Foghorns of War

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ANTHONY SPAETHIt's called Chicken's Neck: a narrow strip of land with a contentious border to the west, mountains to the east and a two-lane highway running up the middle. The road is a strategic one. It connects India's embattled state of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of the country. At times of war, arch-rival Pakistan can virtually behead India--thus the nickname--by taking control of the road.Which is why, for more than 50 years, war has rarely ceased at Chicken's Neck. Indian and Pakistani soldiers fire machine guns at each other every day, every night, more or less randomly (casualties occur regularly). At one point, no-man's land is but 100 m wide, and the soldiers hurl taunts across it. The Pakistanis offer beef to their cow-worshipping Hindu rivals; the Indians promise to send over pork, which Muslims abhor. When there's a lull in the firing, one side will accuse the other of running out of ammunition. That's a joke. It hasn't happened in five decades and isn't likely anytime soon. There is nothing territorial to be gained, sighs Brigadier Jaspal Singh, the Indian commander, but you just keep trying to hit each other. Two countries simply banging away. It's so sad.India and Pakistan have been banging away at each other for a half century and have fought three wars, two of them over the hallowed land called Kashmir. By traditional standards, Kashmir is not a highly strategic piece of property, but it is beautiful and dear to each nation--the Helen of the subcontinent's Greeks and Trojans--and neither side shows any interest in a solution that involves compromise. It's an old story, one of the globe's most enduring geopolitical conflicts, predating such other intractable knots as Cyprus and the antagonism of the two Koreas.But that story got a fresh and dangerous twist last May when India tested five nuclear devices and said it might load them onto planes and missiles. Pakistan followed suit with six nuclear tests of its own. Both countries' nuclear capabilities were known, but neither had said it would make the bombs ready for use. They're on that threshold now without the expensive and sophisticated fail-safe mechanisms needed to prevent accidental nuclear war. (Even the residence of India's Prime Minister has been known to suffer a power blackout.) A missile launched from one capital to the other would take only a few minutes to arrive, affording no leeway for hotline negotiations or the self-destruct buttons familiar from Hollywood thrillers. Escalatable skirmishes take place every day, not just at Chicken's Neck but at numerous points along the 790-km Line of Control in Kashmir, the de facto but disputed border, and on the Siachen glacier, a useless, 685-sq-km piece of ice the countries have been fighting over since 1984, at the cost of thousands of lives. It's all too easy to imagine a military exercise near the border, say, or even an angry exchange of words sparking a war--because the latter very nearly happened in 1990 and was prevented only by urgent U.S. diplomacy.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
And now, six months after the nuclear tests, things have become truly dangerous on the subcontinent. It's universally acknowledged that the stronger the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad, the lesser the risk of war. But since the administration of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee set off its bombs, it has slid into popular disdain for accomplishing little else and allowing an explosion in food prices. Across the border, Prime Minister Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif's economy is close to collapse and the country's ten-year fling with democracy is seen as an abysmal failure. India is almost certainly destined for decades of weak coalition governments; Pakistan may not be able to keep its governing system at all. Yet both countries have nuclear weapons, no firm command-and-control system to keep them in check, a propensity to pick wars with each other--and a billion-plus people who, in the nuclear present, all find themselves in neighborhoods equivalent to that of Chicken's Neck. Radioactive fallout from the world's first two-party nuclear exchange would circulate around the world. According to Amartya Sen, the Indian who won this year's Nobel Prize for economics, the nuclear tests created not a sustainable, cold war-type standoff but a complete balance of terror.It's a peculiar and dangerous fact, however, that visitors to the subcontinent feel no sense of terror on either side of the border, on the streets, in the corridors of power or at dinner parties, where virtually identical food is served. If anything, the average Indian and Pakistani is irked that the United Nations won't formally recognize their countries as full-fledged nuclear powers. Defense gurus such as Bharat Karnad, strategic analyst at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, argue that the need of the hour is more firepower not less, including missiles capable of reaching American soil. Washington began talking to Beijing, he notes, only after China acquired ICBMs that could hit the West Coast of the U.S. Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy made headlines last summer with an anguished, 8,000-word essay decrying the danger of nuclear war on the subcontinent. She was shrugged off as a wet-lipped publicity seeker.One reason is that each country's nuclear capability was previously known, in India's case as far back as 1974. But the greater explanation is that the animus between India and Pakistan is so familial--two countries that were once one--so familiar, almost so comforting, that even a nuclear escalation translates into old and accustomed emotions of national pride and annoyance with the other side. As in most long, bitter divorces, both sides seem to thrive on fresh twists and turns in the conflict, even potentially calamitous ones. Unlike other geopolitical divisions after World War II, such as the splitting of Germany and Korea, the partition of the subcontinent has never been considered anything but irrevocable. When Germany was reunited in the early 1990s, the easiest way to draw a blank stare in New Delhi, or a hiss in Islamabad, was to ask if the subcontinent could someday be unified. After 50 years, the idea of a subcontinental free trade zone is still anathema to many. No direct airplane flights are allowed between the country's capitals. The tussle over Kashmir is complex but hardly unsolvable, except for a deep foundation of stubbornness and spite on both sides. France and Germany could bury the hatchet in one generation, notes Ashwini Ray, professor of international relations at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. On the subcontinent, memories of an adversarial relationship go much deeper.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
