Conventional Wisdom and Nuclear Wisdom

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

The Editors

THE THREAT OF war between nuclear powers on the Indian subcontinent appears to be receding as this issue of Against the Current goes to press.  That is grounds for relief, but not comfort.  It may indeed be the case, as many ordinary citizens of India and Pakistan apparently believe, that the danger of all-out war and annihilation was overstated throughout.  But make no mistake, this crisis may be in remission but it has not been resolved.

Kashmir, the central bone of contention between India and Pakistan, is in itself a local issue with a specific history.  But it takes on a larger significance in the context of the U.S. “war on terrorism.” We’ve been told that this war will bring about a safer, more stable and peaceful world; that the first great post-Afghanistan dividend is Russia attaching itself to NATO; and that what this world needs most is the kind of strong, responsible and courageous leadership in the anti-terrorist struggle that can only be provided by the United States of America.

The Palestinians under the rubble of Jenin (described in Charity Crouse’s eyewitness account elsewhere in this issue) may have a different perspective.  But let’s look more closely at the chronic threat of a fourth war on the India-Pakistan subcontinent, whose potential consequences would dwarf the catastrophes in Palestine, Colombia and even Iraq.

Here are the essential points to understand about the India-Pakistan confrontation: why the outbreak of war, in any given phase of the conflict, is unlikely; why the war if it did break out would be fiendishly difficult for anyone to stop; and what this crisis has to do with the U.S. war in the post-September 11 world.

War between India and Pakistan does not erupt easily, for the simple reason that it is not in the interest of either state, the Indian ruling class, or the military caste that dominates Pakistan.  It would likely be ruinous for the Indian economy, and conceivably fatal for the very existence of Pakistan (which lost half its former territory in the war thirty years ago when East Pakistan became Bangladesh).

Yet the war danger is always present, if only because of the intractable conflict over Kashmir.  This is a product of one among many botched de-colonization projects in which colonial powers—no longer capable of profitably ruling the territories, and looking for the cheapest way out—chose the apparently expedient option of communal partition.  (India in 1947 is a leading example; Palestine, Ireland and Cyprus are among the others.)

Most of Kashmir wound up in India, because of the whims of a Hindu maharajah in defiance of the mainly Muslim population of the province.  The referendum which was promised to the population of Kashmir to determine their own future was never held, because their free choice was too much of a threat to the interests of the states that emerged from the division of the subcontinent.

From Partition to Perdition

Communalist partition always produces nasty anomalies.  In the case of the subcontinent, the majority-Muslim Kashmiri population has come to experience Indian control as an increasingly brutal colonial occupation.  Yet this population also shows little interest in being incorporated into a dysfunctional Pakistani state in which religious fundamentalism, alien to the Kashmiris’ indigenous culture, is increasingly entrenched.

As far as it is possible to discern their desires, it appears that most Kashmiris prefer either independence or a high degree of autonomy.  Neither state can contemplate this kind of democratic solution: The bourgeoisie and political elites of India are haunted by the historic fear of fragmentation of their country (the dangers of Tamil, Sikh or Bengali separatism made worse in response to the rise of Hindu-chauvinist fanaticism), while Pakistan’s military derives much of its legitimacy from posturing as protector of the Muslims.

The charges hurled back and forth, alleging respectively Indian brutalities and Pakistani-supported infiltration of jihadi elements into the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir, are generally accurate on both sides.  Into this longstanding impasse, introduce the new world after September 11, in which both India and Pakistan stake a strong claim for support from the United States.

The government of India argues: After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, didn’t the U.S. military go around the world to dismantle a terrorist network sheltered in Afghanistan?  Does India not have the right to strike a Pakistani regime that enables that very same network to strike the Indian parliament and civilian targets?

And Pakistan replies: Didn’t the government of Pervaiz Musharraf put its own existence on the line when it abandoned the Taliban and went into an anti-terrorist partnership with George Bush?  If as Bush proclaims “you are with (U.S.) or with the terrorists,” then hasn’t Pakistan demonstrated its loyalties?

