The growing U.S. role

Print edition : June 22, 2002

FINALLY, there is some relief in the United States that the Indian subcontinent is slowly settling down, although few people believe that the "crisis" is really over. Now, the larger questions being asked are whether India and Pakistan will be back in the business of rhetoric and mobilisation of forces in, say, another six months' time, and whether sufficient inputs have been provided in the diplomatic arena to make a big difference.

What was different this time was that the rhetoric went out of control, and India and Pakistan blame each other for this. And if the media, especially the Western media, got excited, it was not without reason. The thought of two nuclear powers getting ready to go at each other was indeed horrifying, to say the least.

In one sense, the rhetoric from both India and Pakistan on the willingness to use nuclear weapons forced the Bush administration into a high-profile strategy. On the one hand, the Pentagon came out with its assessment of what would be the first impact of a nuclear showdown in South Asia - at least 12 million casualties initially and a very large number, perhaps seven more million, to be added later. The U.S. Defence Department's bottom line was that any nuclear exchange would have catastrophic consequences for the two countries, the region and beyond. On the other hand was diplomatic pressure, which meant that aside from some plain speaking to both India and Pakistan - not a one-way street by any stretch of imagination as some people in New Delhi may pretend - senior officials were dispatched not only to calm down the two sides but also to give a message. The message, aside from its political component, was that both the countries stood to lose quite a lot economically in the long term, not by way of sanctions but by way of lost business.

The additional pressure on India and Pakistan, on India especially, was the travel advisories and departure procedures for American embassy personnel and citizens. Some analysts in India believe that Washington over-reacted, but it could well be that the measures formed a part of a calibrated strategy on the part of the Bush administration to breathe down harder on India.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld travelled to the region with the same message: that the situation had to be controlled and that the U.S. had the idea of going beyond the initial scaling down of tensions. By all accounts, the tone was more blunt in Islamabad. There was speculation that the Bush administration had "threatened" to downgrade its military status or even shift bases from Pakistan to India if the Pervez Musharraf regime did not end its support to the militants who operated in Jammu and Kashmir.

"I had a straightforward and frank discussion with President Musharraf. We didn't... waste much time with small talk," was all that Armitage would say. And in the course of his trip to South Asia, Rumsfeld hinted that the Al Qaeda was active in Kashmir, a fact that Indian intelligence agencies have been saying for quite some time now.

But the U.S. is looking for something more than the initial scaling back of rhetoric and the first moves and counter-moves by India and Pakistan. And, as far as Pakistan is concerned, the message has been delivered clearly to President Musharraf- that the stoppage of infiltration of terrorists from the Pakistan side of the Line of Control (LoC) to the Indian side would have to have the element of permanency. Musharraf's refrain that "nothing" was happening across the LoC has effectively been laughed out of court.

And there are messages for India as well. The Bush administration has been emphasising the first one for quite some time: that Musharraf would have to be given "more time" in his task of rooting out the terrorists and extremists.

The second message is the obvious one: that upon seeing some definite decline in infiltration across the LoC, there would have to be some reciprocation. And the steps that India took in the past fortnight have indeed been received well. The Bush administration has given every indication that it will continue to be engaged in the region.

"...We've made progress in defusing a very tense situation," President George W. Bush remarked at the White House as Rumsfeld was leaving India. He added that war would have been a disaster.

In fact, one of the things that the Bush administration had been playing up right through the crisis in South Asia was that it was not merely the U.S. that was involved. Ahead of the Meeting of the Group of Eight leaders in Alberta later in June, the Foreign Ministers attending a meeting in Whistler, British Columbia, stressed that the G-8 would be committed to dealing with the fundamental problems.

The G-8 Foreign Ministers, in calling on India and Pakistan to work with the international community towards a diplomatic solution, also said: "We are committed to continuing to work with India and Pakistan to deal with the fundamental problems underlying the current crisis and to sustaining coordinated diplomatic efforts in the region."

The U.S. has to be credited with having done some fine tight-rope walking. It knew, on the one hand, where exactly Musharraf stood on infiltration. At the same time, the screws on Islamabad would have to be tightened without giving the impression that Washington was influenced completely by what New Delhi was saying. During the standoff, the Republican administration tried its best not to get its larger picture of the War on Terrorism tangled with the intricate politics of South Asia.

WITH the crisis in the subcontinent showing signs of abating, some people in both India and Pakistan are loudly claiming "victory" in the stand-off or in the "success" of their diplomacy. There are those in India who argue that the more loose Pakistan was in its "nuke talk", the more hammered it was on its terrorist links.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi and all its officials and diplomats must concede that the Powells, the Armitages and the Rumsfelds have their own agendas as well. One would have to be really naive to believe that senior U.S. officials were touring the subcontinent only to "listen" to what leaders in New Delhi or Islamabad had to say. A case in point is of "monitoring" the LoC, on which both Armitage and Rumsfeld reportedly made specific proposals.

In spite of all the loud chatter about "no mediation" by third parties, it would appear that the Bush administration is itself making it known that while it is not for mediation, it is not ruling out "facilitation". Whether mediation or facilitation, it suits Musharraf. And the reality is that while New Delhi may talk about Pakistan being exposed internationally, Kashmir has become an even more "hot item" on the international agenda.

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