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 Thursday, 23 May, 2002, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Assessing the nuclear risk
India's long-range Agni II missile on show
India accuses Pakistan of backing Kashmiri rebels
The BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones

The risks of yet another military confrontation between India and Pakistan are real.

Pakistan and India have been struggling for control of Kashmir ever since they became independent in 1947.

The two sides regularly fire artillery shells across the Line of Control and, since 1989, Indian forces in Indian-held Kashmir have faced a violent uprising known as the insurgency.

After US President George W Bush announced his war on terror in the wake of the 11 September attacks, Delhi hoped that Islamabad would withdraw its support for Pakistan-based militants.

Test firing of Shaheen-1, a Pakistan-made missile
Pakistan reserves the right to fire its nuclear weapons first
Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf - first in January and again this week - has promised to crack down on Islamic militants.

But India believes that the general is not sincere and that, in reality, he is continuing to back Pakistan-based insurgents.

India's frustration has led the government of Atal Behari Vajpayee to issue a series of bellicose statements.

Western diplomats worry that there has been so much talk of Indian action that Delhi will now fear looking weak if it shows restraint.

Special case

But there are good reasons for believing that, if some form of conflict did begin, it would be on a limited scale.

Military planners in Delhi and Islamabad have always treated Kashmir as a special case.

On a number of occasions, there has been fierce fighting in Kashmir which has not led to a full-blown conflict across the international border.

Officials in Delhi have indicated that they are currently thinking in terms of a limited symbolic strike - possibly an air raid - across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

If they do take such action they may well attempt to destroy a militant training camp in Pakistani-held Kashmir.

Nuclear escalation

Should that happen, Pakistan is almost certain to respond.

Since both countries have nuclear arsenals, any India-Pakistan conflict is bound to cause huge international concern.

But both sides would have to climb a long series of escalatory steps before their nuclear forces came into play.

Even with troops massed on the international border, it is unlikely that either side would want to start a full-blown war.

Command and control risks

Pakistan, which has far fewer conventional forces than India, has always reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first.

It sees its nuclear capability as a deterrent to be used only in the event of a full-scale Indian invasion that threatened Pakistan's national survival.

Even if any fighting is restricted to Kashmir, however, both India and Pakistan may feel the need to disperse their nuclear weapons to ensure that their nuclear capabilities could not be destroyed in any surprise attack.

Dispersal carries risks in terms of command and control. As the weapons are moved to isolated locations, the chances of accidental detonation or unauthorised use increase.

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23 May 02 | South Asia
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