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Sunday, Oct. 14, 2001

U.S. can't placate both India, Pakistan

NEW DELHI -- The subcontinental tour by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, starting this weekend, is aimed at the delicate task of assuaging the concerns of India and Pakistan and ensuring that the rivalry between the two does not wreck the international coalition against terrorism set up by Washington. Powell has a difficult task amid rising tensions triggered by the Oct. 1 terrorist attack on the Indian Kashmir state legislature, claimed by a Pakistan-based group.

Powell's tour follows the visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and has similar objectives. Powell will advise India not to do anything that could unsettle Pakistan's current role in the U.S.-led offensive against terror in Afghanistan. India will be urged to restart peace talks with Pakistan just as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were persuaded after Sept. 11 to talk to each other.

Angry Indians will tell Powell that peace talks are meaningless when Pakistan is still sponsoring terrorism in India. New Delhi is also upset that Washington is pairing India with Pakistan as if they were Siamese twins. Never before has such a pairing been devised, on one hand, to heap rewards on Pakistan for mercenary cooperation and, on the other, to advise India to stay cool while the United States takes care of its concerns.

Like Blair, Powell will find his message has no takers in New Delhi. India's anger over Islamabad's continued support of terrorist forces and the manner in which Washington overnight has portrayed Pakistan as a frontline opponent of terrorism is reflected in New Delhi's outright rejection of Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf's invitation for new talks. Pakistan had urged that if Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could not travel to Islamabad he should "as soon as possible" send his foreign minister, Jaswant Singh.

Washington is discovering that it cannot placate both India and Pakistan. Vajpayee has publicly rebuffed U.S. pressure, ruling out resumption of talks with Islamabad. His office has reiterated India's rejection of talks, despite Musharraf's U.S.-instructed "peace" overture to Vajpayee over the phone Sunday night. Furthermore, Indian officials have gone to the extent of warning that New Delhi might, under certain circumstances, consider military strikes on Pakistan-based terrorist-training camps, especially if there was another major terror attack in India.

The U.S. is concerned that India feels pushed against the wall following the attack on the Kashmir Legislature and may begin to apply against Pakistan the same tack that the Americans are applying against the Taliban -- attacking Pakistan-based terrorists where they train. Vajpayee is under pressure from his Cabinet to get tough, not just talk tough, at a time when Musharraf has consolidated his hold on power by replacing military and intelligence commanders. In the process, Musharraf has also made himself more vulnerable in Pakistan's highly combustible political climate.

To assuage Indian feelings, U.S. President George W. Bush, Powell and Blair have stated that their offensive will target terrorism in all its forms, including terror in Kashmir. The Americans have also added two underground groups, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba, to Bush's list of terrorist groups whose assets are to be frozen. But Washington has offered no explanation why these Pakistan-based groups were not automatically included in Bush's list released two weeks ago, given the existing evidence of their terrorism.

It is significant that Musharraf's conciliatory call to Vajpayee came a day after he fired his Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed. The Americans want New Delhi to believe that Ahmed was fired for the Kashmir terror attack and, therefore, India should talk with Musharraf, who has emerged in recent weeks as Washington's pet dictator.

The reality is that Washington and Musharraf had their own reasons to send Ahmed into premature retirement. Musharraf, aware of the timing of the first U.S. military strikes on the Taliban, seized the opportunity to purge the military of rival generals who played a key role in installing him in power two years ago. The Americans wanted to strengthen Musharraf's hands and to oust a general who had shared little intelligence on the Taliban. They were offended that Ahmed had passed on stale intelligence.

Musharraf is celebrating the second anniversary of his military coup with full U.S. backing. The speed with which events have helped catapult him to the international center stage becomes apparent when one recalls the reluctance of former U.S. President Bill Clinton to make a brief stop in Islamabad in March 2000. Clinton avoided shaking hands with Musharraf in public. Last week, though, a smiling Blair, who had led the international campaign to ostracize the Musharraf regime and suspend Pakistan from the Commonwealth, was seen shaking hands with Musharraf and exchanging pleasantries at an Islamabad reception.

Unlike India, which offered its unconditional and enthusiastic support to the U.S. from the start of the antiterrorist campaign, Pakistan was forced to cooperate. As Musharraf publicly acknowledged, Pakistan would have been treated as a target itself had it not fallen in line behind Washington. Having double-crossed the Taliban, Musharraf is now reaping rich dividends. To mollify public opposition to the military attacks in Afghanistan, Washington wants to show Pakistanis that tangible rewards await them in the form of U.S. economic and perhaps military assistance.

By helping Musharraf tighten his grip on power, the U.S. is building up a general whose record of covert and terrorist operations against India parallels the mythologized exploits of Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden. India views Musharraf -- more than Ahmed -- as accountable for the murder of 40 people in the attack on the Kashmir legislature.

There is no way Vajpayee can reopen talks with a dictator who publicly gloats about the "freedom struggle going on in Kashmir" and then, a few hours later, calls up to suggest "peace" negotiations. The Americans should realize that Vajpayee has no desire to commit political harakiri. The internal pressures on Vajpayee to strike back are based on concerns that India perhaps can no longer sit by idly and hope that one day Washington will act on Indian concerns or that good sense will prevail on the Pakistani leadership. Recognizing this, Washington has begun coercing Musharraf to rein in the Pakistan-based militants causing terror in Indian Kashmir.

As a frontline victim of terrorism, India is concerned that U.S. policymakers may be forgetting the lessons of the past as they let short-term objectives and political expediency guide their war on terrorism. The array of frontline allies the U.S. has lined up in this war range from regimes that bankroll militant Islamic fundamentalism overseas, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to Central Asian states run by autocrat holdovers from the Soviet era and to the terrorism-exporting junta in Islamabad.

The terrorist forces that the U.S.-led coalition is seeking to combat were unintentionally reared by past American policy. Today the U.S. is tightening the noose around the Taliban as part of its plan to dislodge it from power in Kabul. But barely five years ago, the U.S. was the only international power to hail the Taliban's rise to power. In the mid-1980s, in fact, bin Laden was one of the "holy warriors" proclaimed by then-President Ronald Reagan at a White House ceremony as the "moral equivalent of the founding fathers" of the U.S.

Today, deep-rooted links exist among Kashmir terrorists, the Taliban, bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and Pakistani intelligence. The U.S., however, wants to tackle the problem of terrorism by going after the child, the Taliban, but not the father, Pakistan. That is why Powell will get an earful in New Delhi.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, regularly contributes to The Japan Times.

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