Two of the three wars fought by India and Pakistan since independence were over divided Kashmir. The fourth conflict looming ever closer focuses once again on the perennial dispute between the two nuclear neighbors. Yet DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report that, if the match is lit, the two belligerents are planning to take the combat beyond Kashmir and deep into each other’s heartlands. The vulnerable areas of India are Punjab in the north opposite Pakistani Punjab, Ganganagar in HaryanaState in the center on the fringes of the IndianDesert and Rajasthan in the south. Pakistan sees danger to its northern towns of Gujranwala and Lahore, its central region of Bahawalpur and Sind in the south.
Both New Delhi andIslamabad are gravitating towards war for the following reasons:
A. The Kashmir dispute is the overriding ideological, emotional, national and religious cassus belli – though not the only one. According to New Delhi, the cross-border Islamic terrorism plaguing Kashmir is backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Service-Intelligence agency. Pakistan terms the escalating combat in Kashmir a national war of liberation waged by Muslim Kashmiris against the oppressive Hindi Indian occupiers.
B. According to DEBKAfile’s exclusive Asian sources, the war buildup is also the outcome of circumstances. The US-led war in Afghanistan and its impending offensive against Iraq created conditions in the Indian subcontinent and Arabian Sea that invite the two neighbors to stake all on a final strategic decision of their fifty-year old conflict.
The Vajpayee government sees its chance of wielding its military preponderance – 1.2 million troops against a Pakistani army half that size, and an air force and navy standing in the same quantitative ratio to Pakistan’s – to seize large parts of Pakistan for one or more of gains: 1. To take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability; 2. To enfeeble the Musharref military government and render its army a long-term non-threat to Kashmir; 3. To topple the central government in Islamabad.
C. The Musharref government likewise feels its has been offered a great opportunity to cut India down to size at last. With the help of the superior nuclear weapons, missiles technology and guidance systems supplied by China, the Pakistani army believes it has a chance for the first time in half a century to beat Indian might and bring New Delhi’s pretensions as Asia’s number one power to naught. Islamabad believes that by going to war it will force the big powers, United States, Russia, China and Iran, to treat Pakistan’s interests with more respect.
As to these powers, despite the frantic diplomatic comings and goings, none has tried too hard to avert the hostilities until the eleventh hour, each for its own reasons.
The United States: The Bush administration’s dominant objectives in its ongoing war on terror can be summed up at present as being, first, to pre-empt a terrorist nuclear strike against the United States and, second, to strip of their nuclear weapons regimes capable of letting them pass into the hands of terrorists or elements hostile to America. These were not the goals President George W. Bush started out with after the September 11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington, but as the counter-terror war unfolded, the nuclear threat loomed ever larger until it took center-stage. This concern governs Bush’s dogged determination to go to war on Baghdad – the next most likely date is the coming fall – and divest Saddam Hussein of his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons at all costs.
Judging by the way international crises are going at present, DEBKAfile’s military experts do not rule out the possibility of the fall months of September and October 2002 seeing three full-scale wars raging at one and the same time, between India and Pakistan, the US and Iraq and Israel and the Palestinians.
To ward off an additional complication, Bush applied all his powers of persuasion to making Russian president Vladimir Putin cut back on technological and military aid for completing the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. This was the main topic at issue between the two presidents when they met in the third week of May. Putin promised to see what he could do, but nothing has so far been known to happen.
Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry is a worry to Washington, as much as the Iranian and Iraqi nuclear capabilities. Though saying little, the US administration has been haunted by the thought of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Muslim extremists like al Qaeda. It would therefore welcome the elimination of Islamabad’s nuclear option, even if this came about as a result of a full-scale Indo-Pakistani war.
While both nations acquired nuclear weapons in 1998, Pakistan’s arsenal is not thought to contain more than 30-50 nuclear warheads of 20-25 kilotons each, while India has at least three times that number. Whereas Pakistan’s delivery systems are limited to missiles, India’s air force MiG, Jaguar and Mirage planes can deliver nuclear bombs. Both sides are capable of inflicting millions of deaths. But for full strategic effect, Pakistan must exhaust its entire arsenal, while India can hold a portion back in reserve.