Both populaces reacted identically to the nuclear tests in May: not so much alarmed by the unveiling of new and more dangerous arsenals as cheered at brighter and bigger flags to be waved in the rival nation's face. On the Indian side, politicians insisted the bombs wouldn't cost all that much. Pakistani officials were less glib, but they assured the public the price was worth it. The people believed them, which was remarkable considering the usual low level of credibility of subcontinental pols. In fact, Indians and Pakistanis would have been wiser to exercise their instinctual skepticism. For the price has already been high and can only mount.The most immediate cost was felt by India. In conventional arms, New Delhi has substantial military superiority over Pakistan. But nuclear weapons equalized that equation, and Pakistan has refused to surrender its new advantage by signing a No First Strike agreement with India. Of course, this was theoretically true even before the May tests. But theory has become a different kind of reality as both Indian and Pakistani defense establishments debate how far to go: whether to put weapons on planes or missiles, how much testing is feasible before the world cracks down, how much to spend on control systems. The dollar expenditures will always be hidden in national budgets, but they're already enormous--officially 2.5% of India's GDP is spent on defense, and the figure is more than 5% of Pakistan's--and virtually certain to escalate. India has a nuclear stockpile of about 65 warheads, Pakistan one-third of that. But if either side wants credible nuclear deterrence, it will need a second-strike capability--meaning more bombs--and a reliable command-and-control system. The idea that you can get a nuclear system cheap is not correct, says Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The U.S. spent $5.6 trillion over the past 50 years. Analyst Karnad estimates that a second-strike capability, along with other goodies such as nuclear-powered submarines to launch warheads, will cost India up to $14 billion over the next 30 years. But according to K.C. Pant, head of an Indian task force that is planning a National Security Council, the cost is worthwhile. Regardless of what happened in the past, he says, we should not stop now from acquiring a credible nuclear deterrent.After the May tests, Washington slapped sanctions on both countries, and Tokyo followed suit. Pakistan was close to defaulting on its foreign debt and sanctions prevented the International Monetary Fund from stepping in with help. U.S.-funded projects in India, including two power plants, were endangered. This month, Clinton announced that some of the sanctions were being lifted, citing concrete steps made to simmer down subcontinental tensions. They include promises made by the two prime ministers at the U.N. in September that they would sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty--which will effectively freeze development of their nuclear programs--and recent peace talks between Indian and Pakistani officials. In fact, the talks have gone nowhere, like all such parleys since the early 1970s, and both countries have edged away from their commitments to the CTBT.  |    |  3  |    |  
 
The reality is that Pakistan's economy is in such grave danger that the American sanctions were threatening to push it off the cliff. That explains why Vajpayee, when asked to comment on the lifting of sanctions on both countries, complained, This is not in the interest of the entire South Asian region. In other words, no matter how much India suffered, it would have been more useful for Pakistan actually to collapse. Which also encapsulates the most dangerous feature of a nuclear subcontinent: as with the most bitterly estranged spouses, one partner might not mind setting fire to the house--as long as the other's side was likely to burn down first.For a snapshot of the state of the subcontinent, you need only look at the daily newspapers. A recent front page of India's The Asian Age contained two stories about the price of onions in India, which is six times higher than a year ago; a piece about Pakistan delaying a long overdue cross-border bus service from New Delhi to Lahore; and a report on India and Pakistan's fruitless discussion about the Siachen glacier conflict (The acrimony was very visible...). Vajpayee was quoted as saying he'd never used a computer, but I know information technology promotes some essential components of Gandhian and Indian vision of development. One of Mahatma Gandhi's grandsons had appeared on Pakistan television with a controversial stand on Kashmir. And L.K. Advani, home minister and second most powerful figure in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, announced that the Buddha didn't really start a new religion 2,500 years ago but was a closet Hindu.Heavy going over morning coffee, and hardly encouraging. If Richard Nixon was the only U.S. President who could have gone to China, thanks to his anti-communist credentials, you could argue that the pro-Hindu, ultranationalistic BJP is the party capable of cutting the gordian knot of Kashmir and burying the subcontinent's bloody hatchet once and for all. If you think so, think again. The fact is that the BJP governs in a fractious coalition: its poor performance has it in perpetual campaign mode. And the BJP's campaign strategy has always been to take aggressive pro-Hindu stances, such as Advani's ahistorical slam of Buddhism, that risk divisiveness in the hope of getting support from proud Hindus.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
Nawaz Sharif is in a similar mode: even though his party has a two-thirds majority in Pakistan's parliament, he has managed to do little right since coming to office in February 1997. To deflect public anger, he has turned more Islamic than his predecessors, and he recently praised the less-than-enlightened governing philosophy of Afghanistan's Taliban leadership. Both countries are in economic trouble. Pakistan's foreign reserves have plunged to $450 million, enough to cover only three weeks of imports. Even better-off India is wobbling. The country long ago lost its enthusiasm for economic liberalization, and some large government financial institutions are teetering, causing concerned consumers to start buying gold. Not to mention the skyrocketing vegetable prices, which have been especially painful for India's masses. The government hates the poor, says Radha, a widow raising three children in a New Delhi slum. I wish it would use those bombs on us. At least that would be better than starving us to death.Insecure governments rarely lead nations out of decades of conflict. More often, they get mileage out of calling rival nations bad names or trashing other religions. These are political statements that betray a deep sense of insecurity, says Deepa Nag Haksar, a philosophy professor at Delhi University. And insecure fingers near nuclear launch buttons are the newest, and biggest, danger for the subcontinent and the world.But if you travel to the Indian border near Sialkot, a town in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, an intriguing thing happens when war gets in the way of daily life. Rice is the local crop; the paddies are located in the no-man's land between Indian and Pakistani troops. As at Chicken's Neck, machine-gun fire is nearly constant. But when farmers need to plant, or to harvest, a simple procedure suffices. A soldier on one side blows a whistle. The two sides meet, agree on a temporary cease-fire, and the farmers go about their business.A tin whistle, a single breath, a reasonable chat--peace. If only the insecure leaders of New Delhi and Islamabad could trade in their 50-year-old foghorns of war.Reported by Meenakshi Ganguly/Chicken's Neck, Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad and Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi  |    |    |    |  5