Should we fear an imminent nuclear war?

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We can all breathe a sigh of relief after Pakistan agreed to free an Indian pilot it had shot down over its territory last week. It appears that the crisis is deescalating, for now. But this deescalation is far from permanent, and we can expect more tensions in the future.

How did this happen? We certainly don’t hear much about India and Pakistan in the American media. But in fact, it is the most likely flashpoint at which nuclear war could break out. Even if a nuclear war between Pakistan and India were limited to their territory, it is safe to assume that there would be global consequences.

The immediate crisis was precipitated by a terror attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 soldiers. India blamed Pakistan for the attack, a charge the Pakistanis denied. With the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi facing re-election, he was intent on displaying foreign policy strength. As a result, he ordered Indian jets to attack alleged military targets in Pakistani territory.

Pakistan, of course, had to respond militarily, resulting in the Indian pilot flying his plane into Pakistani territory, at which point the Pakistanis shot him down.

At first, the pilot was attacked by civilians on the ground. Once he was taken into custody by the Pakistani military, it appears he was treated well.

The event turned into a public relations bonanza for Pakistan. But the public relations masks a deeply unstable situation. The region of Kashmir located between India and Pakistan has been contested since the two countries’ founding. Indeed, it is one of the few places on earth where troops are authorized to fire on each other on sight. Another such location is the North Korean border.

Two nations at war

Unlike in North Korea, however, where nuclear weapons are a recent development, both India and Pakistan have had nuclear weapons since at least the early 1970s. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), each country has in the vicinity of 140 nuclear warheads with the ability to deliver these weapons with long-range missiles, bombers and even nuclear submarines.

Total war between the two countries would certainly result in millions, if not billions, of dead as well as a global climate catastrophe. Chernobyl would be nothing compared to an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war.

Up until recently, Pakistan was viewed as a key American ally. Indeed, we staged much of our military intervention in Afghanistan there. However, relations between the two countries has cooled as a result of suspicions that the Pakistanis have been cooperating with the Taliban. These issues came to a head when the Americans killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan without informing the Pakistani officials. The result has been a rapprochement between India and the U.S., while Pakistan has been currying the favor of the Chinese.


The basis for this conflict goes back to the Indian revolution during which it ended its colonization by the British. In response to sectarian concerns, the former British India was broken up into two territories: India with a Hindu majority and Pakistan with a Muslim one.

Unfortunately, the territories granted Pakistan were not particularly fertile. As a result, Pakistan moved to take over neighboring territory that had remained independent and that was also majority Muslim: Kashmir.

The Indians, of course, did not want Pakistan to get this territory. A series of wars ensued during which India occupied about 2/3 of the region, with Pakistan occupying the remaining third. Since then, the nations have been officially at war, and they have not enjoyed economic, cultural or diplomatic relations — much like the situation between the United States and Cuba until recently.

Clear and present danger

Combined, the populations of India and Pakistan amounts to almost 1.6 billion. Neighboring Bangladesh, which used to be part of Pakistan, has another 165 million. The third border of the disputed region is China. As a result, nearly 40% of the world’s population stands to be involved in a nuclear war in Kashmir. When you consider the fact that Pakistan also borders Iran, you can easily imagine the middle east also becoming involved in such a war.

But war between India and Pakistan is not the only concern. Pakistan is currently ruled by a marginally democratic military government. Part of the reason Pakistan played its hand with the Taliban lightly is that it itself is home to a sizable group of Muslim extremists. It is easy to imagine, as almost happened in Egypt after the toppling of the Mubarak regime there, that a religious extremist party could take control of the country. If that happened, one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals would be in the control of religious fanatics.

Back in 1962, the United States almost went to war to stop Cuba from getting nuclear weapons. As a result, none of our neighbors have nuclear capabilities, and any threats are far away. Nevertheless, with military technology such as it is, threats can reach anywhere in the globe. There is one place in the world, however, where three major nuclear-armed militaries face off against each other, with two of those countries are officially at war, and it is in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

In the list of global threats, this one ranks pretty high. And yet most Americans aren’t even aware of it.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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