Just three minutes from nuclear strike, India and Pakistan hold councils of war

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The Independent Online

India lives in several centuries at once, it has been said. What is true of peace will also be true if India and Pakistan go to war.

India lives in several centuries at once, it has been said. What is true of peace will also be true if India and Pakistan go to war.

Yesterday, as Indian and Pakistani troops once again exchanged heavy artillery fire across Kashmir's ceasefire line, the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, held a war council in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, chairing a meeting of the Unified Command to review the preparations for war and the security situation along the border.

In Rawalpindi, Pakistan's corps commanders met to discuss operational strategy, and later announced that Pakistani troops were to be withdrawn from UN peace-keeping duties in Sierra Leone "in the wake of a grave Indian threat".

The world quakes at what will happen if the Pakistani leader, General Pervez Musharraf, or Mr Vajpayee press the nuclear button. Estimates of India's and Pakistan's nuclear strengths vary wildly, but at the low end of the scale Pakistan is estimated to have at least 40 nuclear bombs compared with India's 60 – quite sufficient for the task.

Both nations also have the missiles needed to deliver them, so that in theory all Pakistan's cities and many of India's are within range. A missile from Rawalpindi could deliver its nuclear payload to Delhi within three minutes, and vice versa.

But India and Pakistan are also braced to fight a very different kind of war – a war such as Europe has not seen for more than 80 years.

Three quarters of a million Indian troops are strung out along India's 2000-mile border with Pakistan, from the torrid salt marshes of Gujarat to the frozen peaks of Siachen Glacier in the High Himalayas. They are confronted by a quarter of a million Pakistanis.

Both armies derive from the old Indian army of the British Raj, a unified force until independence and partition in 1947. Both claim that they enshrine the best military qualities instilled by the British during more than two centuries of almost continuous warfare on the subcontinent: immense stamina, fierce regimental loyalty, unquestioning obedience.

And the manpower of both is still drawn from the same populations that filled the ranks of the Indian Army, what the British termed the "martial races": Baluchis, Punjabis, Rajputs and Dogras. Many of the troops confronting each other come from the same stock as each other, speak the same language and share the same culture, leaving aside the matter of religion. That is one of the bitter ironies of India's and Pakistan's endless wars.

Both armies are modernising fast: with annual budgets of £9.5bn (India) and £2.2bn (Pakistan), which mock their claims to be considered poor countries, their compulsive rivalry is buying them new combat aircraft, new airborne warning and control systems and missiles, new tanks, new artillery.

India has committed to buying £6.8bn of weapons and other hardware from its old patron Russia over the next 10 years. Pakistan is collaborating with its staunch ally China on a new combat jet. Until 11 French engineers were killed by a suicide bomber in Karachi two weeks ago, France was building Pakistan three new diesel submarines. India also plans to deploy new aircraft carriers and submarines among other warships, both Russian and home-made. In one war scenario, India chokes Pakistan to death by blockading Karachi's port – a tactic threatened by India as a way to end the Kargil mountain war three years ago.

Yet whatever the new toys, the preparations for war in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Kashmir have a relentlessly period look: a turn of the century North-West Frontier skirmish remade with a cast of hundreds of thousands; Flanders Field, complete with trenches, barbed wire, no man's land and mines, translated to some of the hottest places in the world.

Conditions in Rajasthan's desert this month are so extreme that military sources said war could not be fought until the temperature had fallen somewhat – say around September or October.

Political considerations are forcing them to confront the possibility that they will be obliged to fight in the next few weeks, with the temperature at 50C (122F) every day, and nearly 70C inside the tanks. There is no water out in this desert: it is brought in by train. The troops have been in these positions close to the border for nearly six months now. Sandstorms make breathing impossible and over to the west in the salt marsh of the Rann of Kutch, in Gujarat, the staggering heat, combined with 80 per cent humidity and storms of sand and salt, is massively debilitating.

Up in the Jammu region in the south of Jammu and Kashmir state, a blood-soaked history is all around. "Invading armies have poured through here for centuries," the Sikh commander explained when I visited his camp, indicating the flat land at the base of the first Himalayan foothills that he overlooked. From the pill-boxes on the front line, the enemy's front line is plainly visible a quarter of a mile away. Even in times of relative calm, exchanges of machine-gun fire are a daily occurrence. Today the war is already going on along this front, with mortar batteries, rocket and heavy artillery trading fire every day, targeting enemy civilians and driving them out of their villages.

The last time India and Pakistan came close to all-out war was in the summer of 1999, when India threw hundreds of thousands of jawans, troops, into repelling a Pakistani intrusion in the mountains of Kargil sector of Kashmir state – masterminded by one Pervez Musharraf, who was then chief of the army. About 1,000 soldiers died in the six-week conflict, which involved displays of courage and stamina as Indian soldiers scaled 15,000ft peaks to launch suicidal assaults on heavily fortified Pakistani mountain-top positions, fighting hand-to-hand to the death. The conflict was defused only when Bill Clinton browbeat the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to order a withdrawal.

If India launches the new war by thrusting its forces into Pakistani Kashmir, either in pursuit of militants or to smash terrorist training camps, it can expect to meet resistance at least as fierce as on Kargil's mountains. A more ambitious assault with air power risks provoking overwhelming retaliation.