There used to be a very good show on BBC called Connections. I highly recommend this series (actually three separate seasons) for anyone curious about how things happened in just the way they happened. In one episode, James Burke (the host) explained how an Indian prince suffering from a headache in the 8th Century led more-or-less directly to the US space program. Fascinating stuff- especially if you’re interested in the unintended consequences of various actions and/or inactions.
For example, Henry the VIIIth of England was tired of his wife, which has led more-or-less directly to the real possibility of a nuclear war in south Asia. Bear with me, here. I’m not nearly as good at this as James Burke, and I don’t have a BBC research team backing me up. I’m operating solely on remembered history, some fast Google searches, and a healthy dose of W.A.G.s (Wild-Ass Guesses).
Let us begin, Hank the 8th was tired of the lovely young thing he’d married, and wanted to bed a different lovely young thing. Since he was officially a Catholic, he couldn’t get a divorce. Since he was King, he figured he ought to be able to get rid of the wife and marry the new girl, so he drop-kicked the Catholic church and started the Church of England (basically the same except for that pesky no-divorce thingie). Unfortunately, England was now a Protestant country at a time when the superpowers of the era were very cognizant of the political benefits of being on the Pope’s side. When the Pope excommunicated Henry, the King of Spain was all too willing to enhance his public perception of piety by doing his best to undermine the English monarchy.
As a result of this long-term enmity between England and the Catholic monarchs of Europe, England was cut off from a lot of raw materials and manufactured goods from the Continent- and later from the Americas. The Brits did what they could by fighting the odd war at sea, making fast voyages to Protestant ports in Europe, and generally learning how to build and maintain a recognizably modern Navy (a wonderful asset for any island nation). When the Spanish and French tried to keep England out of the treasure troves of MesoAmerica, the English turned to piracy (improving their nautical abilities) and colonizing marginal areas in the Caribbean and in North America (giving them strongholds, supply ports, raw materials, and someplace to plant surplus population).
This simultaneous expansion of naval capabilities and overseas territories led England into multiple conflicts with the European powers. When the MesoAmerican plunder-fest finally died out with the last of the easily-accessible Incan and Aztec gold, the three major European powers (England, France, and Spain) found themselves increasingly locking horns over North American territories. Defeating near-equal military powers is expensive, so England started increasing the taxes on their North American colonists. When those colonists complained that they were getting excluded from the political process used to raise or lower taxes, England decided to spank their impudent behinds to remind them that mama knows best.
The colonists were understandably miffed, and foolishly decided to rebel against the most powerful nation on Earth at that time- hoping mainly to stay alive long enough to coax at least one other European power into the fight on their side. Luckily for the colonists, the French decided to play, and England lost their biggest and most prosperous overseas colony. Even handily spanking the fledgling country in another war two decades later couldn’t bring the Americans back into the fold, so the English and Americans eventually started doing business together. The British still had extensive colonies elsewhere overseas, and managed to hang onto many of them- partly as a result of lessons learned during the American affairs.
A century later, the new country even joined their British cousins and French former allies in a massive cluster-fuck of a war in mainland Europe. This was so successful that they decided to do it again thirty years later. By this time, the British Empire was huge- stretching across half the planet and including a significant percentage of the world’s population. One of the jewels in the British crown was India. Another was the area we now call the Middle East.
After WWII, Britain started to slowly divest itself of its various colonies. The vast tribal areas of the Middle East were divided into a patchwork of “nations” based on almost no ground research, a great deal of wishful thinking, and a modest amount of biblical misinformation. Thus the arbitrary lines on maps in Europe divided tribes and clans in Arabia, and their rulers were all propped up by British guns- so long as the rulers behaved themselves. Worse still, those arbitrary lines on the maps left clans and tribes which had been historical enemies in the new “nations”.
India managed to convince the British that trying to hold such a large country with the few thousand (at best) troops available was a losing proposition, and became their own country. The British managed one last attempt at guiding the future of the sub-continent by spinning off the easternmost and westernmost provinces into independent nations, using the high-quality decision-making processes that worked so well in the Middle East. Thus were Pakistan and Bangladesh created.
India had a huge population which was deeply stratified along caste and religious lines. The well-thought-out British partition of the sub-continent left millions of Muslims in the predominantly Hindu nation of India (and thousands of Hindus in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Pakistan.) Indian society (and human nature) being what it was, these minority groups immediately suffered the fate of most minority groups throughout history. Violence escalating to war was the result. Repeatedly.
In the Middle East, things were going beautifully. Everything was puppies and rainbows and unicorns. Wherever the population was overwhelmingly Muslim, sectarian violence flared up. Wherever large non-Muslim minority groups were present, the infidels often suffered from pogroms and violence. The only preventive measure against large-scale ethnic cleansing was the existence (or creation) of powerful dictators, who would keep order through overt military might. The presence of vast reserves of petroleum under the area drew the new power-brokers to the regional and sectarian conflicts. In the typically benevolent manner of such interactions, the two superpowers made things worse by adding ideological reasons for violence and hatred.
