Both countries have huge cities of several million people within easy striking distance of each other's warplanes. Rich farmlands, crucial to feeding India and Pakistan's large populations, could also be destroyed. Military strategists claim that in the event of a conventional war, Pakistan, the smaller country, which has lost three wars already against India, might resort to a nuclear blow first.
Western military experts who monitored rising hostilities between the two enemies in 1990, in which tanks and thousands of troops were massed along their frontiers, were shocked to find out that neither side had formulated a step-by-step approach to convential war. It was all-or-nothing, with both countries considering first-strike attacks against big cities, such as New Delhi or Bombay in India - each with more than 9 million inhabitants - or Lahore and Karachi, nearly as populous, in Pakistan. So far, both Pakistan and India have resisted pressure from Britain, the US and other countries to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Since the 1970s, Pakistan has laboured secretly to reach nuclear- bomb making capacity, according to allegations by Indian authorities. It is thought that Pakistan has bought the technology and the tools from China and, more recently, from the former Soviet Union. Using shell companies, Pakistani authorities are also believed to have illegally purchased material from the US, France, Canada and Switzerland for producing nuclear bombs.
Until yesterday's disclosure by Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, Pakistan had always maintained, like India, that, while it could assemble a bomb, it used its nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. This month the current Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, said her country had shown 'great restraint' by not responding to India's test of a nuclear weapon and its test-firing of a new missile.
Diplomats noted Ms Bhutto chose her words with care, seeming neither to rule out Pakistan's possession of a bomb, nor to confirm it. That appeared to go further than previous official statements, which denied Islamabad had a working bomb.
In 1990, however, the US Congress imposed a ban on arms exports to Pakistan because President Bush was unable to certify it did not possess nuclear weapons. As a result, Pakistan has yet to receive 38 F-16 warplanes ordered and paid for in the late 1980s.
Kashmir remains a flashpoint between India and Pakistan. New Delhi is frustrated over Islamabad's continued support for Muslim insurgents in Kashmir. More than 10,000 Kashmiris have died in the uprising led by Muslim rebels against the Indian security forces. India is convinced that without Pakistani aid, the rebellion would fizzle out.
So far, India's threats against Pakistan have only been verbal. India's Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, increased the pressure on Pakistan last week when he said: 'The one unfinished task is that Pakistan vacate its occupation of those areas of Kashmir which are under its control and should form part of India.'
Until now, neither side has backed up its belligerent words with any sudden dispatch of army brigades to the border. India has more than 300,000 security forces tied down in Kashmir and a tank corps in the Rajasthan desert facing Pakistan. But many Indian troops are occupied in the north- eastern states, fighting insurgents. Pakistan, too, has serious ethnic problems.Reuse content