THE LURKING DANGER

Print edition : June 08, 2002

After weeks of high rhetoric, Gen. Musharraf begins a "charm offensive", apparently under intense pressure from the West, and the Indian leadership promises a positive response to honest efforts at checking cross-border terrorism. Still, the danger of war looms large.

A MONTH after another cycle of military escalation began on the two sides, hopes that a devastating conflict between India and Pakistan could be avoided hung by a slender thread. An inference that war was not imminent was conveyed by the simultaneous absence from the national capital of the Indian Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, both - curiously - attending conferences on regional security at different points of the compass. That was small and transient reassurance, since the primeval furies that today seem to have become the basis for action provide little room for the antagonists to step back and take rational stock of the situation they have put themselves in. A mix of public nonchalance and fatalism provides an atmosphere that is conducive to reckless adventurism by faltering governments. And both sides of the tense border bristle with the means to actualise the primitive rage that impels their conflict.

At an Army camp in Punjab near the border with Pakistan, getting ready.-AMAN SHARMA/ AP

Various credible figures have in recent weeks been published of the numbers that would die in the event of nuclear war in the South Asian region. The figures, expectedly, are horrifying, and yet there has been little public interrogation of the state of deployment of nuclear forces, the care with which they are marshalled, or the hands they have been entrusted to. It is a fair guess though that the procession of peacemakers that has recently made its way through the two countries has not been content with hearing rote repetitions of publicly stated positions. Credible assurances that itchy fingers are not reaching for launch buttons are being demanded, especially by the United States. And such assurances would presumably need to go beyond the rhetorical, to practical demonstrations.

That Pakistan does not have a coherent chain of command in political-military terms was the singular message of the Kargil conflict in 1999. That the Chief of Army Staff then, now self-proclaimed President, General Pervez Musharraf, is willing to take extraordinary risks in pursuit of his mission in Kashmir has also long been evident. All through the cycle of escalation, Musharraf has kept up a consistent refrain: that there is "nothing" happening along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan. And since making an indiscreet reference to the possibility of nuclear conflict to the German publication Der Spiegel, he has been careful to avoid any impression of recklessness.

Elements within Pakistan have sought to play up the uncertainties in the situation. It is not clear whether this is a matter of deliberate policy or merely a reflection of the well-known incoherence in the chain of command. Few people were amused when the newly appointed Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram, announced that his country would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons. Pakistan could not afford to hold out such an assurance, since that would simply be a licence to kill for India, which had the numerical superiority in conventional forces, Akram said.

Persuaded partly by this doomsday threat and partly by Indian diplomatic efforts, the U.S. chose at this juncture to intervene decisively. President George Bush, flanked by his two top security officials - Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - held out the ominous warning that war would not serve the "interests" of either India or Pakistan. "We are part of an international coalition applying pressure to both parties," he said. But then, responsibility for defusing the crisis was not symmetrically apportioned, with Musharraf being rather clearly put on notice that he bore the principal onus: "He must stop the incursions across the Line of Control. He must do so. He said he would do so. We and others are making it clear to him that he must live up to his word."

In follow-up remarks, Powell clarified that it was too early to say that infiltration across the LoC had stopped. And once the movement was stopped, it needed to be made permanent: "I think that what we are expecting President Musharraf to do is to use all the authority he has to stop it and to keep it stopped so that we can put this crisis behind us".

President Pervez Musharraf addressing troops near the border on May 29.-AP

Musharraf, for his part, responded in public with a bland disavowal of responsibility. International observers were welcome to visit the LoC to verify that "nothing" was happening there, he said. Pakistan had put all its available resources into the task of combating terror and could not be held accountable for every outbreak.

As of now, the U.S. has set itself up as arbitrator and pronounced judgments that, even if they are delayed ones, have been to India's favour. But the delay tells its own story of divided counsel, of the U.S.' compelling need to keep Pakistan on-side. Pakistan still remains for the U.S. the most vital frontline state for the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, over the last two months the war has shifted its main focus into the sensitive tribal areas of northern Pakistan. The media in Pakistan have been speculating about a possible "secret understanding" governing these operations. U.S. and British commando forces, with logistical support from Pakistan, are believed to have raided religious seminaries and other suspected militant holdouts in a search for extremists fleeing Afghanistan.

Quite in contrast to the hushed tones in which these operations are discussed in Pakistan, Musharraf was candid in claiming credit for them in a recent interview to The Washington Post. Responding to a question on the level of military cooperation he was giving the U.S., the General made no effort to understate what he proclaimed as solid achievements: "We wanted to move - actually, these are areas where no troops were allowed for over a century. Never have people moved into that area. And I would request TheWashington Post to give us the credit, that this is the first time that this government has moved in. Our forces moved into areas where nobody went... We moved in the Frontier Corps. And we moved in the Army. And we have got the willing cooperation of the people of that area. Now, this is the biggest point. They have allowed us to come in. And we are doing a lot to pacify that area, to have reconstruction and rehabilitation afterwards in that area, so that people accept us."

