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The wait for de-escalation

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

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The cross-border infiltration has virtually ended and the military tension has eased, but real de-escalation will have to wait until the troops massed on the border are withdrawn.

ALTHOUGH the military tension has eased considerably, the war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad continues unabated. The Home Minister L.K. Advani said in the last week of June that infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir from across the border had not "totally stopped". He accused the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi of acting as a conduit for funds to militant organizations and groups operating in the Kashmir valley. Pakistan, on the other hand, claims that it is doing all it can to clamp down on the terrorist organisations, especially Al Qaeda, that are operating from within its borders. These claims have been substantiated to some extent by the recent death of Pakistani soldiers in a clash with Al Qaeda near the border with Afghanistan. The Bush administration was quick to praise the Pervez Musharraf regime for the help in combating Al Qaeda, which the United States has declared as its Number One enemy.

Officials in Islamabad say that Washington has promised to facilitate bilateral talks with India if Pakistan takes "tough" action against militants, especially those trying to cross the Line of Control (LoC). But with Indian troops massed on the border, talks seem a distant possibility. In the last week of June, Defence Minister George Fernandes ruled out the possibility of immediate military de-escalation though he admitted that there was a "considerable decline" in cross-border infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir. Fernandes said that the Indian Army would remain deployed until October, when Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in Jammu and Kashmir. Fernandes ruled out the possibility of even a "partial withdrawal".

The Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. S. Padmanabhan, made similar observations. He said that in recent weeks the Army had observed only two infiltration attempts by militants based on the other side of the border. The Army chief said that military-to-military contacts between the two sides were limited to a weekly exchange of calls by the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs). In late June, Fernandes reconfirmed India's intention to install electronic sensors along the LoC to monitor infiltration. He said that formal talks on this with the U.S. government, which would be the official supplier of the equipment, had not yet begun. Defence Ministry officials have said that the government would henceforth use, contrary to past practice, defence contracts as a factor in shaping foreign policy. They justify the huge defence purchases from Israel in recent times on the grounds that Tel Aviv stands solidly behind New Delhi's foreign and defence policies.

However, most observers of the subcontinent are of the view that the Indian government's proposed deal with the U.S. government for electronic sensors is yet another indication of the former having tacitly agreed to an American role in the conflict over Kashmir. Diplomats say that installing sensors along the LoC would take at least three years but in the meanwhile New Delhi wants Washington to stay actively involved. The U.S. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has certified that the military situation between India and Pakistan "is improving modestly" and that the U.S. will keep on working with the two countries to find ways of reducing tension. He said that both countries had taken "some initial steps that while not definite and not fully tested as yet, are indeed having a positive effect".

Rumsfeld warned both countries that "the risk of war discourages international investment and travel in the region and as a result damages the economies of both the countries as well as their people". Rumsfeld said that New Delhi and Islamabad had indicated "a strong desire" for continued U.S. involvement. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in the last week of June that the U.S. had no plans to "mediate" in the Kashmir dispute at this juncture; however, he did not rule out American involvement at a later time. Rumsfeld, for his part, had said that both New Delhi and Islamabad had realised that there were several risks ahead, including the possibility of a terrorist act beyond the control of either party. Rumsfeld hinted that New Delhi would not take precipitate steps now as it did after the terrorist attack on an army camp at Kalu Chak, near Jammu.

THE Western countries have not yet withdrawn their travel advisory to its citizens. The Bush administration has now urged Americans to "defer all non-essential travel" to the subcontinent. The U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, said that the advisory could remain in force for months. This is an implicit warning to New Delhi that an Indian military response is unacceptable, and that more economic sanctions would follow. On the same day that Blackwill aired his views on issues relating to the subcontinent, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the media in Lucknow that there was no possibility of a war between India and Pakistan now.

The Group of Eight (G-8) meeting in Canada also issued a call to India and Pakistan for a sustained dialogue "on the underlying issues that divide them". The G-8 asked Pakistan "to put a permanent stop to terrorist activity originating from territory under its control".

An attempt by Mexico to organise an international seminar on Kashmir in the United Nations Security Council, in the last week of June, was derailed by India's objections and the help it got from traditional friends such as Russia and Mauritius, both of which had threatened to boycott the seminar. Mexico and Mauritius are non-permanent members of the Security Council. Moscow has lent a diplomatic helping hand to New Delhi on matters such as Kashmir. But in recent months Moscow is getting the impression that its mediation is being taken for granted. Russian officials hotly deny that they wanted to host a summit between Vajpayee and Musharraf in Moscow. The invitation to Musharraf to visit Moscow had nothing to do with the Indo-Pakistan dispute, they insist.

New Delhi wants total and blind support from Moscow on its dispute with Pakistan; at the same time it allows Washington to be the sole arbiter for the region. Russian officials are unhappy with the way certain sections in India reacted to the sale of Russian civilian helicopters to Pakistan. They said the Mi-171 helicopters were meant only for civilian use and a written commitment was received from the Pakistan Defence Ministry that the aircraft would not be used for military purposes. The same helicopters were first offered to India. But these days India prefers to trust Israeli as well as Western weaponry and military expertise.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has also agreed that there is a significant reduction in the numbers of infiltrators across the LoC. However, the MEA spokesperson said that India wanted to ensure first that the infiltrations stopped completely and permanently. The official said that Pakistan had made certain commitments to stop infiltrations, close terrorist training camps and dismantle the militants' infrastructure. She said that these steps taken by Pakistan should be "visible, permanent and to the satisfaction of India". While declining to spell out a timetable for de-escalation or bilateral talks with Islamabad, she said that India would take the necessary steps at a time it thought appropriate.

The tough diplomatic position taken by India may have prompted the Pakistan President also to harden his stance, though much of his muscle-flexing is meant for his domestic audience. In interviews given recently to the Western media, he has said that the Indian Army could stay massed on the Pakistan border for as long as it wanted. His contention is that the continued concentration of Indian troops along the border will have an adverse impact on the Indian exchequer. Indian Defence Ministry officials admit that the defence expenditure has risen steeply this year. State-of-the-art weaponry has been purchased for the defence forces.

ONE of the arguments advanced by India for keeping its troops massed on the border was that it would cause the Pakistani economy to bleed owing to the high cost that Pakistani counter-measures would mean. This has apparently not happened. After the events of September 11 and the sudden volte-face by Musharraf on the Taliban and the rollback of its traditional Afghanistan policy, Pakistan is treated kindly by the international donor community. After the recent military encounters with what Islamabad claims were Al Qaeda militants, one of the first things the Musharraf government did was to ask for more military aid from the West.

President Musharraf described the situation along the border as "dangerous and explosive" and insisted that New Delhi make the first move towards de-escalation, contending that it was India that raised the tension by moving its troops to the border. "Only a withdrawal of troops from the border will de-escalate tensions," he told a Western television channel. Musharraf reiterated in late June that Kashmir continued to be the central issue and insisted that only bilateral talks at the highest level would help resolve the question.

Senior Bush administration officials have said in recent days that they want to see a "fair and free" election in Kashmir. Richard Armitage said in late June that it was important that the coming Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir were free of violence and were "judged to be free and fair by the international community". The Pakistani side says that it has been given an assurance by the U.S. and Britain that the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) would be allowed to participate freely in the elections. Defence Minister Fernandes was quoted in the Indian media as saying in Srinagar on June 19 that the government would consider an APHC proposal for "sending the troops back to the barracks" and allowing its leadership to visit Pakistan. The next day he denied the statement pertaining to the possibility of sending the troops back to the barracks. He said that he had merely agreed to restart the dialogue with the APHC.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 06, 2002.)

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