India & Pakistan: window of opportunity

THE United States' recent decision to offer advanced military technology and weaponry to India is an applaudable first step toward improving relations that have often been strained during the four decades of India's independence. As an Indian who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, I heartily welcome attempts at rapprochement between the world's two largest democracies. Unfortunately, this decision does not help in relieving the explosive atmosphere that exists on the Indian subcontinent.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and their relations have been continuously strained. Introducing more armaments into a region already bristling with sophisticated weaponry is cause for alarm rather than applause. It threatens to turn the region into another Persian Gulf -- complete, perhaps, with a replay of the disastrous Iran-Iraq war, though in this case even nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out.

Superpowers seem to learn their lessons the hard way. In the '60s and '70s, the US poured billions of dollars' worth of armaments into the Persian Gulf to improve the US strategic position in the Middle East. Iran was to be a well-armed buffer state to contain Soviet encroachment in the Middle East; giving the Shah what he wanted was supposed to ensure his loyalty to US interests. The Soviet Union had a similar idea about Iraq.

These doubtful theories never stood the test, and in fact proved disastrously counterproductive. The Shah fell and Iran has remained implacably hostile to the United States, while Iraq, against which US weaponry was actually used, has fallen out with the Soviets to such an extent that we are beginning to woo it. The main effect of our massive Persian Gulf arms program was to fuel an arms race that exploded into one of the most cruel wars of this century, where weapons from this country have taken hundreds of thousands of lives. American and Soviet policy must share responsibility for this carnage, for without advanced weaponry, neither country could have inflicted anything like this kind of damage.

It would be difficult, I imagine, to find a policymaker in Washington today to defend those policies or argue that they have enhanced stability in the Middle East. Given the toll of death and destruction in Iran and Iraq, the deterioration of US influence in the area, and the destabilizing effects of this prolonged war, one could even conclude that pouring weapons into such a combustible region bordered upon folly.

This makes it especially troubling to watch the same policy reincarnated, almost to the letter, on the Indian subcontinent. The military dictatorship in Pakistan, drawing on less popular support than even the Shah enjoyed, has been built into a bulwark against Soviet expansion (through Afghanistan) with $3.2 billion worth of armaments from the US. Much of this weaponry, such as tanks and sea-skimming missiles, is obviously better suited for the plains of India than the high mountains of Afghanistan. India has objected repeatedly to the offensive nature of such weapons, citing their presence as the primary destabilizing factor in the region.

One can only lament the shortsightedness of policies almost guaranteed to escalate tension between India and Pakistan and thereby heighten the likelihood of war. Historically, each escalation of weaponry in one such country has been matched by the other to counter the perceived military imbalance. Most recently, Pakistan's purchase of F-19s from the US -- sophisticated jet fighters capable of striking most of India's major industrial centers -- resulted in a Soviet shipment a few months later of MIGs to India. The cycle is predictable and vicious, draining precious resources from the human sector to the military while increasing the potential destructiveness of another war.

The first war between India and Pakistan, which broke out immediately after partition in 1947, was fought between infantry and paratroopers in the remote high country of Kashmir. Most casualties were combat troops. The two subsequent wars involved increasingly destructive weapons and took an increasing toll on civilians. Today, with modern missiles, tanks, fighter planes, and sophisticated surveillance equipment, each country can destroy the other's major cities, port facilities, and nuclear plants, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and crippling each other's struggling economies. Moreover, with some parts secured (despite protests to the contrary) from the US, Pakistan is close to producing a nuclear bomb, which India has promised it would replicate within months or even weeks.

Must these countries proceed inexorably to such a disastrous collision? And does anyone in Washington really believe that whatever ``friendship'' we can secure from selling arms to a military dictatorship in Pakistan will prove less ephemeral than Iran's? Is anyone's security -- theirs, ours -- enhanced by our policy? Or is it simply a mechanical response that lacks an alternative vision?

I suspect the latter, and would like to propose an alternative.

India and Pakistan are far from natural enemies. They are sister nations -- much like the United States and Canada, whose close relations and shared security give such an impregnable stability to the North American Continent. Their people share a cultural history that goes back many centuries; they, or their parents, come from the same villages, where they lived together, spoke the same language, and even joined in each other's religious festivals, Hindu or Muslim. They fought and died together in the independence struggle that created India and Pakistan out of British rule. Both peoples are deeply religious. They do have differences -- as do Canada and the US -- but nothing in those differences poses so much of a threat as mutual enmity and fear. Their security is much better served by cooperation than by conflict. An Indian-Pakistani alliance would provide the stability that both countries need for growth -- and, I would add, precisely the stability the US desires.

Suppose that over the next decade the United States and the Soviet Union saw the benefits of such an alliance to their own interests and worked together to foster it. And suppose that the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad, eager to recover the vast resources tied up in their regional arms race, came to a provisional understanding that allowed each to concentrate on the welfare of its own people. What might the situation be like by the year 2000?

Financial aid, investment, and technological assistance from the superpowers would replace the massive flow of armaments into the region. Military budgets in India and Pakistan would drop dramatically, freeing money for health, education, agriculture, and industrial growth. And with their security entwined, interference from a superpower would pose a threat that both countries would resist. What different developments for both countries -- and how different from the perilous course they are taking at present!

Is it so far-fetched? Major political hurdles must be overcome. But both countries stand so much to gain with a rapprochement -- and so much to lose in a fourth war -- that there may well exist the motivation for compromise. In any event, the benefits to Moscow and Washington of an accord on the Indian subcontinent should interest them enough to reassess the policies that are exacerbating tensions there.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's recent visit to the United States ended in a climate of goodwill unmatched in the four decades of India's freedom. This welcome development, combined with the close ties between the United States and Pakistan, offers Washington a unique window of opportunity to help bring these two ancient partners together in friendship.

Eknath Easwaran is the author of ``Gandhi the Man'' and ``A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam.''

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