Russia: Most of the Indian army’s weapons systems are made in Russia. Its battle tank is the Russian T-90. A full-scale war would be an economic bonanza for Moscow’s military and heavy industries, which would be called upon to produce massive re-supplies of arms and ammunition. This would provide Putin with a juicy carrot to offer Russian industrial leaders to soothe their anger for canceling Russia’s profitable military transactions with Iran.
An Indian victory would also strengthen Russia’s standing in Central Asia and South Asia.
China: If Pakistan, armed with Chinese weapons systems, air force, missiles and nuclear technology, prevails, it will give China’s geopolitical situation a boost. Beijing’s policy objective of stepping up Chinese influence in the Muslim world, especially in Iraq, Iran and Libya, as a means of delimiting US-Russian expansion in Asia, will gain added impetus. Even if Pakistan fought India to a tie, given the asymmetry of their forces, Musharref could still claim a victory, one that would reflect favorably on China’s standing as a regional and world power.
In a word, not a single key government seems to own a stake in preventing the two nuclear powers from stepping off the edge into the abyss. That leaves only the two protagonists, Atal Behari Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharref. It is up to them to make the crucial decision about whether to sit down and talks things through seconds before they plunge their countries into immeasurable tragedy.
They do in fact have one other interest in common. Large al Qaeda forces are fomenting trouble in Kashmir, attempting to ignite war. Both governments would benefit by cutting Osama bin Laden’s terrorists out of the equation and sidestepping the extremists’ efforts to manipulate both sides.
Military and Asian sources disclose that both sides have laid their war plans for the worst-case scenario:
India’s Strategy: Indian troops would drive into different parts of Pakistan: Jumping off from Amritsar in the Punjab, they will head west and advance on the east Pakistani towns of Gujranwala, Lahore and Faisalabad, hotbeds of Muslim extremist groups, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jamat al Dawa and al Qaeda militants, who provide recruits to be trained for combat n Kashmir. The Indian army appears to be preparing to emulate some of the tactics employed in the Israel Preventive Shield Operation against Palestinian towns in April. They will enter the towns’ outskirts and clear out Islamic terrorist strongholds. This action will also tie down substantial Pakistani forces, leaving the Pakistan general command unable to divert them to Kashmir as reinforcements.
At the end of last week, a senior Pakistani intelligence officer informed Western correspondents at a briefing that the Pakistan has only just discovered the relocation of large al Qaeda contingents from remote areas, where American forces have been hunting them, to Pakistan’s big towns.
In New Delhi, some interpreted this as an attempt to lure the Indian army into big Pakistani cities and pin them down in street fighting in terrain where the smaller Pakistani army has the advantage and can inflict heavy casualties.
Around Ganganagar in Haryana State, India is massing large tank, artillery and air force units, ready to defend the capital against a direct Pakistani assault from Punjab. But the main Indian assault force is poised in the southeast for a blitz supported by tanks and elite units from Rajasthan against the Pakistani region of Sind. India hopes to strike Hyderabad and Karachi from land, air and sea, so as to cut Pakistan off from its Arabian Sea coastal area, with its harbors and oil industry.
An Indian success in this sector would leave Pakistani army divisions fighting in the central and northern regions, as well as the civilian population, without supplies of ammunition, food and fuel.
Pakistan’s Strategy: The Pakistani army is not big enough to match India’s ability to fight on three fronts. Its generals will therefore focus on an all-out attempt to leap from the Pakistani Punjab to the Indian Punjab and on south to HaryanaState. A second task force will collect in the central Pakistani region of Bahawalpur ready to spring into IndianHaryanaState and cover the distance to New Delhi. The chances of these two forces actually reaching the gates of New Delhi are slim, but the attempt calls for audacity.
American intelligence evaluations of the progress of the Indo-Pakistan war recently swung round sharply from a short, intense conflict to a drawn-out struggle that could stretch over many months, together with an estimate of between four to six weeks into the fighting before either of the belligerents considers whether or not to bring out its nuclear weapons.
Military experts, on the other, note that once a war confrontation begins, developments on the battlefield force the pace of decisions.