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Saturday, May 25, 2002

War clouds over South Asia


NEW DELHI -- As Indian and Pakistani soldiers trade heavy artillery fire along the Line of Control dividing disputed Kashmir, an open military confrontation between the two nuclear rivals appears likely unless the United States is able to compel Pakistan to crack down on terror groups tied to its intelligence service.

America's critical role is reinforced by its military presence in Pakistan and by its warming relations with India. If India were to militarily retaliate against Pakistan for its proxy war through surrogate terror groups, it would put the U.S. in the anomalous position of having to insulate its forces in Pakistan from the fighting and balance its ties with both rivals.

Washington has intensified its pressure on Pakistani military dictator President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to clamp down on terrorist bands because it recognizes the logic of events may be compelling India toward openly joining the undeclared one-sided war being pursued against it by Pakistan for years. With each additional step it takes to be ready for war, India is putting itself in a military position from which its leadership cannot back off.

The time-frame in which India may be forced to join the war, however, remains unclear because the decision on when to join the battle may be imposed on New Delhi by Pakistani terrorists who carry out macabre killings in India.

The irony is that these terrorists, although linked to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, may not all be under the control of Musharraf and his Cabinet. But by failing to clamp down on such terrorists, Musharraf has made an open military confrontation with India more likely.

The latest crisis, triggered by the May 14 terrorist killing of 32 people, including 22 wives and children of Indian Army troops, is rooted in Musharraf's going back on antiterrorist pledges he made Jan. 12, a month after five Pakistani gunmen attempted to storm the Indian Parliament and kill the elected leadership.

Musharraf has quietly released most of the 2,000 militants he arrested as part of his much-publicized antiterrorist cleanup in January. They include leaders of two Pakistani terrorist outfits tied to al-Qaeda -- Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Not one of those he detained has been charged.

He has also allowed banned terrorist outfits to regroup under new names and run publications. In fact, in the runup to the recent sham referendum he held on his self-declared presidency, he mollycoddled Islamists in an effort to buy their support, freeing from custody some important extremists.

The probability of Indian military counteraction has also been increased by the failure of Indian diplomatic and economic sanctions against Pakistan to yield results, and the credibility problem faced by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government.

After terrorists attacked the Indian Kashmir legislature last October, Vajpayee told U.S. President George W. Bush that India's restraint would end if there were another major attack by a Pakistani militant group. But when the Indian Parliament was attacked in December, Vajpayee drew a new line in the sand, even as he exercised an important military option -- mobilizing Indian forces at land and sea for possible war.

More than five months later, yet another terrorist attack has forced Vajpayee to again vow retaliation. Pakistan's reluctance to match its antiterrorism promises with deeds has paralleled India's reluctance so far to match its reprisal threats with action. But now the danger of open war has heightened because Vajpayee risks wrecking his credibility if he fails to carry through on his third threat of retaliation.

In interstate relations, a threat to use force can achieve the same results as employing force, but only if the country concerned is prepared to carry through on that threat. The threat to use force has to be credible in the eyes of the adversary.

But not only has Musharraf so far failed to deliver on his antiterrorist pledges despite India's threat of war, he has also commented mockingly that the Indians want his help to rescue their troops along the border from being seared by the intense heat.

Given this perilous situation, only one development can avert an Indian military riposte -- if even now the U.S. and its Western allies can induce Musharraf to begin fulfilling his Jan. 12 antiterrorism pledges.

With Western interlocutors already delivering blunt messages to him, Musharraf can expect international pressure to mount in the coming days, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and U.S. Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage visit the subcontinent.

A genuine crackdown by Musharraf on Pakistani terrorist networks could dramatically disperse the war clouds even at this late stage.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, contributed this comment to the Japan Times.


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