The Indian intelligence reading of Musharraf is that he is no novice when it comes to the Northern Territories. He is believed, in fact, to have been a key figure in the crackdown against Shia elements that the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq launched in the mid-1980s. The sectarian resentments arising then could have been a factor behind Zia's death in a mysterious plane crash along with much of the Pakistani army command in 1988. The Northern Territories constitute sensitive terrain as far as the military in Pakistan is concerned. And the consequences of the ongoing operations there are yet unpredictable, particularly since they are to be seen in conjunction with the political transition in Afghanistan.

Although neither Pakistan nor the U.S. is showing any overt signs of concern at the moment, the upcoming grand council of tribal leaders in Afghanistan has been threatened by the return to the fray of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the old American proxy from the days of the jehad against the Soviet-backed Kabul regime. But Hekmatyar today has chosen a new avatar: that of the tribal leader rallying the Pashtun faithful against a U.S.-backed regime that confers undue privileges on other ethnic groups. How far he will bring into play his old allegiances in Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and how far he has gained from recent contacts with Iran are now matters of speculation. But clearly, neither Pakistan nor the U.S. can afford to let its guard down.

This means that the U.S.' public if delayed rejection of Musharraf's insistence that "nothing" is happening on the LoC may bring only temporary benefits to India. The moment the pressure on two flanks begins to undermine the General's domestic credibility, the U.S. will have to devise a rescue operation. What Pakistan craves above all is a political dialogue on the future of Jammu and Kashmir. But since the Kargil conflict, the U.S. has laid down the clear norm that violations of the LoC must cease if the appropriate climate is to be created for a political dialogue. At the same time, it may be forced to reckon with the General's plea that in the prevalent conditions, Pakistan simply cannot accomplish a job that is not up to the capabilities of even India's million-strong Army.

Strategic thinkers in India have demanded global economic sanctions against Pakistan if it persists in sponsoring cross-border militancy. This is unlikely to win the assent of the international community while Pakistan's pleas of helplessness in halting infiltration remain unattended. A face-saving compromise from Pakistan's point of view, which would involve a serious climbdown for India, would be the institution of a monitoring and verification mechanism along the LoC.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who visited India recently, hinted that some kind of a formula is being worked out on Kashmir. He also publicly called upon Pakistan to live up to its obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373, which was passed shortly after the September 11 attacks in the U.S. At his joint press conference with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, a specific question on verification mechanisms and procedures was posed. The Minister was evasive and circumlocutory in his response, though its upshot seemed to be that international discussions were proceeding in this direction.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, Defence Minister George Fernandes and Jammu and Kashmir Governor Girish Saxena, during a visit in May to a defence camp in Kupwara district.-AFP

Shortly before the Agra summit with Pakistan last year, the Indian government announced a plan to ease border crossings for nationals of the two countries. A number of overland transit points were proposed, including two in Jammu and Kashmir. Caught off balance, Pakistan chose to disregard this proposal. It seemed instead to come to Agra in a fixated pursuit of territorial acquisition in Kashmir.

Even with a schism so deep, the dialogue was slated to continue. Until the evening of September 11, the foreign offices in both capitals were busy talking up the positive outcomes of Agra, as they went about the job of scheduling another summit-level meeting.

Pakistan's government has since shown a certain eagerness to partake of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. This apostasy by the principal sponsors of the Afghan Taliban regime has generated strong resentments within Pakistan's domestic constituency for religious militancy.

In a desperate defence against the prospect of an upsurge within, Pakistan's military regime - which had stamped out the prospect of civilised cross-border exchanges at Agra - has decided that it could not possibly yield in its sponsorship of another kind of border crossing. Armed militants have continued to move into the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir for acts of violence that do not differentiate between combatants, civilians, women and children.

Fleeing heavy shelling, people from border villages move to Jammu.-AMAN SHARMA/ AFP

In Kashmir, a leading voice of dissent against India which also called for the curbing of extraneous, fundamentalist influences in the politics of the troubled State, was silenced with the assassination of All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Abdul Ghani Lone. His immediate family had few doubts that the guilt for the heinous murder lay with the ISI (article on Page 35). Political prudence dawned only after the initial judgment was pronounced. The Lone family has since chosen to maintain a sense of ambiguity about who it holds responsible for the murder.

