In Praise of Nukes (Gulp): Contrary to Media Hysteria, Nuclear Weapons Have Actually Had a Sobering Effect on India and Pakistan. but That Can't Last Forever

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

Relax. there won't be a nuclear war on the Indian Subcontinent. At least not this month. Frustrated though it is, India will be deterred from launching a military offensive by two things--nuclear weapons and American soldiers. Contrary to much of the media hysteria, nuclear weapons have actually had a sobering effect on both India and Pakistan. In the first 30 years of their independence (pre-nukes) they fought three wars; in the second 30 (post-nukes) they have fought none. To put it another way, if neither side had nuclear weapons, they would be at war right now. Nuclear deterrence is not pretty--remember the Cuban missile crisis--but it usually works.

Second, India knows it wouldn't be easy to fight now because many of Pakistan's prime targets--its air bases, for example--are swarming with American troops. For its part, Washington has a huge incentive to put out the flames. If there is a war, its operation against Al Qaeda will collapse as Pakistan's troops abandon the Afghan border to fight Indian forces.

There's a final reason why India won't go to war. Its current strategy is working. What you have been watching for the last three weeks might look like a frenzied move toward war. In fact it is a well-thought-out attempt by India to end Pakistan's support for terrorism in Kashmir. New Delhi has decided that in order to get Pakistan's--and Washington's--attention, it has to make threats that are utterly believable. As one of India's best columnists, Shekhar Gupta, wrote last week, "To be convincing to others [the strategy] had to be so real that even we believe that we are heading for war."

Washington has moved fast, bearing down on President Musharraf to halt the terrorist traffic into Kashmir. This week's trips by Richard Armitage and Donald Rumsfeld will emphasize that message. But then what? Having solved this month's crisis, Washington and the world will breathe a sigh of relief and go home--and there lies the danger. Both India and Pakistan are reaching a point of no return on Kashmir. Kicking the can down the road will only ensure another crisis later. And that one will not be so easily defused.

The most likely scenario is that Pakistan, under pressure, will put a stop to terrorist crossings for a couple of months--as it did after the last blowup in January--but then allow them to slowly resume. When, inevitably, another major terrorist attack takes place in Kashmir, India will face its own crisis of credibility. …