Troubled coast

India-Pakistan: More than Kashmir causes rivalries, takes lives, threatens nuclear war.

August 13, 1999

NEVER was the need for a comprehensive settlement of disputes between India and Pakistan more apparent than in the air warfare over their border where a marshland called the Great Rann of Kutch meets the Arabian Sea, just below the Indus River delta.

On Tuesday, India downed a Pakistani surveillance plane, killing 16, in disputed air space. On Wednesday, Pakistan fired a missile at Indian planes as they escorted helicopters carrying journalists to see the site. This could escalate into nuclear warfare. Both countries have the weapons.

For more than 50 years, the ruling and military elites of both countries have doubted the legitimacy of the other, though outbreaks of peacemaking have occurred during thoughtful prime ministries. The friction involves more than Jammu and Kashmir, a mountainous inland part of northern India with a Muslim majority. The countries have just concluded a summer of fighting by small units in Kashmir's high Himalayan valleys. The latest dogfights are over waters that may harbor petroleum or gas, but decades of dispute have inhibited exploration.

Pakistan is smaller, with less of a nuclear establishment, army, navy, treasury and population than India. Such a mismatch might drive it to nuclear folly, but Pakistan should not want to fight any version of this war. It is geographically vulnerable, its communications strung along the Indus River and eminently severable. Its sole commercial port, Karachi, is just north of the current tension and easily blockaded.

India should not want this war, either, for fear of civil strife and rebellion. It has more important uses for its exchequer.

The world community could help with mediation where the half-century buildup of distrust is enormous, but the will to overcome it is visible in both governments.

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