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Back from the brink

Print edition : Jun 22, 2002 T+T-

International diplomacy, together with some arm-twisting by the U.S., makes India and Pakistan take some meaningful steps towards de-escalation. But the process has given rise to concerns about strategic power games in the region involving big powers.

WAR clouds that hovered over the Indian subcontinent for the preceding two months cleared by mid-June. International diplomacy, coupled with some arm-twisting by the United States, made India and Pakistan take some meaningful steps to bring about de-escalation along their border. The Bush administration, which until the end of May seemed to be tilting towards New Delhi, started applying diplomatic pressure on it from early June. The Group of Eight (G-8) and the Japanese and British governments had also urged the Pakistan government to crack down on the terrorists operating along the Line of Control (LoC) as a first step. By early June, the U.S. acknowledged that the Pakistan government had started taking "verifiable actions" against the militants and indicated that it was now New Delhi's turn to reciprocate.

The none-too-subtle pressure on New Delhi was illustrated by the Washington's advisory to U.S. citizens to leave the subcontinent. Other Western countries, and even the United Nations, followed suit. Some commentators have described the evacuation advisories as disguised economic sanctions.

That the international community was doing its best to avert a war in the subcontinent became all the more clear during the Almaty summit in the first week of June, where Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his new reincarnation as an ally of the West, tried to play the role of peacemaker. It was evident that he had the full support of the West in this. Chinese President Jiang Zemin also put his weight behind Putin's efforts to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table.

Putin got a commitment from Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to visit Moscow. He had also wanted Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to visit the Russian capital so that a tripartite meeting could be held. But India declined, despite knowing that Moscow's initiative had the endorsement of the West. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi prefers Washington to play the role of an arbiter in the current India-Pakistan impasse. In fact, Indian officials were surprised at the pro-active role being played by the Kremlin. They had expected it to be fully supportive of the Indian position.

Instead, the Russian President went out of his way to adopt a neutral stance at Almaty, where he expressed the hope that the wisdom of Vajpayee and Musharraf "will stop the escalation of tensions that is being watched by the whole world with a sinking heart".

Despite tough speeches by the Indian and Pakistani leaders at Almaty, there were enough indications that the behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity was having an impact. Defence Minister George Fernandes, who was in Singapore for a meeting organised by a leading London-based Western think tank at the end of May, was also being pressured by U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the senior defence officials of the Association of South-East Asian Nations and Western countries to stop the war rhetoric emanating from New Delhi. Fernandes had a tough time convincing the delegates that India would not allow the situation to deteriorate into a nuclear conflict.

Wolfowitz assured Fernandes on behalf of the Bush administration that the Musharraf government had started cracking down on militants who were trying to infiltrate into India across the LoC. Wolfowitz said that "verifiable evidence" attesting to this fact would be provided to New Delhi.

In Almaty, Musharraf had once again reiterated that he had sealed the LoC and asked New Delhi to allow international observers to monitor it. Instead, India suggested joint patrolling by the two countries to prevent infiltration. Islamabad has described this as unrealistic given the state of the current relations between the two countries.

Islamabad, for obvious reasons, would prefer a joint U.S.-British force to monitor the LoC. New Delhi has been formally opposed to this idea though there are indications that the proposal could be reconsidered sometime in the future, provided the patrolling is done only on the Pakistani side. Brajesh Mishra, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, said in Moscow in the first week of June that India was against the plan for monitoring by a U.S.-U.K. joint force because "the terrain is very difficult and only India and Pakistan know it, inch by inch". Mishra did not voice any political objections to the presence of U.S. and British troops in the region.

THE signal that a thaw has set in came with the acknowledgment by Indian Defence and Intelligence officials that cross-border infiltration had come down. This assessment was made around the time U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited the subcontinent in the first week of June. Indian officials also let it be known that they would like U.S. officials to "verify" whether the suspected terrorist camps in Pakistan had been closed. During the visit of Armitage, Islamabad formally agreed to help the U.S. verify Pakistani actions against militant infiltration across the LoC. In return, Armitage, according to Pakistani officials, assured them that he would ask New Delhi to withdraw the threat of war. After Armitage left New Delhi, he expressed confidence that India would take reciprocal steps to bring down the temperature.

