The growing tensions between India and Pakistan have raised the specter of war between two rival nuclear powers, a conflict that could have devastating consequences. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan threatens not only those countries but much of the rest of the world. Millions could die in the initial explosions, millions more from the radiation.
We must think about the unthinkable as never before, said John Parachini, a policy analyst with the Rand Corporation. The future is in the balance as India and Pakistan threaten to use nuclear weapons.
"The key challenge is how can we find ways to get the cooler heads on both sides to prevail and for them to see that even to escalate to a conventional conflict runs the risk of inflicting many casualties and the possibility of miscalculation and the conflict cascading into a nuclear exchange," he said.
What kind of exchange? Maybe just a single missile launched by each side, said Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Noting the horrific damage, both countries would then draw back and fire no more.
But what if they did not?
"It is possible, however, that the exchange could escalate, that there could be a spasm of attacks where tens of these systems could explode. There are some estimates that casualties in an all-out nuclear war in India and Pakistan could reach ten to twelve million people, clearly an unprecedented catastrophe. Nothing like this has ever happened in the world before," he said.
Casualties would be extremely high because of the strategic situation in both countries, said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the non-Proliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
"The targets that these folks would aim at undoubtedly would include large cities. This is partly a function of how few weapons they have and partly a function of how little planning they probably have done in regard to thinking about nuclear war since they are all new to this," Mr. Sokolski said.
As evidence of their newness and perhaps an alarming naiveté, Mr. Cirincione cites all the loose talk in both countries about using nuclear weapons. They may not mean what they say, but speech has consequences and accidents can happen.
"There has been talk on the Indian side of reaching a final solution to the Pakistan problem, very ominous words reminiscent of World War Two. The Pakistanis talk about their willingness to use nuclear weapons to defeat any conventional Indian assault. There has been talk about how each country could absorb many casualties and still come out ahead," he said.
All would lose in any likely scenario, said Mr. Sokolski. But then again, maybe not. "Someone may get an advantage by use. There may be not much of a response, and people say, 'Well, this is part of growing up. Everyone is going to get one. We ought to get ours, too.' And maybe use will be more frequent. So a lot hangs in the balance for people outside of the region, if use occurs," he said.
After all, notes Mr. Sokolski, the first use of nuclear weapons in the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as destructive as it was, hardly deterred other countries from rushing to acquire these weapons.
Those most anxious to use them may be members of al-Qaida or other extremist groups, says Mr. Parachini. All the more reason to keep them from ever gaining control of none too secure Pakistan.
If nuclear explosions occur in South Asia, far exceeding the force of Hiroshima, radiation fall-out would follow, circling the globe, bringing cancer and slower death to countless more people. We are only one planet, said Joseph Cirincione. Or to paraphrase John Donne: Do not ask for whom the bomb tolls. It tolls for thee.