WE cannot possibly speak to Pakistan, said Prime Minister Vajpayee as he left for a regional security conference in Kazhakstan on June 2. President Musharraf had just the day before said that he would be willing to meet at any level with the Indian political leadership. His only regret was that the element of reciprocity for initiating a civilised dialogue was sorely lacking.

Vajpayee has held out the assurance that India would reciprocate with ample generosity if Musharraf were to fulfils his promises on the ground and contain the torment of cross-border terrorism. But as he seeks to recruit international support, Vajpayee must be aware that the U.S. is unlikely to extend to India the same indulgence that it shows towards Israel in defining the standards of acceptable behaviour. In the grossly asymmetric military situation of West Asia, Israel has arrogated to itself the sole right to determine when the Palestinian side is engaged in terrorism. In the situation of nuclear parity that prevails in South Asia, India may well have to accept that neutral arbiters, even if unwelcome, may be a necessity to safeguard its own credibility.

The Indian government today faces a difficult conundrum: its purported commitment to secularism has been held up to the light and been found wanting. The world community is more than ever today inclined to view the Kashmir issue in the light of the manifest contempt for the rights of religious minorities that Vajpayee's own party demonstrated recently in Gujarat. And the presence of the likes of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders Ashok Singhal and Giriraj Kishore at his elbow cannot be a source of great reassurance for Vajpayee.

Pakistani territory will not be used for terrorist strikes against any country, vowed Musharraf as he addressed the nation and the world on January 12. Police and army units were, even as he spoke, swooping down on known havens of religious militants, arresting thousands of people in a conspicuous demonstration of the tough-talking General's earnest intentions.

India believes today that the crackdown lasted precisely three days. U.S. intelligence has concluded that the restraints on militant activity were perhaps in force till March. By then, it appears, the General had begun springing most of the militants from captivity, with certain careful exceptions. Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, implicated in the murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, was arrested some weeks after the General's epochal speech. But he has been quickly brought to trial because of the obvious interest that the Western powers have in ensuring that the ends of justice are met in a case involving an American citizen. Other fundamentalist desperados, including Masood Azhar, who was sprung from the hospitable environment of an Indian prison along with Saeed as the blood price for the Kandahar hijacking just prior to the dawn of the millennium, are reportedly living in the security of fortified enclaves in Karachi and Rawalpindi.

There is little question that a perception of Indian vulnerability is guiding Pakistan's approach to the current crisis. Observers of the Pakistani establishment believe that operational plans evolved by Musharraf when he was head of the Military Operations Directorate in the early-1990s constitute the basis of the current deployment. And there is little secrecy about the thrust of these plans, which were spelt out with brutal candour by Musharraf during his recent interview to The Washington Post: "We have forces. They follow a strategy of deterrence... And in case that deterrence fails, we are very capable of an offensive defence... These words are very important... We'll take the offensive into Indian territory... At the moment, if there is anything that they do across the Line of Control, there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in Kashmir, Azad Kashmir, our part of Kashmir, who are demanding to be armed. And they will be inside Kashmir... And this will be such - it is going to unleash such dynamics in this area that their forces will be engulfed by forces inside Kashmir who will rise, they have already risen... Let me also tell you that there are 150,000 at the moment - roughly - retired army soldiers in Kashmir. In Azad Kashmir... And they are all our brothers and kin across the border, in Kashmir. They want to fight for them".

Musharraf's reading of Indian intentions presents a bleak picture of virtually pathological animosity: "We are very clear, whether the world believes it or not... They (India) want to destabilise Pakistan. There is no doubt in our minds. They have their own agenda on Kashmir. They don't want to see the realities on the ground in Kashmir, where not one man would like to be with India. And looking beyond Kashmir, the General summoned up a gross and semi-paranoid denunciation of Indian attitudes: "They want a subservient Pakistan which remains subservient to them. They don't believe in sovereign equality..."

A recent opinion poll carried out in Jammu and Kashmir by the reputed research organisation MORI conveys a picture rather different than that drawn by Musharraf. And then, Lone's murder, for the ostensible crime of keeping open a channel of reconciliation within Indian constitutional processes, shows that Pakistan's self-serving perceptions have perhaps caused the greater damage to the genuine aspirations of the Kashmiri people than any other single factor.

As they journeyed to Almaty, with Vajpayee intent on avoiding all forms of contact, Musharraf turned off the belligerence temporarily to step up the charm offensive. There were also reports to suggest that the pivotal Pakistani army formation, the 10 Corps which mans the LoC and constitutes a central element in the strategy of "offensive defence", had been asked to turn its attention to the task of curbing infiltration. After weeks spent scaling the peaks of bellicosity, the rhetoric on either side had begun to cool down. And there was hope yet that the threat of mutual destruction would subside to yield to an uneasy balance of terror.

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