New Delhi complied with the wishes of the U.S. The ban on overflights by Pakistani commercial planes through Indian airspace was lifted and a new Ambassador to Islamabad was named. It was also announced that the Indian Navy was moving its warships away from the waters around Pakistan. These decisions were announced before the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to New Delhi and Islamabad. New Delhi also welcomed the pledge by Islamabad to stop terrorist infiltration into India permanently. Musharraf welcomed the moves by India while on an official visit to Dubai, but described them as a "very small beginning".

Pakistani officials, however, do not attach great significance to the withdrawal by the Indian Navy or the granting of overflight facilities. They say that the onset of the monsoon would have made the deployment of ships and other naval assets in the waters off the Pakistani coast a difficult task for the Indian Navy. Islamabad has since responded by withdrawing its own ships from battle-ready positions on the high seas.

As far as overflights are concerned, Pakistani officials point out that the precipitate ban on Pakistani aircraft had hurt India's civil aviation more than Pakistan's. According to them, Indian flights over Pakistani airspace were three times more than Pakistani flights over Indian airspace. They also said that India wants to start direct flights to Kabul, given the high-profile diplomatic role it is playing in Afghanistan. At present, owing to the reciprocal ban by Pakistan on Indian planes overflying its territory, the Delhi-Kabul route has become a circuitous and therefore a commercially unviable one.

Both sides having made some moves, as necessitated by Washington, Rumsfeld's visit came in the second week of June. His first port of call was New Delhi, where he promptly certified that India had taken "constructive steps" and that the Indian government was keen too see that ""things are resolved in an appropriate way".

One of the important topics that came up for discussion during Rumsfeld's visit was the issue of placing a ground-based system of sensors along the LoC to monitor infiltration into Kashmir. The Indian government gave its assent to this controversial plan a few days later. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh said that the go-ahead has been given only to study the technical feasibility of the plan. But the U.S. officials who accompanied Rumsfeld said that both India and Pakistan had agreed to the proposal.

Rumsfeld created a diplomatic stir in New Delhi by stating that Al Qaeda elements may be active along the LoC. This passing remark spoken in typical "Rummyspeak"(as the Defence Secretary's sound bytes are called in Washington), upset Pakistan. In a quick response, even before Rumsfeld's plane touched down in Islamabad, a presidential spokesman said that Rumsfeld's observations were "absolutely incorrect". He suggested that the U.S. Defence Secretary was misled by "Indian propaganda".

Rumsfeld was quick to backtrack. He said that he had only heard "speculative" reports of the Al Qaeda being active in the Kashmir valley. Some people in the diplomatic community in New Delhi feel that Rumsfeld raised the Al Qaeda bogey in order to build a case for a U.S.-British military presence along the LoC.

As things stand, many observers of the South Asian scene are of the opinion that the placing of electronic monitors is itself de facto third-party intervention. New Delhi apparently wants the electronic monitors to be placed on the Pakistani side of the LoC. Islamabad is not agreeable to this, and it claims that it has the support of the U.S. and the U.K. on this. The placing of the monitors suits Pakistan as all claims and counter-claims by Islamabad and New Delhi will henceforth be verified by Washington and London. Pakistani officials claim that the U.S., the U.K. and Japan are in favour of setting up a neutral monitoring mechanism along the LoC. According to informed sources, Pakistan has been promised proactive participation by the international community in exchange for putting an end to cross-border terrorism.

"The international community is fed up with the constant brinkmanship of both the countries," a veteran diplomat based in New Delhi said. He also said that the U.S. was exploiting the tensions in the region to realise its long-term goal of building up an anti-China coalition in the region.

Post-Cold War alliances are changing dramatically in South Asia with Washington having strong military links with most of the countries in the region. India no longer has any objections to a U.S. military presence in South Asia though it had threatened Bangladesh with dire consequences when that country was ready to hand over the strategic port of Chittagong to the U.S. Navy two years ago, just after the visit of President Bill Clinton to the region. Diplomats stress that the Americans rarely leave voluntarily once they establish a military presence in a country.