After a few decades of coups, revolutions, wars, counter-coups, counter-revolutions, and more wars, one of the superpowers went home to nurse their wounds while the other started strutting about the planet like we owned the place. The fact that there was no longer a realistic military counter to American power made the covert and overt meddling in everyone’s business even more galling. Everybody started disliking American policy- not just American citizens and the French.
Mix loads of oil-created wealth in historically unstable nation-states created whole cloth from the remnants of the British Empire with swaggering American boorishness. Add in a healthy dose of longing for the mythical “good old days” of the Caliphate and several liberal helpings of Superpower guilt. Cook vigorously for years in a stew of extreme poverty, deliberate ignorance, and despotic ruthlessness. Sprinkle with plenty of religious whackjobs. Et voila! A feast of knives ensues.
The loons who planned and committed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hoping that the resulting American counterstrike would cause the Islamic world to rise up against American domination and return to the purity and glory of the early Islamic world, but with AK-47s and (hopefully) nuclear weapons. Instead of vaporizing Riyadh, Mecca, and Medina, however, the US struck first at the home bases of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Since Al Qaeda was allied with the fundamentalist ass-hats who ruled Afghanistan, they had to go. The US overtly aided the Taliban’s enemies with air power and special forces teams. With that kind of backing, the Northern Alliance eventually drove the Taliban (and their Al Qaeda allies) out of Afghanistan.
Like the arbitrary and artificial “nations” created by the British in the Middle East, Pakistan was a hodge-podge of tribes and clans and long histories of mutual antipathy. Parts of Pakistan were not even nominally under the control of Pakistan’s “government”. Pakistan’s military was only nominally under the control of the government- and often it was the other way around. The Pakistani military was legitimately obsessed with the threat from India, and the military intelligence services had a history of using religious fundamentalist whackjobs to carry out proxy wars with India to help even out the conventional military disparity between the two rivals.
The Americans told Pakistan that they could either join in the Global War on Terror or the US would immediately and totally support India against Pakistan. Joining the GWOT would get Pakistan some international street cred (something the military dictatorship in power needed desperately), access to US military intelligence assets, and wads of US dollars. The Americans would even put pressure on India to warm relations with Pakistan, allowing the Pakistani military to devote time and assets to dealing with the obstreperous hill folk in the so-called “tribal areas”. Giving aid and comfort to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on the other hand, would earn Pakistan a sky full of hostile aircraft loaded with precision weaponry.
Unwillingly, and with plenty of private caveats, reservations, and dark thoughts, Pakistan agreed to join the GWOT. This proved to be a serious mistake for the military dictatorship, since American public opinion loathes dictatorships. Political pressure in the US caused the State Department and the White House to put increasing pressure on Pakistan’s ruler to open up his political processes. Dictatorships rarely last once the dictator stops applying the lash, and Pakistan was no different. Out with the latest in a long line of military overlords and in with a weak (but more-or-less democratically-elected) civilian government which was automatically at odds with the military and intelligence organizations. These groups chafed under US pressures to handle the increasingly-violent tribal areas and were in no mood to help the civilian government out with a Muslim population also unhappy with infidel troops occasionally raiding across the border from Afghanistan in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
With all of this nonsense going on, a lot of Pakistani militant groups got to thinking about ways to further reduce the military pressure from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that starting a new face-off with India would do the job nicely. The last time an Islamic terror group from Pakistan had operated in India, a six-month bout of troop maneuvers and other saber-rattling had ensued, diverting Pakistani military attention away from the Tribal areas and toward the Indian border. So a group of local nutjobs trained hard for a few months while gathering intelligence on politically-worthwhile targets inside India, then they viciously and publicly murdered a couple of hundred people in Mumbai this past weekend. To make damned sure the blame would land on Pakistan, these terrorists broke most of the counter-intelligence rules and left obvious clues behind everywhere they went- such as a satellite phone with lots of calls to known Kashmir- based terrorist groups.
Now, public opinion in India is demanding an energetic response from their government. The US is trying very hard to keep the two nuclear-armed countries from going for each others’ throats, and so are the civilian governments of both India and Pakistan. If another blatant Pakistan-based terrorist attack occurs in the near future, India’s government might be forced to respond militarily- such as by mobilizing reserves and moving troops to the Pakistani border. Pakistan would be forced to respond in kind. A few more atrocities by hot-heads on either side of the border could easily precipitate a shooting war. India could crush Pakistan in a conventional fight, and both countries know it. Pakistan could very easily end up using nuclear weapons to defeat India’s vastly superior conventional military. This could very easily result in a full-scale nuclear exchange. Here’s an excellent article on the probabilities and possible consequences.
A bit long-winded, full of plausible historical notions and some guesswork on my part (along with a great many egregious shortcuts with history), but that is why Henry VIIIth’s inability to keep his codpiece at home could lead to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.
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