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Paris, Saturday, June 19, 1999

India and Pakistan Won't Go to War


By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune
LONDON - Listen to the high-flown rhetoric from Indian and Pakistani leaders or read the hyperbolic warnings of commentators and you would think that the two countries are on the brink of war in Kashmir. But a wider look at the India-Pakistan relationship gives a different perspective.

The hype about the risks of war has some obvious sources. Foremost is the clear effort by powerful elements in the Pakistani political and military system to undermine Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Ever since his election, and especially since the Lahore Declaration was signed in February by Mr. Sharif and his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, extremist elements in Pakistan have looked for a way to undermine détente and the prime minister. Western intelligence sources admit that their former friends in Pakistan have provoked and sustained the clashes around the Kargil sector of Indian Kashmir.

The exaggerated worries also owe a great deal to fears in the wider world about the effects of India and Pakistan having formally declared their nuclear capabilities in May 1998. This, the first crisis in a nuclear environment, was expected to escalate rapidly to a nuclear confrontation.

Having worked everyone up into a high state of worry, it was not long before everyone had their pet project for international mediation. Nothing has happened, in large part because foreign leaders understand that no external mediation will make a difference. The United States, Britain and other Western governments have gone out of their way to minimize the conflict, especially with real risks in Kosovo on their mind. Unlike following the nuclear tests last year, Western leaders have made no grandiose proposals for a settlement.

Neither, as Asian governments will demonstrate at the Association of South East Asian Nations forum on security next month, will there be a serious effort by other Asians for mediation. Perhaps the most ludicrous idea in the diplomatic ether is that Beijing has a mediatory role to play - never mind that China is a party to the Kashmir conflict (having been ceded territory by Pakistan) or that it provided the essentials for Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.

Standing back from today's hysteria, one can see more clearly a strategic reality set by India's dismemberment of Pakistan in the 1971 war. From then on, Pakistan ceased to be a life-threatening problem for India, and Pakistan knew that it had no full-scale military option against India. Kashmir could have its skirmishes - sometimes, as this year, on a larger scale than before - but both sides understood the need to contain the risks.

The nuclearization of South Asia has reinforced this calm conclusion. Much against the grain of conventional thinking, in some circumstances nuclear deterrence can help reduce the risks of all-out war.

The current India-Pakistan tension will take its by now familiar course. India will increase its military capability in the region and, in a slog through the mountains, reduce the insurgents to a smaller threat. The threat will not go away, and there will be tensions again this time next year, as there have been for decades.

Fundamental change in the relationship will not come through external mediation or military triumph. Much like the equally long-lasting and complex Arab-lsraeli conflicts, an improvement in relations only comes with more basic domestic change.

So long as Pakistan has a weak government beset by military hard-liners and the likes of Benazir Bhutto seeking demagogic political advantage, Mr. Sharif will be in no position to stop the increased support for the insurgents, let alone to make peace.

India also has a weak government as it awaits a general election this autumn. As in the case of a democratic Is-rael, optimists might hold out hope that a democratic India will gradually grow confident enough in its position and committed enough to economic reform that it will want to make peace. But without an Anwar Sadat or a King Hussein in Pakistan, we will be waiting for some time for peace.

The writer, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.