Fears Of India-Pakistan Nuclear War Raged In 2002

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New Yorker writer Steve Coll i

New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll says that amid the escalating tensions of 2002, India concluded that going to war was not in its best interests. New America Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption New America Foundation
New Yorker writer Steve Coll

New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll says that amid the escalating tensions of 2002, India concluded that going to war was not in its best interests.

New America Foundation

Tension has dominated relations between India and Pakistan since their independence from British rule in 1947. The Dec. 13, 2001, attack on India's parliament brought these nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of war — and highlighted the divide.

Just before noon, five gunmen attacked India's parliament building in New Delhi, killing 14 people, including the five attackers.

Jaswant Singh, who at the time was India's foreign minister, says he was in his office in the parliament building about 20 feet from where the attack was initiated.

"I heard machine gun fire and I knew it was a full-fledged attack," he tells NPR's Melissa Block. "Once the main door was shut, then grenades began to be thrown and so there was grenade fire, which you can't mistake."

'Eyeball-To-Eyeball Confrontation'

India blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group from Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region that has been the source of conflict between the neighboring rivals since the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. India claimed the attackers were part of the Kashmiri separatist group, armed and supported by Pakistan. Lashkar is the same group blamed for last month's attacks in Mumbai.

Within weeks, India had mobilized a half-million troops along the Pakistani border and deployed nuclear-capable missiles. Pakistani forces responded in kind.

"At the height of that crisis, there were troops on that frontier between the two countries in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, which obviously made the region very fraught," Maleeha Lodhi, who was Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. at the time, tells Block. "This was deemed and read by Pakistan at that time as an exercise in coercive diplomacy by India.

"India was playing off the 9/11 dynamic. It was trying to exploit the war on terrorism for its own purposes, hoping to win international sympathy and support — especially for its position on Kashmir," Lodhi says. "And we felt that this whole military escalation was an effort by India to drive a wedge between Islamabad and Washington, and also cast Pakistan as some kind of supporter or abettor of terrorists."

Rhetoric Escalates

The rhetoric on both sides was fierce.

Two weeks after the attack on India's parliament, then Pakistani president Gen. Pervez Musharraf said his country would use all means to defend itself in the event of a war.

"Pakistan has taken all countermeasures," he said at the time. "If any war is thrust on Pakistan, Pakistan armed forces are fully prepared to face all consequences with all their might."

Steve Coll, who has been writing about South Asia for 20 years and who is now a staff writer for the New Yorker, says Musharraf was trying to intimidate India by brandishing Pakistan's nuclear capability.

Musharraf wanted "to raise doubts in their minds about what would be the threshold at which Pakistan's army might feel sufficiently threatened to consider first use," Coll tells Block. "This was never spelled out. This puts doubts in the minds of the Indian commanders."

Coll says that the standard view inside the U.S. government today is that war was a very close thing in May 2002. He says that India concluded, however, that war was not in its best interests.

Infrastructure Of Terror

"I think India concluded, correctly, that as frustrating as it was, they could not accomplish anything in war that would be worth the price of waging that war," Coll says. "India's economy was racing ahead. India was breaking out into a new century of great-power status and prosperity, and the infrastructure of terror in Pakistan unfortunately cannot be destroyed by military means alone.

"It requires political programs. It requires economic programs. It requires a sort of will that cannot be imposed from outside," he says. "So, as a rational matter, the cost-benefit equation didn't just add up."

Coll also says that despite the November attacks in Mumbai, in which 164 people were killed, the two countries are not close to a conflict like they were in 2002 because the Indian government recognizes that the government in Pakistan is much more unstable, more divided and weaker than it was in 2002.

Self-Induced Problems?

Lodhi, the former Pakistani envoy to the U.S., says as India considers its response to Mumbai, it may also wish to consider something more fundamental about Pakistan.

"I've always said if nations were like individuals, my country would have moved out of its neighborhood a long time ago," she says.

Lodhi says that Pakistan has faced decades of instability in Afghanistan on its western border as well as the unresolved conflict over Kashmir on its eastern frontier.

"I think this has produced a state which has lived in a very insecure and a very vulnerable way," Lodhi says. "It has felt itself vulnerable living in the shadow of a big neighbor, India, which somehow hasn't had a big heart to match its big size."

But Singh, who is now a leader of the opposition, says Pakistan's fears are of its own making.

"Pakistan and India are borne of the same womb and if Pakistan today speaks of the insecurity that it has, I am personally of the view that a great deal of that insecurity is self-induced," he says.

Singh says Pakistan is wrong to try to strengthen its national identity though militant Islam and continuous hostility toward India. Pakistan, he says, has to answer this question: What is its foundation?

"In hatred, there is no answer," he says. "In perpetual enmity, there is no answer. And in continuous, self-induced uncertainty and insecurity there cannot be an answer."

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