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In an exotic region often referred to as the top of the world, nuclear danger is lurking.  Two of the world's newest atomic powers, India and Pakistan, have faced-off in a confrontation over the territory of Kashmir. On a deeper level, though, it is a conflict involving ethnicity, cultural identity, religion and nationalism.

Just as Americans were getting used to thinking of the Balkans as a geopolitical flash point, the confrontation between these two Asian nations has assumed a new poignancy -- one suggested by President Clinton's trip...[in 2000-MAR] to the volatile region. The tension between India and Pakistan has resulted in a cycle of
violence going back over thirty-five years when fighting over Kashmir first erupted.  In 1971, India captured East Pakistan -- a nation created by the same bifurcation that gave rise to Pakistan -- which today is the independent state of Bangladesh.  Two armies are now once again separated by a "Line of Control" which divides the Kashmir province, and both sides continue their arms buildup in the region. 

Making the confrontation more unstable, though, is the nuclear capability of both India and Pakistan.  In March, 1998, India resumed its atomic testing program; Pakistan followed with its own entry into the nuclear community just seventeen days later.  Both sides now boast crude but adequate missile delivery systems capable of reaching into the other's territory.

The roots of this conflict date back to 1947 when the British pulled out of India following two centuries of colonial rule.  The region had been the site of a "Great Game" during the heyday of European imperialism, as rival powers -- Britain, France, Russia, Germany and others -- jockeyed for political influence.  The British departure established two new, independent states divided along ethnic and religious lines.  India remained the center of a mostly Hindu population, while Muslims headed north to the newly created Pakistan.

"The divide was on the basis of religion," says Pakistani Minister of Information Mushahid Hussain.  "Hindus in India, Muslims in Pakistan. Ten million people swapped homes, cross borders ...it was a very traumatic experience."  Another million people died in the ethnic-religious conflicts of one of the most extensive population migration in recent history.

The fate of the Kashmir, though, a highland located at the foot of the Himalayan range, was never resolved.  When the British withdrew in 1947, the region was under the control of Maharajah Hari Sing, a Hindu.  While the population was mostly Muslim, the raja decided that Kashmir would become a province of the state of India.  That move did not sit well with either the native Islamists, or the new leaders of Pakistan who considered the Kashmir a natural part of their own cultural terrain.  Civil war broke out in 1948, and again in 1965. The "Line of Control" exists today as a contested boundary.  The Indians charge that rebel militias backed with arms and support from Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, make regular incursions into the area.