And so these reactionary regimes, both under the umbrella of Bush’s proclaimed war against terror, drag their populations toward the brink of an unimaginable catastrophe.  The danger is only made worse by internal circumstances—within India, the communal violence caused by Hindu-supremacist provocations in Gujarat; inside Pakistan, the presence within the society and the military Interservices Intelligence (ISI) of Taliban/al-Qaeda sympathizing elements who hope to destroy the U.S.-Musharraf partnership.

[For a discussion of the roots of the influence of militant Islamist movements in the region, see Dianne Feeley’s review of Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban and Jihad elsewhere in this isue.]

Mutual Assured Devastation?

In this most recent crisis, war could have begun with a decision within the core of India’s government to let off political steam with a limited punitive strike, say, into the Pakistan-controlled sector of Kashmir from where jihadi elements infiltrate.

Yet it is at this juncture that logic and lunacy dissolve into each other.  An India-Pakistan war scenario has some resemblance to the hideous Iran-Iraq Gulf War of the 1980s, but with the obvious difference of potential nuclearization.

India has the conventional military superiority to ensure victory over the Pakistani armed forces, but not enough to do so quickly and easily.  India would likely sustain significant casualties; and then, political pressure would build to press the operation toward decisive victory, so that sacrifices would not be “in vain.” Yet the prospect of a military “solution to the Kashmir problem” would leave Pakistan’s military caste in a nothing-left-to-lose position that could impel it to threaten first use of nuclear missiles.

The actual use of nuclear weapons is not a rational option here, not only because it would induce an overwhelming Indian response but because it would surely bring about a multilateral imperialist intervention that could terminate Pakistan’s existence as an independent country.

But under the kind of hypothetical circumstances we are sketching, rationality does not always prevail.  Stuff happens.  And we are also dealing with a situation in which there may be factions for whom Pakistan’s very existence is secondary to the interests of jihad.  Such elements are not in power, and not likely to gain power, but chaotic conditions can produce unexpected results.

The World Bush Made

It is most critical to recognize that the United States’ post-September 11 war drive, which in a previous editorial (ATC 98) we described as a unilateral military vanguardism, has a very direct and central role in the escalation of this crisis from a local conflict of national chauvinisms to the danger of global disaster.  Washington’s unmistakable “tilt” toward the Indian side, worsening both the danger of war and the fragility of Pakistani politics, meant playing with nuclear fire.

This was not Washington’s intention, of course, but even the greatest superpower in world history cannot fully control the consequences of the maintenance of empire.  Decades of external intervention and meddling destroyed Afghanistan, making it the breeding ground for totalitarian-religious fanaticism; the imperialist war following 9/11 has widened the arc of instability into the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

The ever-worsening disaster in Palestine and Israel is a further consequence, which we have covered elsewhere; and the coming U.S. war against Iraq can have only worse consequences.

Even if diplomatic efforts have succeeded in cooling down the immediate danger of an Indian subcontinent war—and since it is in the basic interests of all the main parties to avert this war, the chances of success in such endeavors are high—the crisis will remain, and the next round won’t be far off. The appearance of a stable world system under U.S. global management should now be utterly discredited.

Nor should we forget ultimately why the world is threatened with nuclear Armageddon.  The most immediate danger may come from a second-tier but threatened power, like India, and a weak and severely crisis-ridden state like Pakistan.  But there is one and only one state that has actually used this ultimate weapon of mass destruction—the greatest imperialist power, the United States of America.  Further, the nuclear arsenals capable of obliterating global human civilization reside in the hands of the major world powers (USA, its main western European allies, the adversary-turned-ally Russia, China) and one particularly strategic U.S. junior partner, the state of Israel.  They are a legacy of the imperialist confrontations of the twentieth century, which brought humanity to the brink of self-annihilation, and they now hang over a world in which the Cold War has been supplanted by September 11.

Socialist and disarmament thinkers like the late Daniel Singer and E.P. Thompson often warned us that human survival was in a race against time. We can see every day how prescient they were. This is the world that global capitalism and Bush have made; let us hasten to change it.

ATC 99, July-August 2002