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ISTANBUL — Reports of fighting along Kashmir's cease-fire line don't normally receive much attention in the western media. Last week, for example, saw a series of clashes on 8 and 10 January that killed both Pakistani and Indian troops.
One of the Indian soldiers was decapitated, provoking fury across India and calls from its extremist Shiv Sena Hindu party for a nuclear attack on Pakistan.
Gunfire is common on the 1947 cease-fire line known as the Line of Control that divided the beautiful mountain kingdom of Kashmir into Indian and Pakistani-controlled portions. Fighting in that tense region always has the potential to quickly escalate into a major war — or even nuclear conflict.
Having been under fire numerous times on the LOC, I used the experience in my first book, War at the Top of the World to illustrate just how dangerous the simmering Kashmir dispute remains. A dispute that went from bad to critical after India and then Pakistan acquired and deployed nuclear weapons. This, I wrote, was the most dangerous strategic threat facing the globe.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars and some very large battles over Kashmir. Both claim the entire mountain state. Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, has waged a long covert campaign to insert guerillas into Indian Kashmir to aid a series of spontaneous rebellions against Indian rule by the state's Muslim majority.
This writer has joined mujihadin fighting their way across the lethal Line of Control which is defended by Israeli-constructed fences, electronic sensors, minefields and Israeli-supplied drones. Losses run very high among those trying to cross the line.
Muslim Kashmiris have been in almost constant revolt against Indian rule since 1947 when the British divided India. Today, 500,000 Indian troops and paramilitary police garrison rebellious Kashmir. Some 40,000-50,000 Kashmiris are believed to have died over the past decade in uprising.
India blames the violence in Kashmir on "cross-border terrorism" engineered by Pakistani intelligence. Human rights groups accuse Indian forces of executions, torture, and reprisals against civilians. Large numbers of Hindus and Sikhs have fled strife-torn Kashmir after attacks by Muslim Kashmiri guerillas. It's a very bloody, dirty war.
The Kashmir conflict poses multiple dangers. First is the very likely chance that local skirmishing can quickly surge into major fighting involving air power and heavy artillery. In 1999, a surprise attack by Pakistani commandos into the Indian-ruled Kargil region provoked heavy fighting. The two nations, with more than one million troops facing one another, came very close to an all-out war. I have on good authority that both sides put their tactical nuclear weapons on red alert. Angry Indian generals called on Delhi to use its powerful armored corps to cut Pakistan in half. India's cautious civilian leadership said no.
Second, the Kashmir conflict also involves India's strategic rival, China. Beijing claims the entire eastern end of the Himalayan border separating India and China, which Chinese troops occupied in a brief 1963 war. China also occupied, with Pakistan's help, a high strategic plateau on the western end of the Himalayas known as Aksai Chin that was part of historic Tibet.
China is Pakistan's closest political and military ally. Any major Indian attack on Pakistan would risk intervention by Chinese air, ground and missiles forces in neighboring Tibet.
Third, in the midst of all these serious tensions, India and Pakistan's nuclear weapons — delivered by air and missile — are on hair-trigger alert. This means that during a severe crisis, both sides are faced with "use it, or lose" decision in minutes to use their nuclear arsenals.
The strategic command and control systems of India and Pakistan are said to be riddled with problems and often unreliable, though much improvement has been made in recent years.
A false report, a flight of birds, and off-course aircraft could provoke a nuclear exchange. By the time Islamabad could call Delhi, war might be on. A US Rand Corp study estimated an Indo-Pakistani nuclear exchange would kill two million immediately, injure or kill 100 million later, pollute the Indus River and send clouds of radioactive dust around the globe.
That is the excellent reason why we should keep a weather eye on Kashmir and press India and Pakistan to make a fair settlement of this exceptionally dangerous 66-year dispute.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.