Many observers--including such disparate voices as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Noam Chomsky, Hillary Clinton, Thomas Friedman, and Pope Francis--have alluded to the North Indian province of Kashmir (and the surrounding area) as "the most dangerous place on earth."
As extravagant and melodramatic as that statement may seem, the case can be made for it. I once lived in Punjab, India, and traveled to parts of Kashmir. Even then, relations between India and Pakistan were unbelievably poisonous. Indeed, that entire northwest region is still so dangerously unstable, it's a miracle nothing catastrophic has happened.
Here are some key factors to consider.
* Ever since India (which is predominately Hindu) and Pakistan (which is overwhelmingly Muslim) became independent countries--via Partition, in 1947--they have been avowed enemies. That's 70 years of simmering acrimony.
* Directly bordering each other--just as the U.S. borders Canada and Mexico--India and Pakistan have already fought four "official" wars and engaged in numerous military skirmishes.
* With more than 1,340,000 troops, India's army is now the third largest in the world, bigger than North Korea's or Russia's, and right behind China and the U.S.
* Pakistan's army is barely half the size of India's.
* Both countries have nuclear weapons.
* India, with a population of 1.3 billion, is the world's largest democracy.
* Pakistan, with a population of 202 million, is part quasi-military dictatorship, part theocracy.
* Both countries believe in an Afterlife.
* Pakistan, understandably, has always seemed slightly paranoid and frazzled.
* India is buoyantly self-confident and ready to assert itself.
* Pakistan fears that the U.S. will install a pro-West, pro-Indian government in Afghanistan, resulting in Pakistan being squeezed between two enemy states.
* India has a sizeable arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons.
* Pakistan has a modest supply of strategic warheads, but a large supply of tactical nuclear weapons.
And therein lies the rub: Tactical nuclear weapons. Pakistan's access to tactical nukes is what makes everyone so nervous.
Whereas strategic nuclear weapons are the ones we've all learned to fear--the ones that would have been part of the worldwide, "duck and cover" thermonuclear war between the U.S. and USSR--tactical nukes are weapons designed specifically to be used on the field of the battle. They're nuclear, but they're limited.
Why has Pakistan put so much effort into amassing an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons? Answer: They see tactical nukes as the only viable deterrent to India invading and overrunning them in a conventional war. The Indian army is simply too big and well-equipped. It would be a rout.
This is the dreaded scenario: Fed up with Pakistan's persistent meddling and incursions into Kashmir, and ignoring the pleas of the U.S. and the rest of the world, India unleashes its long awaited invasion. The mighty Indian army crosses the border in Punjab and proceeds to wipe the floor with outmanned and outgunned Pakistani soldiers.
To the horror of everyone, we find out that those rumors were true, that Pakistani field officers with the rank of full colonel or general have been given the authority to use tactical nukes at their own discretion--to use them in the face of "overwhelming and superior forces." And use them they do.
Of course, once India realizes it's under attack from nuclear weapons, they respond in kind. They instantly retaliate with nukes of their own, but instead of the "benign" battlefield variety, they bring out the big boys. They launch a full-scale strategic nuclear attack against Pakistan's major cities and military installations.
Left with no choice, Pakistan strikes India with every nuclear warhead in its arsenal, convinced that, win, lose or draw, once the smoke clears, multitudes of faithful Muslims will be reunited with Allah. That's the omega scenario, the blueprint for the end of the world. Very scary.
As a consequence of this conflagration (a cumulative blast one million times more powerful than that of Hiroshima), the atmosphere becomes toxic, the earth experiences Nuclear Winter, and life as we know it perishes.
And that's how the world ends. With nuclear Hindus and nuclear Muslims destroying each other and taking the rest of us with them. That antiquated notion of Armageddon coming in the form of World War III, with Capitalism vs. Communism, seems almost "reasonable" by comparison.