The India-Pakistan doomsday scenario

U.S. intelligence says a nuclear exchange between the two feuding countries could kill 12 million. Here's how experts believe the region could explode.

By Damien Cave

Published May 31, 2002 10:17PM (EDT)

A U.S. intelligence assessment released this week warned that a full-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, whose bitter dispute over Kashmir continues to escalate, could immediately kill up to 12 million people. Assuming that both countries would use most but not all of their nuclear arsenals, the report argued that the combined blasts would immediately draw American forces into the conflict. With millions dead and up to 7 million people wounded, the world would collectively have to respond.

"The humanitarian crisis that would result would be so great that every medical facility in the Middle East and Southwest Asia would be quickly overwhelmed," a Defense Department official told the New York Times. "The American military would have no choice but go in and help with the victims and to clean up."

But are these U.S. intelligence assumptions -- and the horrific conclusion -- accurate? How exactly would the region's rising tensions lead to a nuclear exchange, and how would the world be affected? The questions take on rising urgency as President Bush sends Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the region next week to help cool tensions.

Most military observers agree that any attempt to predict how a war between India and Pakistan might intensify will likely prove inaccurate. It's nearly impossible, they argue, to "game out" a path of altercation. There are too many variables to consider, and most of the people who make military decisions don't have enough information or wherewithal to understand the possible consequences of their actions.

"People in power don't escalate logically," says Tony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense policy think tank. "They escalate in ways that are more emotional than reasonable. The history of war is almost never one in which each side knows the other side's perception of the actions taken. When we game out the conflict [between India and Pakistan] we approach escalation as if history doesn't exist."

And most observers think the U.S. intelligence report is likely the worst of all worst-case scenarios. Still, Cordesman and other experts admit that one nuclear scenario -- with a few permutations -- has gained traction in the intelligence community. That is the possibility of at least one nuclear explosion -- one that, according to an oft-discussed academic report, would immediately kill up to 860,000 people, while slowly killing many more. No one hopes to see the prediction come true, and some experts seem confident that India and Pakistan will disengage. But increasingly, regional observers say the world has to at least plan for the possibility that the conflict could go nuclear -- if not the worst-case scenario laid out in the U.S. intelligence report, a bad enough scenario that requires some attention.

The so-called nuclear game, the one experts fear but deem most likely, starts with an act of Pakistani terrorism. Already, attacks across the border that separates Indian and Pakistani Kashmir occur almost daily. On Thursday, for example, as Pakistan moved troops toward the area of conflict, a pair of Muslim militants stormed an Indian police camp in Kashmir, killing three policemen and wounding several others. India, observers argue, will eventually respond to these kinds of cross-border raids. And if civilians are targeted -- as they were in a May 14 attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir, which killed 34 people, most of them women and children -- the likelihood of a reprisal from India becomes almost inevitable, some experts argue.

That response would almost certainly not be nuclear, however. "If such an attack occurs, I expect India will strike across the Line of Control [which separates Indian Kashmir from Pakistani Kashmir] with both air and ground forces," says retired Col. Dan Smith, a security expert at the nonprofit Center for Defense Information. Where the attack occurs will likely define the next stage of war. If Indian troops threaten a Pakistani-held city in Kashmir, like Muzaffarabad, President Pervez Musharraf might wait and press for diplomacy, Smith argues. But India's military capacity dwarfs Pakistan's, and if the conflict moves beyond Kashmir -- to a more vital city like Lahore, which rests south of Kashmir but close to the Indian border -- then "all bets are off," Smith says. "Anything could happen."

More specifically, adds Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an anti-proliferation nonprofit, Musharraf would likely weaponize one or more nuclear warheads. That is, he'd load the weapon onto a delivery device, a plane or missile. It's hard to know how or when this might occur. The details of Pakistan's nuclear capabilities remain classified or unknown. Pentagon officials, speaking generally, have said that Pakistan has "a couple of dozen" warheads that are capable of delivering a yield of about 15 kilotons, or 15,000 tons, of TNT. (This is about the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.)

But no one seems to know how long it would take for such weapons to be readied for combat, if in fact they aren't already locked and loaded. And when the details surrounding deployment remain shrouded in uncertainty, and both Pakistan and India suspect that the other side is willing and able to push the button, the possibility of a preemptive first strike increases.

"Currently it's believed that India and Pakistan have not weaponized their warheads, but there will be the concern on each side that it's happened," says Kimball. "So as a conventional war is occurring, they may think that a nuclear option is right behind; they may take action in a way that they might not otherwise take."

If nuclear weapons have already been deployed in the field, the danger may be more acute. "If the ability to use these nuclear weapons has been given to regional military commanders, then their use can come about earlier in the battle," says M.V. Ramana, a physicist and research staff member in Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security. "Either because of false alarms, misinformation, accidents or intentionally, but without permission from higher political authorities."

Both Indian and Pakistani leaders seem more willing than ever to use nuclear weapons. On Thursday, Pakistan threatened once again to use its nuclear weapons. And Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has spoken repeatedly of the need for a "decisive battle." He's defended his country's right to use its nuclear weapons, which are at least 10 times as powerful as Pakistan's, according to India's claims. Plus, the political party that Vajpayee leads -- the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party -- is considered by many to be the political wing of a rising racial and Hindu mythology that lends itself to extremism.

"There's a suicidal bent that's rising," says Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist who was born in Karachi, grew up in Bombay and who is now president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. "It's a hallmark of the nuclear age: I'm going to wipe them out if they're going to wipe me out. These are the kinds of statements being made, and they're not responsible."

