As the risk of yet another India-Pakistan conflict, this time of an unimaginable magnitude, looms large on the horizon of our enigmatic region, my thoughts spontaneously go back to a hair-raising conversation seven years ago that I along with a few other ambassadors at the UN had with a former US Defence Secretary, Robert S McNamara. It was a luncheon meeting held at his invitation on October 17, 2001 as a back-to-back event after he made a public presentation on nuclear disarmament before an overflow crowd at the Dag Hammarskjold Library Auditorium at the UN Headquarters in New York. Secretary McNamara's words of experience from the Cold War were of special relevance to those of us who had always believed that after America's "Little Boy" and the "Fat Man" had wreaked havoc on August 6 and 9, 1945 in Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the world should have become wiser and avoid another nuclear disaster. We discussed many things. In the context of global conflicts, I raised the question of addressing the root causes of conflict as an imperative for eliminating the risk of another nuclear Armageddon. He agreed and suggested that the US, and for that matter other UN members will have to "cede sovereignty to the UN" to make it more effective in resolving disputes and preventing war. "We're going to have to move in that way, and it requires all of us to help do it," he emphasised. McNamara spoke at length about disarmament issues but what struck us most was his emphasis on how casually a nuclear conflict could be triggered. It all starts with "unreliable warnings" or erratic intelligence. He said: "We [the United States] receive many unreliable warnings, on the basis of which you've got to decide whether to launch or not to launch within only a few moments." And in the end, the buck really stops with just one man to decide what the hell to do. The fate of the world then rests on the whims of just one person. McNamara deplored this situation and the "public ignorance" that he believed allows it to continue. "Now that's what we've gone through for 40 years. And that's where we are today. I think it is absolutely insane and I don't believe any of your people or any of our people who have good judgement would tolerate it if they knew it. They don't know it." If a nuclear conflict erupts, he warned: "We will not have three aircraft bombs killing 7,000 people as in 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. We're going to have three nuclear bombs killing 7 million people." He was right. It will be far more lethal than any terrorist attack anywhere in the world. We cannot afford to launch a nuclear tragedy to prevent a terrorist attack. Both India and Pakistan, as nuclear weapon states, must show restraint and responsibility. Any adventurism on their part will be mutually suicidal. In their brinkmanship frenzy, the situation can inadvertently slip out of hand anytime with disastrous consequences from which they will never be able to recover. It is time for both sides to revisit the memories of the October 1962 Cuban Missiles Crisis. For McNamara, the whole episode now meant that so long as "we and other great powers possess large inventories of nuclear weapons, we'll continue to face the risk of their use and the destruction of our nations." In his conversation with us, he made one clear point. The nuclear disaster will come not as a result of calculated strategy but as a result of "miscalculation, misjudgement and misinformation." According to McNamara, before the Soviets moved missiles to Cuba, they thought the US planned to invade the island. They also thought they could secretly move their missiles there and make them operational before the US would find them. Meanwhile, the US firmly believed that the Soviets would never move their missiles out of the Soviet Union, and was unaware that the Soviet Union had already placed in Cuba 162 operational nuclear weapons, including 70 intermediate-range nuclear tipped missiles to shower the cities of the eastern United States. The US also underestimated standing Soviet forces by as many as 33,000 troops and failed to fully account for the 270,000 Cuban troops ready "to fight to their death." Worse yet, the Kennedy administration, lacking accurate information about the scale of danger they faced, never imagined the kinds of decisions Fidel Castro was forced to make. That information was not learned until years later. Leaders on both sides thus continued to make dangerously false assumptions after the discovery of Soviet missile installations in Cuba triggered the crisis. McNamara told us that at a meeting on the crisis in 1992, he had an opportunity to ask President Castro about the nuclear weapons in Cuba. "And Castro's answer sent a chill up my spine. I can still feel it to this day. President Castro replied: 'Now, we started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt; we were certain of that. We'd be forced to pay the price. We would disappear.'" "In addition to the two questions I had put to him, I asked him a third one, " McNamara continued. "If you did know about the weapons, would you have recommended to Khrushchev that he use them in the face of the US invasion?" According to McNamara, President Castro confirmed that he had indeed made such a recommendation. McNamara emphasised that the force of the crisis threatened to overwhelm capable leaders on both sides, neither of which wanted a nuclear war. "We were all in an extraordinarily tense, ambiguous, volatile situation and nobody was in control, nobody Events were slipping out of control." With the majority of President John F Kennedy's Cabinet in favour of an October 25 invasion, only Premier Nikita Khrushchev's October 24 decision to withdraw the weapons in return for the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey prevented the full-scale nuclear war. "In the end, we avoided war not because the crisis was well managed, but because we lucked out, absolutely lucked out, on both sides," McNamara said. This is the moral of the story. The thirteen agonising days that the Cuban Missiles Crisis lasted represented the firewall that was so important between the crisis and the outbreak of nuclear war. We in India and Pakistan may not be fortunate to be "lucked out" and do need a political space of time for diplomatic efforts so that the prospect of nuclear war is averted. We do have bilateral mechanisms and channels that provide us the needed firewall between crisis and nuclear conflict. We are standing at the brink of a catastrophe of regional and global magnitude. The only sure way now to avert the Armageddon is for India and Pakistan to revert to sanity and dialogue. Both must use their joint anti-terrorism mechanisms to coordinate strategies against terrorism as their common enemy. At stake is peace not only in this region but peace in the world. South Asia is today "the most dangerous place on earth." And today, peace in South Asia is hostage to one accident, one act of terrorism, or one strategic misjudgement or miscalculation or even a technical or non-technical mistake. Conflict between the two nuclear-armed states is the last thing the region or the world needs. India must also resist any temptation for "surgical" strikes against any targets in Pakistan. It will be a sure recipe for disaster and consequences of unanticipated magnitude. Armed intervention is a very risky business. India must not equate itself with the US. Even the US has not carried out "surgical" strikes anywhere in the world without paying a heavy price. In August, 1998, it had to dispatch its Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Ralston to alert the Pakistan military of its missile attacks on Al-Qaeda terrorist targets in Afghanistan. It will make a serious mistake if it resorted to any surprise "surgical" strikes in Pakistan. It is bound to have equally lethal surprises in retaliation. Backing off the cliff is what both India and Pakistan need. This is the challenge of their statesmanship. They must rise to the seriousness of the situation, and grasp the nettle before it is too late. Given the worrisome global dimension of their stand off, the UN also has an obligation under the Charter to immediately get seized of this matter suo moto and to respond to the prevailing threat to international peace and security in terms of Articles 41 and 42 of the Charter. Ban Ki-Moon, instead of guarding vested interests of the more influential and powerful players at the UN, has an overriding obligation as secretary-general to prevent the impending disaster and to save humanity from a nuclear war. The writer is a former foreign secretary