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O Untimely Death:

The Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, 1996-98


By Chris Oakley

Part 6


inspired by the story "Hellís Door Opened" by David Atwell




Summary: In the previous five episodes of this series we looked at the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the 4th Indo-Pakistani War, the first engagements of the war itself, the early effects of the war on Chinaís relationship to the combatant nations, the bold Indian gambit to expedite the warís end by capturing the Pakistani capital Islamabad, the Indian armed forcesí post-Operation Amritsar struggles to crush the Kargil insurgency, the warís impact on the 1996 U.S. presidential elections, and the protest rallies held in Pakistanís major cities after the collapse of the Pakistani armyís August 1997 Punjab offensive. In this chapter, weíll remember how an already devastating conventional conflict escalated into nuclear war.


The Pakistani breakthrough that derailed Operation Gold Crescent1 triggered a wave of panic in the streets of Delhi. Rumors and paranoid fantasies sprang up like weeds as the Indian militaryís intelligence and communications networks sustained major breakdowns in the face of the relentless pressure the Pakistani army was applying to retreating and beleaguered Indian ground forces. The roads outside the city were jammed with civilian refugees trying to get before falling victim to what many were sure would be the capitalís imminent loss to Pakistani troops.

Things werenít much calmer in the halls of government. Bitter verbal confrontations were raging in the offices of the Indian prime minister and his cabinet, and those quarrels were driving the Indian armed forces high command to distraction. With Pakistani soldiers inching ever closer to the outskirts of Delhi, and PAF jets operating close enough to the city that people standing on rooftops could read those jetsí tail numbers, the last thing anyone needed(so the generals said) was for Indiaís civilian leadership to be quarreling like angry schoolboys. Unfortunately for the generals, however, this regrettable state of affairs didnít show much sign of improving anytime soon; if anything, in fact, it seemed to be getting steadily worse.

This, combined with the massive stockpile of U-235 India had at its disposal, was a recipe for disaster of almost unimaginable scope for both India and Pakistan. With substantial quantities of uranium already at hand, it would be a relatively simple matter for the Indian armed forces to assemble nuclear warheads for deployment against the encroaching Pakistani ground troops; in spite of urgent pleas for calm by the Indian general staff, the political powers that be had decided the time was here to start constructing those warheads. Early on the morning of September 17th, 1997 the Indian defense ministry issued a top secret memo instructing its missile commanders to begin preparing tactical nuclear warheads as a "precautionary" measure if Pakistani ground forces on Indian soil could not be halted by conventional means of attack. Within 48 hours after the memo went out, India had at least ten fully operational nuclear devices ready for deployment and a dozen other warheads were in the final stage of assembly. And in the ghastly ambiance that hung over Delhi after Operation Gold Crescent, it wasnít a question of if or even when the first strike would happen-- it was a matter of how many other warheads would go off after that initial nuke had been detonated.


Even if only one nuclear bomb had been used during the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, that still would have constituted an environmental and socio-political catastrophe for the world as a whole. From the moment the first atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan back in 1945, climate and sociology experts had been worried that even a small-scale nuclear conflict could have disastrous long-term effects on human society. As early as the 1960s the phrase "nuclear winter" had been used to refer to the massive drop in global temperatures that was theorized to be an inevitable consequence of a nuclear exchange between hostile nations. This phenomenon was expected to be particularly cataclysmic in the case of a large-scale strategic conflict between superpowers-- even in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were still some lingering fears that a worldwide nuclear war might erupt and trigger drastic alterations in the Earthís weather patterns.

While not quite approaching the "doomsday" levels so ominously  predicted by experts and science fiction writers at the height of the Cold War, the 1997 Indo-Pakistani nuclear clash certainty did have a host of tragic consequences that are still being felt throughout the world even today. Large pockets of both India and Pakistan are still uninhabitable due to the numerous detonations of tactical nuclear weapons which took place in the aftermath of Operation Gold Crescent, and neighboring countries have suffered a sharp increase in diseases like cancer and leukemia as a result of the radioactive fallout that those nuclear strikes generated. Traces of this fallout have turned up as far away as southeastern China; climate change resulting from the environmental damage wrought by the nuclear exchange is thought to be at least partly responsible for the devastating Category 5 cyclones that hit Malaysia and Thailand in 2003.

