Once again, terrorists struck, slaughtering 174 people in Mumbai in a crisis that may have been malevolently designed to blast the adversarial nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan into war, according to Seattle Post Intelligencer.
Once again, world leaders fear that another conventional war between India and Pakistan could go nuclear -- even as both governments utter all the usual assurances that they can keep their nukes under control.
Once again, world leaders need to recall the frighteningly candid words of a former Pakistan Army general who explained to me years ago how in a conventional weapons clash between India and Pakistan, even a well-intentioned, highly-trained general such as he was could inadvertently start a nuclear war. And how the initial nuclear launch would not only be responded to but would instantly escalate tenfold -- a catastrophe that would not only obliterate the region but would have severe global consequences
The warning spoken by retired Brig. Gen. Feroz Khan in my interview with him in 2002 reads like a warning call today. We spoke at a time when India and Pakistan seemed headed toward yet another ground war over the disputed bucolic region of Kashmir -- after Pakistan-based guerrillas of Lashkar-i-Taiba attacked India`s Parliament. Now India says last month`s Mumbai murderers were trained inside Pakistan by the same militant group, which is linked to elements of Pakistan intelligence.
"Once the conventional war breaks out, the fog of war sets in," Khan said then. "And during war you have deceptions. You have misperceptions. You have communications breakdowns. Things get heated up."
The retired general noted that "nuclear weapons ... are normally kept in peacetime, or even during the crisis, under a certain set of conditions where safety is more important than effectiveness."
But he added that the military situation worsens, these nuclear weapons could be made available to generals for "battle deployment," adding: "You are now moving the safety coefficient lesser and lesser -- in favor of battle effectiveness." And that can cause what Khan called "the danger of inadvertence."
Time can be the ultimate enemy in a war between nuclear next-door neighbors. Because missiles are launched just minutes from their targets. And nuclear decisions sometimes need to be made instantly -- by generals in the field -- not civilian leaders in the capitals.
The former Pakistan general cited three scenarios where a general in combat might have to issue an order to retaliate without having sufficient time to know for sure whether the enemy has actually attacked with a weapon carrying a nuclear warhead.
# Scenario One: India launches a missile that Pakistan knows is "nuclear-capable" -- but this missile only has a non-nuclear warhead. It hits its Pakistani target. "It may or may not be a nuclear explosion, but it could be perceived ...as if a nuclear strike has already taken place." A Pakistan general might order a nuclear strike he thinks is retaliatory -- but he has actually triggered a nuclear first strike.
# Scenario Two: In a conventional attack, a weapon hits a nuclear target, causing a radioactive plume. "Now, nobody knows whether a nuclear weapon was fired or the nuclear asset was blown up on the ground." The instant field report calls it a nuclear attack. Headquarters orders a retaliatory strike -- but it is really the first nuclear strike.
# Scenario Three: A conventional attack takes out the command center. Commanders perceived it as a "decapitating attack" intended to knock out one side`s nuclear weapons. "And they would then say, `Look, before my weapon goes out, I`d better use it or lose it.` " So a nuclear weapon is launched.
In each case, the nuclear exchanges escalate tenfold.
That is why India and Pakistan dare allow terrorists to blast them into an unwanted war. And world leaders dare not allow it to happen.