Several factors render the situation in the Kashmir potentially

bulletEnthusiasm for conventional and even tactical nuclear war in the Kashmir is intense on both sides.  ABC News correspondent Peter Jennings recently noted, "almost no one speaks of peace."  The nuclear tests in 1998 precipitated wild approval in the streets of both capitals, and the respective sides continue their saber rattling rhetoric, and a buildup of conventional arms.  Pakistan's economy is close to collapse, but the government continues to fortify the frontier, perhaps seeing the potential war in Kashmir as a distraction from problems at home.  Defense expenditures and debt service now consume 75% of the national budget.  India, for its part, has authorized a 28% hike in military spending for next year, most of it targeted for its forces in the contested region.  Just last month, India conducted war games along its border region with Pakistan, mobilizing 20,000 troops for the exercise.
bulletDiplomatic contacts are limited.  The intelligence services on both sides seem notoriously unable to read the intentions of the other government, and some observers suggest that both India and Pakistan have accepted the inevitability of some kind of nuclear exchange in the near future.
bulletPakistan and neighboring Afghanistan have become hotbeds of emergent Islamic fundamentalism.  Ironically, this may be the fault of the United States.  During the late 1970s and 80s, U.S.  foreign policy encouraged the support of a coalition of Muslim groups loosely known as the Mujahadeen, which fought against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.  Working through the Central Intelligence Agency,... the Pentagon armed Islamic rebels with small arms, artillery, and even stinger missiles.  Religion became an important rallying point, and Islamic guerillas were recruited from as far away Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.  Ironically, one of those joining the U.S.-backed holy war was Osama bin Laden. With the Soviets gone, Afghanistan quickly descended into civil war. Rival militias fought for political control, as well as revenues from the country's lucrative drug trade.  There is evidence that Pakistan's intelligence service funneled assistance to the fundamentalist Taliban militia, seeing it as the best guarantor of stability in the region. The "holy warriors," though, veterans of the Mujahadeen crusade, supported the ranks of the Taliban, or continued their other work on behalf of a Pan-Islamic theocracy in the region.  An estimated 40% of the Islamic guerillas now operating in the Kashmir are foreigners, mostly from Pakistan but also Afghanistan.  Many see the fight there as part of a larger Islamic holy war, not only against India but the West as well.
bulletPakistan's successful entry into the select but growing ranks of the world's nuclear club raises the unpleasant prospect of an "Islamic bomb," or the equally chilling scenario that materials for small atomic devices could fall into the hands of Mujahadeen groups. Intelligence estimates suggest that at the present time, India has stockpiled sufficient weapons-grade plutonium to manufacture 74 atomic warheads, while Pakistan has sufficient uranium for about 10 weapons. In 1998, stung by their failure to predict nuclear tests by either India or Pakistan, U.S. intelligence agencies began reassessing the doctrine that Pakistan is unlikely to share any of its nuclear capability with other Muslim countries or groups.  The concept of an "Islamic bomb" dates back to the late 1970s when then-Pakistan Prime Minister Ali Bhutto mused, "We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability -- a Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilization have this capability ...The Islamic civilization is without it, but the situation (is) about to change." Not all Arab states approve of the need for an "Islamic bomb," and the Organization of Islamic Conference issued a statement expressing "deep concern" over the Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs.  Leaders of militant Muslim groups, though, were less concerned.  Sheik Ahmed Yassin of the Palestinian Hamas movement declared that an Islamic nuclear device should be "considered an asset to the Arab and Muslim nations."
bulletWith the cold war over and the old bipolar political alignment giving way to a new international configuration, the conflict between India and Pakistan takes on a more pronounced role -- a confrontation between "civilizations."  In the Kashmir, the boundary line separates not only the political interests of these two Asian states, but the different cultural and religious groups they represent -- in this case, Hindus and Moslems.  These respective civilizational groupings are divided not only by geographical territory, but disputes involving language, culture, religion and national identity.  Writing in "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," (1996, Simon & Shuster), Samuel P. Huntington noted: "Spurred by modernization, global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines.  Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together.  People and countries with different cultures are coming apart.  Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization. Political boundaries are increasingly withdrawn to coincide with cultural ones: ethnic, religious and civilizational..."
bulletAlong with the military instability of the region, there is Pakistan's tenuous nationhood.  Last month, Gen.  Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup directed at what he described as a "culture of corruption."  Musharraf is the architect of Pakistan's current military strategy in the Kashmir.  While promising to "pave the way for democracy" and eliminate a "sham" governmental system, he has also pledged to prosecute any war against enemy, even if it requires nuclear weapons.

Can Musharraf's government survive, though?  Military regimes have intermittently run the country for 25 of its 52 years.  Pakistan is also on the verge of bankruptcy, and the $32 billion in debt. Musharraf has no popular support for reducing or ending the campaign in the Kashmir, either.

Unwittingly, the Pakistani government has encouraged the rise of militant Islam.  As the public education system has collapsed, youngsters -- male -- are being educated through a thriving network of religious schools that rely on teaching little besides verse from the Koran... Many increasingly speak...of the need to turn Pakistan into a "pure" Islamic state.

Despite the recent visit by President Clinton to both countries, it is unlikely that either side will change its course in the near future. Both nations rightly perceive the U.S.  role as either limited or even irrelevant.  Military and political officials from India and Pakistan often speak of a nuclear confrontation as inevitable, but somehow survivable.  Equally disturbing, [is] the growth of militant religious groups in the Kashmir... with their fingers on a nuclear trigger.

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Copyright © 2000
Originally written: 2000-MAR-28
Latest update: 2000-APR-1
Author: AAANEWs

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