The confounding circumstances of war, experienced by both sides, won't likely help, adds Kimball at the Arms Control Association. "The concern here has to do with the fog of war effect," he says. "The response times that the governments have will be relatively short; and in the background is the possibility that nuclear weapons may have been loaded, deployed on short- and medium-range delivery systems."

Still, Pakistan remains the more likely nuclear actor. Unlike India, Pakistan has never sworn off the possibility of a first strike. Its standing army is weaker than India's, so it relies more heavily on nuclear power. In fact, Pakistani officials often argue that nuclear weapons are the country's most viable defense. As Munir Akram, Pakistan's new ambassador to the United Nations, said Thursday, "India should not have the license to kill with conventional weapons while Pakistan's hands are tied regarding other means to defend itself."

There are also signs that high-ranking members of the Pakistani military favor an even more aggressive nuclear stance. For example, the secretary to ousted leader Benazir Bhutto, Brig. Gen. Amanullah, as quoted in the March issue of the Atlantic, said that "We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities -- Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta." Later in the article, he added, "Before I die, I hope I should see it."

What might the effects be, if Amanullah's death wish comes true? This week's American intelligence report is not impossible to believe, but, experts argue, a more likely nuclear scenario was mapped out in 1998 by Ramana, who is also a founding member of the Indian Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

Ramana's findings gain high marks from Makhijani, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Berkeley, as well as from other nuclear experts, who defend the science behind Ramana's paper. And the story Ramana tells, while less grim than others, is morbid, depressing, dreadful. His report, which he wrote while studying at MIT's Security Studies Program, is titled "Bombing Bombay: Effects of Nuclear Weapons and a Case Study of a Hypothetical Explosion."

It assumes that a Hiroshima-size bomb explodes, as that bomb did, about 600 meters above the city, which, according to 1991 census figures, has a population of more than 9 million people. "If it is a civilian population that is being targeted, one might expect that it would be an airburst," Ramana says, noting that the Hiroshima bomb detonated in the air. "Surface bursts are preferred when attacking a hardened/buried target such as a missile silo or a command/control center," he says.

And ultimately, "depending on the population density in the part of the city that is targeted," Ramana concluded in his report, "the numbered deaths [caused by such a bomb] would range between 160,000 to 860,000." The use of nuclear weapons over any densely populated city in South Asia would result in similar casualty figures, according to Ramana.

Ramana starts by pointing out that the "prompt effects" include an initial flash of heat and light like "a thousand suns." This rush of energy, he argues, is hot enough to make sand "explode like popcorn" and to ignite all combustible materials within one to two miles around the point of explosion. Radiation would also immediately be released, leading to symptoms like nausea and bloody diarrhea for those who survive the initial explosion.

Almost immediately, a "blast wave" would arrive, hurricane-force winds of more than 65 mph that would blow for a distance of more than two miles. Everything not made of concrete within a circular radius of about three-quarters of a mile would collapse, including human bodies, while "missiles" ("physical objects propelled outward by the explosion") flew threw the air, killing others.

The delayed effects would start occurring within minutes. First, a massive "superfire" would form. A collection of individual fires, the flames would likely cover about two kilometers. Due to the fire's size, the fire zone would act as a colossal pump: It would draw in air from the surrounding areas; it would create winds with velocities as high as 30-50 mph. And the fire would be nearly impossible to put out, not just because temperatures would reach hundreds of degrees, but also because the shock wave would have destroyed water mains while collapsed buildings blocked streets.

Ramana's estimate of 160,000 to 860,000 dead, says Makhijani, is actually conservative.

"He's only talking about one nuclear weapon," Makhijani says. "If more than one were used, that kind of effect would reinforce itself. The dislocation of the fires would be worse. There'd be no exit for injured people, especially in a place like Bombay, which is an island, and which doesn't have sufficient medical facilities."

The only hope, Makhijani says, is for both parties to disengage. And as Rumsfeld prepares to depart for the region, Makhijani fears that discussion won't be enough. Perhaps, he suggests, the United Nations should create an international force that could rein in the Pakistani militants. Or perhaps the U.S. could help Musharraf's political standing by agreeing to lower trade barriers on textiles, which protect U.S. companies while making it harder for Pakistani companies to sell clothing in the U.S.

Other players and other solutions might also arise unexpectedly, says Smith at CDI.

"A wild card in the whole situation is China," he says. "Remember that China seized part of Kashmir from India (and Pakistan 'ceded' a section) in the 1960s. Also, China is a source of missile technology for Pakistan and might lose world standing if its client suffered a devastating blow. Would the Chinese do something militarily to divert India's focus from Pakistan, perhaps under the guise of acting to prevent escalation into a nuclear conflict whose radiation spillover would affect southern China?"

China's ties to Pakistan run deep, says author and international affairs columnist Eric Margolis. "Pakistan is China's most important ally, and vice versa. China and India have been in a long nuclear and conventional arms race for the last decade, which we in the West have completely ignored. China may not let Pakistan be crushed by India. And China feels that India is being built up by the United States as a counterweight to China. They [China and India] have been saber-rattling at each other, and it's very possible that there could be some form of Chinese military intervention."

All the questions, guesses and speculation may ultimately prove futile. War is not rational. No expert, no matter how experienced, can predict how or if the conflict will escalate. More to the point, "There's a certain surrealism to all of this because people frankly don't know what they're talking about," says Cordesman at CSIS.

So while the attempt to plot out a path to destruction may help the U.S. military prepare for a possible humanitarian response, the gaming out of a conflict is simply an irrational attempt to insert logic into an illogical world. The threat of nuclear war is real, but the goal should not be to explain how it can happen, Cordesman says, but rather to stop the process. "You don't prevent murder by committing colossal suicide," he says. "The apparent logic isn't real."

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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