Missile Defense Needed in a Dangerous World: Fundamentalism Threatens Stability in Nuclear States. (Viewpoint)

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The experience of the Cold War made most people complacent in the belief that no country would launch weapons of mass destruction if, in turn, they would be faced with a retaliatory strike. Now, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have made us and our allies realize that we could be attacked by terrorists at any time with weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological or nuclear -- the terrorists don't care if they lose their lives in return.

The most immediate danger of the combination of weapons of mass destruction and fundamentalists willing to commit suicide arises from the situation in Pakistan.

Since independence in 1948, Pakistan has lost three major wars to India. The main conflict has been over the territory of Kashmir whose majority population is Muslim. Pakistan supported the Taliban in Afghanistan as a source of training for "freedom fighters" to carry out terrorist operations against India -- a Faustian bargain designed to pressure India to give up Kashmir. Now, Pakistan faces both an unstable Afghanistan and a hostile India determined to end the Pakistani-supported insurgency.

With both Pakistan and India possessing nuclear weapons, it will be a test of whether deterrence -- which enabled the USSR and NATO to avoid direct conflict during the Cold War -- will be able to prevent an escalation that would include the launch of nuclear weapons. Even if the current crisis fades, Islamic fundamentalists in Kashmir seem bent on keeping up the pressure through suicide attacks. Such attacks may cause Pakistani troops stationed on the Afghan border to be redeployed opposite India, aiding the escape of al Qaida members from Afghanistan, and they could also lead to a toppling of Pakistan's secular government and a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists.

A major war between India and Pakistan may be avoided. Nonetheless, there is a strong possibility that a fundamentalist Islamic regime could take over Pakistan's government and gain control of that country's nuclear weapons. In such a case, I believe the United States would go all out to deploy a missile defense system, however rudimentary, to the Indian Ocean region.

In the Middle East, there is also the problem that Palestinian terrorist groups could get access to weapons of mass destruction from countries such as Iraq or Iran. Unlike the fundamentalists, Saddam Hussein will not risk making himself a target by overtly using weapons of mass destruction unless his country was about to be overrun.

While he used poison gas against his own defenseless people and against Iran in the 1980s, in the 1991 Gulf War Saddam launched only missiles armed with conventional warheads at Saudi Arabia and Israel. He knew that if Iraq launched missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction, the United States, Britain and probably Israel would retaliate overwhelmingly in kind. However flawed the U.N. sanctions policy has been since the war, it has been designed to prevent further Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction, which, according to press reports, continues apace. I see two pressing concerns.

The first is that Iraq may clandestinely make these weapons available to fundamentalist Palestinian groups. In the Jan. 7 New Yorker magazine, David Remnick writes of his interview with a Hamas leader. The latter said: "We will be happy to take any square meter of land from the Israelis -- the West Bank, Gaza -- that they are prepared to give us." Remnick asked: "What are your real goals?" The Hamas leader replied: "What is the final goal of Islamic peoples everywhere? It is to establish an Islamic state in Palestine, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia -- everywhere under a single caliphate. …