WASHINGTON – A war between India and Pakistan could easily go nuclear.
If India, fed up with terror attacks, moved against its smaller and weaker neighbor, Pakistan might view a nuclear missile launch as its only option in response.
India might retaliate with nuclear weapons of its own in a scenario that could kill 8 million to 12 million people and bring radiation fallout to millions more, including thousands of U.S. soldiers in the region.
Even if the two nations' leaders do not want war, "There is a danger that as tensions escalate, the leaders could find themselves in a situation in which irresponsible elements can spark a conflict," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday.
Of course, a nuclear exchange, or even a conventional war, is not inevitable. The Bush administration and European officials are pressuring both sides to back down from their standoff over Kashmir, the disputed province that has been the source of two of the three India-Pakistan wars since 1947.
But if India launched a military strike with conventional weapons, even against a small target such as a Kashmiri militant camp, Pakistan probably would feel compelled to strike back, said Teresita Schaffer, a South Asia expert in Washington.
Pakistan might use conventional weapons at first.
The risk is that fighting would escalate, with attacks back and forth, "until one side or another — probably Pakistan — says, 'This last attack has put our country in severe danger. We have no choice but to use nuclear weapons,"' Schaffer said.
Pakistan, knowing it would lose even a nuclear engagement, might then gamble on a "demonstration" nuclear strike, perhaps on an unpopulated area to try to warn India off, said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst in Washington.
Even that would create a "a huge risk of confusion and misunderstanding" and probably cause India to fire nuclear weapons, Cordesman said.
Both countries are thought to have nuclear weapons numbering in the low dozens, said a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity, with each weapon roughly equivalent in destructive power to the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
Both Pakistan and India can deliver nuclear weapons with either ballistic missiles or small fighter-bomber airplanes.
Eight million to 12 million people could die in the short term, if the two countries engaged in a full-scale exchange with both sides successfully using most of their weapons and aiming them at populated areas, according to an analysis by the Defense Intelligence Agency.
That estimate does not include long-term deaths caused by radiation fallout, said the U.S. official. Among those at risk: The 7,000 U.S. troops in nearby Afghanistan, plus U.S. troops in Pakistan and aboard ships in the northern Arabian Sea.
The two countries have had 1 million troops at full alert along their border in Kashmir since India blamed Pakistan for a militant attack on its Parliament in December. Pakistan denies arming or giving money to the militants.
India has said it would not use a nuclear weapon first.
Pakistan might consider using nuclear weapons if India seized a chunk of its land, attacked a major city, or tried to cut Pakistan in two by seizing rail lines and roads, Schaffer believes.
A pre-emptive Indian strike against Pakistan's military or nuclear sites also might prompt such retaliation.
One big risk is that India might believe — wrongly, most U.S. analysts feel — that it can attack Pakistan because the United States will prevent Pakistan from retaliating with nuclear weapons.
But Pakistan almost certainly is moving its missiles around the country in a "shell game" to prevent both the United States and India from knowing exactly what it has, and thus to stop any pre-emptive strikes, said Cordesman.
"Pakistan has every reason to make sure its capabilities are covert," Cordesman said. "We simply can't physically prevent it, if they go to war."
Because of its superior spy satellites, the United States would, however, probably spot any missile launch by either side, before the other side did.
"But what exactly would 17 minutes [of warning] mean, in terms of diplomatic intervention?" Cordesman asks. "Especially if that missile was armed with nukes?"