Even the United States has experienced some of the social and political ripple effects from the Indo-Pakistani nuclear horror. The influx of Pakistani and Indian refugees into U.S. cities since the late 1990s has further inflamed an already contentious national debate about immigration; in the presidential arena, an anti-Clinton backlash over the White Houseís perceived failure to do more to avert nuclear conflict in South Asia may have cost Vice-President Al Gore the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.


One of the great ironies of the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War was that, although it had been initiated by India with the express intent of thwarting Pakistanís nuclear ambitions, it ended up having just the opposite effect and spurring the Pakistani government on to work harder to fulfill those ambitions. Almost as soon as the shooting had started, the Pakistani military had quickly relocated its inventory of weapons-grade radioactive material to remote areas where Indian ground forces would be less likely to get hold them. Then, in special bunkers hidden underground to minimize the chances of being detected by Indian reconnaissance planes or spy satellites, the first missile warheads had been put together and placed on standby to await  the moment when Islamabad deemed it necessary to use them.

It was around 8:31 AM US Eastern Daylight Time on the morning of September 24th, 1997 when the commanding officer at NORAD phoned the White House with news that three nuclear warheads in the 10-15 kiloton range had been air-burst over Pakistani ground forces on Indian soil. That alone would have been enough to alarm President Clinton and his top national security advisors, but an already horrific situation soon became even worse; just minutes after receiving the NORAD commanderís call Clinton was informed by his CIA director, George Tenet, that the agencyís field operatives in South Asia had picked up warning signs of a possible impending Indian nuclear strike against a major Pakistani city. Details were still sketchy, Tenet told the president, but the list of possible targets for the strike included Karachi, Hyderabad, and Peshawar.

President Clinton and his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, tried desperately to make contact with the Indian and Pakistani senior political leadership in hopes of convincing them to agree to a cease- fire, but the nuclear Rubicon had already been crossed. Even while the chief executive was taking the NORAD commanding officerís call, orders had already gone out from the Pakistani defense ministry for Pakistani army and air force missile commanders to start final preparations for retaliatory strikes on Indian tactical and strategic military assets. Although Pakistan had started the war at a great disadvantage against India when it came to nuclear materials, what materials it did possess it would use to devastating effect when the time was right.

Just before 10:00 AM President Clinton was informed that a 15-kiloton Pakistani nuclear warhead had been detonated in the vicinity of New Delhi, devastating much of Delhi itself and destroying the New Delhi suburb of Bharat Nagar. The lethal cargo had been delivered by a Dongfeng M-11 surface-to-surface missile, a Chinese-made ballistic weapon also known as the CSS-7 and which had been part of Pakistanís ground arsenal since at least 1992. In the aftermath of the New Delhi nuclear strike anti-Chinese sentiments among the Indian population would rise to a fever pitch as rumors circulated China was about to enter the war on Pakistanís side and the New Delhi had been launched partly as a prelude to a Chinese invasion of northern India.

A senior Clinton aide who was in the Oval Office with him when he got the news of the New Delhi nuclear attack would recall in a CNN interview five years later that the President looked "like a man whoíd just lost his best friend" when he was notified of the strike. And the bad news kept coming: before 11:15 AM the White House got confirmation that Indian nuclear missiles had hit Karachi and Islamabad, and around 11:40 the Associated Press was reporting Pakistani retaliatory strikes on Mumbai and Hyderabad.2 At 12 noon, Indian air force jets traveling under the radar and flying as fast as their airframes could tolerate dropped several tactical nuclear bombs on Quetta; by 12:20 PM the U.N. Security Council was meeting in emergency session trying to work out a means of halting the Indo-Pakistani nuclear clash before it escalated into all-out global war.

For tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani civilians, it was already too late to avert catastrophe. Those who hadnít been killed outright in the inferno of multiple nuclear warhead detonations were often maimed both physically and psychologically; even survivors who outwardly seemed to have come through the nuclear exchange unscathed could later turn out to have gotten poisoned by radioactive fallout. Ironically, there would be far more casualties in the aftermath of the nuclear strikes than were caused by the strikes themselves.

There would also be a great deal of uncertainty in Pakistan as those senior politicians who had managed to escape the governmentís main offices before the nuclear strike on Islamabad worked feverishly to craft a provisional government that could both bring an end to the war with India and keep the internal unrest already engulfing much of Pakistan from degenerating into total anarchy....


To Be Continued



[1] See Part 5 for further details.

[2] Not to be confused with the Hyderabad in Pakistan; the Indian Hyderabad was the pre-war territorial capital of Indiaís Andhra Prakesh province.


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