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November 2002

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World Affairs

Apocalypse Soon?
Threat of nuclear war grips India, Pakistan

When they consider the volatile politics and formidable geography of the Indian subcontinent, many diplomats and military specialists see it as the most dangerous place in the world.

Pakistan and India have been adversaries since they were created in 1947 with the partition of British India. Both have stationed thousands of troops in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, whose lofty valleys have long served as invasion routes between warring neighbors. The desire to protect its northern flank—and to maintain its pluralistic identity—drives India's refusal to part with its only Muslim-majority state. Meanwhile Pakistan, predominantly Muslim, insists that Kashmiris should have the right to decide themselves whether they want to be part of Pakistan or India. The conflict has resulted in both sides acquiring nuclear weapons that, if launched, could mean the deaths of between nine and 30 million people.

Once a nuclear-tipped missile is launched, no one has the means to recall it. Warning time for most targets will be less than five minutes. The darkest scenarios suggest that both countries would aim strikes at major cities. A blast and the following firestorm and rain of radioactive fallout could kill almost a million people in India's commercial hub of Mumbai (Bombay), warns one study. The high seasonal humidity in many of the region's cities would act to trap fallout and intensify its effects. Crop fields, the mainstay of India's and Pakistan's local economies, could be poisoned for at least a generation.

Any solution to the Kashmir dispute will likely entail more autonomy for the besieged inhabitants, but for now the region smolders, a fuse that could spark the planet's first war between nuclear-armed adversaries.

—Tom O'Neil

Web Links

British Broadcasting System (BBC): South Asia's High Nuclear Stakes
This BBC site provides an extensive overview of the dispute between India and Pakistan.

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: Pakistan's Nuclear Forces, 2001

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: India's Nuclear Forces, 2002
These two pages on the site of the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences summarize the known nuclear capabilities of Pakistan and India.

Indian Embassy in Washington, DC: Jammu and Kashmir
At this official site of the government of India, you will find articles, maps, speeches, and historic documents that represent India's position on the conflict over Kashmir.

Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC
Learn more about Pakistan at the official site of the country's embassy in the United States.

The Kashmir Times
Read about local news at the home page of the Kashmir Times, located in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Center for Strategic and International Studies: South Asia Program
The South Asia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies examines issues facing this region, including U.S. policy toward India and Pakistan and the economic outlook for these countries. It also produces a monthly newsletter, the South Asia Monitor, which features in-depth articles about the region.

Free World Map

Ganguly, Sumit. "Back to Brinkmanship," American Prospect (July 1, 2002), 18.

Ganguly, Sumit. Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001.

Kumar, Radha. "Untying the Kashmir Knot," World Policy Journal (Spring 2002), 11.

Lennox, Duncan. "Comparing India and Pakistan's strategic nuclear weapon capabilities," Jane's Report (May 30, 2002).

Margolis, Eric S. War at the Top of the World: The struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet. Routledge, 2000.

McKinzie, Matthew, Zia Mian, M. V. Ramana, and A. H. Nayyar. "Nuclear War in South Asia." Foreign Policy in Focus, June 2002. Available online at

Ramana, M. V., and A. H. Nayyar. "India, Pakistan and the Bomb," Scientific American (December 2001), 72-83.

Simons, Lewis M. "Kashmir: Trapped in Conflict," National Geographic (September 1999), 2-29.

Wirsing, Robert. India, Pakistan, and the Kashmir Dispute. St. Martin's Press, 1994.

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