The situation between historical rivals Pakistan and India is bad. Really bad. This is the closest the world has come to a nuclear war since at least the Cuban Missile Crisis and maybe ever. Still, with equal parts hope and realism, I predict that they won't incinerate each other.
First the realism. For much the same reason that the United States and the Soviet Union didn't lob nuclear missiles at each other during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pakistan and India will pull back from the breach. You see, nuclear deterrence works.
The fact is that Pakistan and India have gone to war plenty of times before -when they didn't have nuclear bombs. Now that they both have the Big One (to borrow a phrase from "Animal House"), war is a much less attractive option. This may seem obvious to some, but there were many people who used to say "peace through strength is like virginity through sex." I know they did, because I went to college with them. Indeed, I still see that silly bumper sticker with the Einstein quote, "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war," around my neighborhood.
More realistic folks at least conceded that nuclear deterrence worked, but they didn't like it anyway. The nuclear peaceniks around the group SANE/FREEZE called it the "balance of terror." They thought it was immoral to keep the world afraid of nuclear war, even if it prevented actual war. When you think about it, it's a funny argument that living in fear of war is worse than the real thing.
Regardless, nobody disputes that if India and Pakistan didn't have nuclear weapons, they'd be at war with each other already. Last winter, Islamic militants from Kashmir -allegedly backed by Pakistan -attacked the Indian parliament building. If Pakistan had not had a bomb, India would have slapped Pakistan across the subcontinent. And, let's be honest, they would have been right: If Canadian-sponsored gunmen shot up Congress, the Marines would be encamped in Quebec City within 48 hours.
This is why, from the Pakistani perspective, getting their hands on a nuclear bomb made so much sense.
The reason to be concerned, however, is that Pakistan seems to think national pride is more important than self-interest -i.e. avoiding nuclear war. In its official statements, the Pakistani government seems to be more concerned with bragging about the fact that its ballistic missiles were all made in Pakistan with Pakistani scientists, Pakistani engineers and Pakistani parts. This sort of chest-thumping seems to be aimed at boosting Pakistani self-esteem, like maybe nuclear missile building were an Olympic sport.
Meanwhile, India's foreign ministry has responded by saying it is "unimpressed" with Pakistan's missile tests. And besides, they say with almost childish dismissiveness, Pakistan cheated by using North Korean or Chinese technology. Pakistan denies it and says it doesn't care if India isn't impressed.
In the world of nuclear diplomacy, this is only a few notches above "Did not!" "Did too!" "Quit it!" "Mom!!!"
That's why my prediction is in part based on hope. Nuclear deterrence only works when nations define their self-interest rationally. And, it's not entirely clear that either country is doing that.
There's another loopy belief out there: that mutual understanding leads to peace. All the time, people say -about the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Turks and the Greeks, English and Irish, even American whites and American blacks -"If we could just get both sides in a room to talk this out we could come to an understanding."
But understanding is rarely what's lacking. During the American Civil War, brother didn't fight brother because they didn't understand each other. This is even more true of India and Pakistan. These two nations share common histories, peoples and problems.
Tens of millions of Indians are from what is today Pakistan and vice versa. "Hindu" India even has more Muslims than all-Muslim Pakistan. Even the president of Pakistan was born in India. India's leading Hindu nationalist, Home Minister L. K. Advani, hails from what is now Pakistan. These are brother nations.
And that's the why hope is needed. When strangers fight, it's out of self-interest. When brothers fight, it's out of rage and pride -and self-interest rarely comes into it. Here's hoping they behave less like brothers and more like strangers.