The Nuclear Brink in South Asia

The India/Pakistan Conflict and the U.S. "War on Terrorism"

Revolutionary Worker #1155, June 16, 2002, posted at

The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is now at the brink of war. On the border between India and Pakistan, a million soldiers face off--700,000 from India, 300,000 from Pakistan. 50 nuclear weapons are poised in Pakistan, 100 in India.

The unthinkable threatens to become reality: A nuclear exchange that could mean the immediate death of as many as 30 million people. Millions more would die later. The economies of both nations would be decimated. Destruction and famines would send millions of refugees to neighboring countries.

Warships, planes, tanks and missile batteries are in place in India's largest-ever military mobilization. Millions of landmines have been planted along the border. Pakistan's army has transferred troops from the western border with Afghanistan to the Indian border in the east.

At the border between India-occupied Kashmir and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, there are daily exchanges of mortar and artillery fire. At least 25,000 villagers have already fled these border areas.

The U.S. and other imperialist powers pretend they have nothing to do with how the India-Pakistan conflict started and how it developed to the point where the two states are threatening each other with nuclear weapons. But the truth is this conflict has everything to do with imperialism.

Backdrop of Imperialist Domination

India and Pakistan have been fighting over the disputed territory of Kashmir for over 50 years. But the roots of this conflict are not, as some bourgeois analysts would have us believe, in some kind of endless religious and ethnic rivalry.

The roots of the fight over Kashmir lie in the history of British colonialism in South Asia. The ongoing rivalry between India and Pakistan has been stamped with a long history of U.S. domination and superpower rivalry in South Asia. And the current crisis has emerged in the context of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the U.S. "war on terrorism" and its campaign to strengthen and enforce U.S. hegemony and control.

Until the end of World War 2, the Indian subcontinent was under the colonial rule of British imperialism. Britain carried out a divide-and-conquer policy by deliberately exacerbating the divisions and differences between various nationalities and between the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religious groups. With the end of direct colonial rule, Pakistan was partitioned as a separate Muslim state.

Kashmir was supposed to be given the choice to join India or Pakistan, or to remain independent. But fighting over Kashmir broke out between India and Pakistan. And ever since, the comprador governments of India and Pakistan (collaborating with and serving imperialism) have each wanted to control Kashmir for their own interests.

U.S. "War on Terrorism"

After September 11 the U.S. pressured Pakistan into cooperating with its so-called "war on terrorism," and India offered support to the U.S. to advance its own interests.

Pakistan, with its 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan, became crucial to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and Pervez Musharraf, the head of Pakistan's military government, cravenly submitted to U.S. requests for military and logistical support. The Indian government, headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, worried that its relationship with the U.S. would suffer as a result of the strengthened U.S./Pakistan alliance--and that this could have repercussions in the balance of power in the region.

The U.S. "war against terrorism," has encouraged and given India the opportunity to take a more belligerent stand against Pakistan. Soon after September 11, India started complaining that the "war on terrorism" wasn't targeting Pakistan-backed Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting in Kashmir. India has continued to argue, "If the U.S. can go after terrorists in Afghanistan, why shouldn't we be allowed to go after Pakistan-backed terrorists in Kashmir?" And sections of the Indian ruling elite are itching to exploit the situation created by the U.S. war in Afghanistan to settle the Kashmir question "once and for all" by defeating Pakistan.

Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its extreme Hindu chauvinism, has incited mass, organized attacks against Muslims in India, especially in the Gujarat areas near the Pakistani border--the scene of recent massacres of Muslims. Such reactionary elements in India have been emboldened by the U.S. "war on terrorism"--which has targeted Muslim fundamentalists. And this has directly fed into the escalating conflict over Kashmir, which is seen by reactionary Hindus as a sacred national cause.

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir as their own, and each has forces working and fighting for them in Kashmir. But for the people of Kashmir, true liberation requires breaking the grip of these regimes and of reactionary Islamic and Hindu agendas.

U.S. Plans and Concerns

The U.S. is worried that the growing conflict between India and Pakistan--and the real possibility of war--will seriously get in the way of its rolling "war on terrorism"--including plans to attack Iraq.

According to U.S. defense officials, the Pakistani military presence along the Afghan border has been a key element of the U.S. strategy for hunting down and capturing or killing Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who slip across the border. But Pakistan has already started to do what the U.S. feared--redeploy troops from the U.S.-led efforts to capture Taliban forces crossing into Pakistan and send them to the Indian border.

There are more than 7,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan who would be immediately threatened by radiation in the event of a nuclear war in the region. The U.S. has troops in Pakistan as well as aboard ships in the northern Arabian Sea. 35,000 Pakistani troops have been assigned to protect the U.S. forces stationed inside Pakistan. All this would be threatened by the outbreak of even a conventional war. And the four Pakistani military airfields, currently used by the U.S. to stage its operations inside Afghanistan, would be likely targets of any Indian nuclear strike.

The U.S., the ISI and the Taliban

The U.S. has demanded that Pakistan come down harder on Pakistan-based Islamic groups fighting Indian occupation in Kashmir. India says such groups are carrying out "cross border terrorism"--funded and backed by Pakistan. Vajpayee says he will not engage in any "peace talks" until Musharraf puts a halt to these groups.

The U.S., in its efforts to prevent a war between India and Pakistan, has continued to put pressure on Musharraf to respond to India's demands. But the groups the U.S. wants Musharraf to crush are the very forces the U.S. helped create and develop in the 1980s.

Pakistan's long history of ties to the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting in Kashmir stems from its collaboration and service to U.S. imperialism.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 1979, the U.S. began offering aid to General Zia-al-Haq's brutal military regime in Pakistan. Pakistan was enlisted to train Afghan fighters, supply them with modern weapons, and provide logistical and diplomatic support. In return, from 1982 to 1990, the U.S. gave Pakistan $5.4 billion, mostly military aid.

During the 1980s, the CIA used Pakistan's military and intelligence agency, the ISI, to build and support the Islamic forces, including Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This was instrumental in the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan.

After the Soviet Union was driven out of Afghanistan, many of the CIA/ISI-trained fighters ended up in Kashmir and Pakistan. Thousands of other Muslim fighters remained in Afghanistan, still backed by the ISI. Pakistan looked to these Islamic forces as a base of support to counter India and secure its power in the region.

Unstable Musharraf Regime

Now the "war on terrorism" is targeting the same groups the CIA and ISI helped create. And in this setting, Musharraf faces dangerous political repercussions and his hold on power is shaky.

Pakistan's army is a bastion of die-hard support for driving India out of Kashmir. And General Musharraf faces increasing discontent in his own army--where there is little sentiment to compromise when it comes to Kashmir.

Musharraf's compliance with the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been hugely unpopular in Pakistan, where there are millions of Muslims, including supporters of the Taliban.

Just a few months ago, Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, was training and arming groups fighting against India in Kashmir. Now Musharraf is telling the ISI to crack down on such groups. The Guardian reported recently that "several hundred in the core of 2,500 ISI [Pakistan's military intelligence service] officers remain opposed to General Musharraf's alliance with America."

So Musharraf has been forced to walk a swinging tightrope--trying to meet U.S. demands without unleashing a revolt that would topple him from power.


The U.S. is trying to defuse the crisis in South Asia because a war between India and Pakistan would not be in the U.S.' interests. But this crisis is of their own making. And even if the U.S. is able to "ease tensions" between India and Pakistan, the contradictions behind this whole crisis will not disappear--but will continue to grow and pose new dangers.

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