi’s repeated plea to Washington to declare Pakistan a rogue nation has been in vain. Although Pakistan’s role in fighting a proxy war in Kashmir through terrorism is well documented, both President Bill Clinton and Bush paid little attention to it.

The fact is that the basic direction of U.S. policy vis-a-vis India and Pakistan has not changed since the two countries became independent in 1947. The emphasis on using Islamabad as a strategic ally may shift. Earlier, for example, it was directed mainly at the Soviet Union. Then there was a time when the U.S. was worried about Iran and the rise of established fundamentalism. Today there are other considerations, such as the U.S. focus on Central Asia, and perhaps a certain anxiety over China.

Come what may, Pakistan will be forgiven and tolerated by the U.S. Unfortunately, the rest of the world seems to have overlooked this as well. Musharraf’s yearend bragging portends an irreversible nuclear escalation that the world ignores at its own peril.

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