Richard Reeves

The Indian Scenario: From Bad to Worse

WASHINGTON -- The harder part of the American war against terrorism began last week as Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in large numbers began to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan along ancient smugglers' trails through the mountains that divide the countries. And then, in a plan from hell, a Pakistani suicide squad attacked the Indian Parliament meeting in New Delhi.

These are terrifying developments for anyone who knows that part of the world. We're not in Afghanistan anymore, a country only by courtesy of mapmakers, which functions in many of its places as if the Middle Ages had never ended. India and Pakistan, enemies since they were laid out by fleeing British mapmakers in 1947, are countries of a different order, blessed and cursed by many of the tools of modernity, from pharmaceuticals and air conditioning to modern armies with jet fighters and nuclear missiles.

At the end of October, I wrote of the "Indian Scenario," describing it this way:

"If United States and British forces accomplish their goal of driving the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, defeated Taliban (and al-Qaida) fighters will flee to the only place they can go, Pakistan. The military government of President Pervez Musharraf could soon itself be fighting off a resurgent fundamentalist movement in the streets and in the countryside. ... The United States, concerned about Pakistan's stability -- and its nuclear weapons -- talks about moving in to secure nuclear sites. But India may not bother to talk, preferring to just do it. Indian troops might parachute into Pakistan, taking those nuclear storage and missile areas. At the same time, the Indians could move up to and across the Pakistan border in the Punjab and Kashmir ..."

Friends in Pakistan quoted 50-50 odds on that scenario two months ago. Those odds are worse now. The next bet will be whether Pakistan itself survives -- and how many people would die in its bloody breakup. Hundreds of thousands died in 1970 and 1971, when what was then called East Pakistan produced an independence movement and was invaded and brutally occupied by the Pakistani army, which was based in West Pakistan. Then the occupiers were defeated and captured by the Indian army, creating the new country now called Bangladesh. West Pakistan retreated into what we now call Pakistan.

If there are Indian attacks now into the west, it is likely that the Pashtuns we have come to know would attack across the Khyber Pass into Pakistan's North West Frontier Province in an attempt to create the old tribal dream of a country called Pashtunistan. To the east, Iranians would be tempted to move into Baluchistan Province, a land of Shia Muslims who speak a dialect of Farsi, the Persian language.

This is close and complicated. It depends on at least four factors: (1) How patient can the Indians be, particularly with nuclear missiles pointed their way? (2) Will the Indians trust the guarantees of the Americans who have been (irrationally) pro-Pakistan most of these 50 years? (3) Can the Pakistani army control the 5,000 or so Pakistani, Afghan and Arab Muslim terrorists in the divided and disputed teritory of Kashmir? (4) Is there a chance that the Pakistan military will divide into pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban factions?

If war comes to the subcontinent, the Indians will win, as the United States would be able to defeat Canada or Mexico on our continent. India spends only 2 percent of its gross domestic product of $469 billion on the military, but that fuels an active military force of more than 1.1 million men. Pakistan spends 5 percent of GDP on defense, but with a GDP of $61 billion, it has only 400,000 men under arms.

The news of the day is about American (or British) military forces moving into Somalia or Iraq in an extended war on terrorism. But those countries will be a sideshow if the war in Afghanistan becomes an aggravating factor in rising tensions between Pakistan and India. Working out a peaceful deal there -- not an easy thing -- should be on the Americans', the alliance's or the world's next agenda.

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