Pakistan and India Gain War Momentum
Notwithstanding intense efforts by a group of nine of the most powerful US senators and British premier Tony Blair, who have been crisscrossing Central Asia, the Indian sub-continent and Afghanistan, Indian-Pakistan war tensions remain high. Not a day goes by without skirmishes, firefights and casualties on both sides and mutual recriminations.
Tuesday, January 8, Pakistani president Pervez Mesharref promised to address his nation in a day or two. But US Senator Joe Lieberman, after meeting the Pakistani leader, voiced extreme concern over the presence of more than a million troops facing each other on either side of the inflammable Kashmir border in the biggest troop buildup there in 15 years.
Words will not satisfy India. Nor does Delhi accept Islamabad’s ban on the two militant groups Lashkar-e-Toibe and Jaish-e-Mohammad accused of last month’s terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi, or the arrest by Islamabad of scores of Muslim militants. The Indian foreign ministry accused the Pakistani leader Tuesday of ambivalence and demanded more action against “cross-border terrorism”.
The proactive diplomatic flurry swirling around New Delhi and Islamabad to bring the temperatures down may succeed in the short term, but not extinguish the conflict simmering for decades between the two nuclear powers.
Prime minister Attal Bihar Rajpayee, though sending his interior and defense ministers to Washington in the coming week to make India’s case, refuses to accept mediation of the long-running Kashmir conflict. The political figures passing through are anyway less concerned with regional interests than with their own geopolitical objectives.
New Delhi’s demand for proofs that the Pakistanis have seriously cracked down on terrorists, particularly the dozen or so Kashmir-based groups, gives both sides room for maneuver and lets Washington into a leverage role in pursuance of its own regional interests.
In his speech to the nation, Musharref is expected to proclaim draconian measures against radical groups. He will have to walk on eggs. If his step is too heavy, he risks snapping the slender thread sustaining his regime’s stability. India’s grievances are therefore not groundless. While detaining radical political figures, the Pakistani leader has not ventured to move against the fundamentalist ringleaders or operational activists. Furthermore, the Kashmir issue is a cardinal one – not only for the militants, but also in Pakistan’s national ethos.
Pakistan’s distinction between Kashmir freedom fighters and terrorists simply does not wash in New Delhi – and not only because the differences have never been pinned down definitively anywhere. India claims that the most virulent Kashmiri groups rely on bases in Pakistan and the patronage of Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI. India won a strong point in the Afghan War when many of the Pakistani prisoners who declared themselves members of Kashmiri liberation groups proved to be Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen with no ethnic or geographic ties to the disputed province.
That is one of the ways in which the Afghan war has fueled Indian-Pakistani standoff.
A conflagration may very possibly, in the view of debkafile‘s military analysts, go nuclear – though not full-scale. Indian defense minister Fernandes had a point in theory when he warned Pakistan it would be wiped off the map in a nuclear conflict. However, neither need be expected to hit the other’s population centers, but rather send their armies to square off with tactical nuclear weapons in under-populated regions. In this confrontation, India would have the edge by virtue of its more sophisticated and precise nuclear weapons and more accurate delivery systems. The Indian army is also preponderant in size – more than double that of the Pakistani army.
The nuclear menace and the mounting internal war pressures in both countries lend urgency to mediation efforts. War fever is spreading in India, while Mesharref faces a second wave of popular disaffection after weathering the anti-American riots that exploded when he joined the US-led war against terror. This time, if he gives into Indian demands, he will be accused of betraying the country to its foremost foe. Belligerent action soon seems unavoidable, alternating with bouts of negotiation and mediation under external pressure to keep the Kashmir conflict from boiling over.
Tony Blair’s mission was to buy time for his friends in Washington – at least until late spring. A flare-up now would threaten the Mesharref regime’s fragile internal stability, give the Taliban a chance to regroup for a counter-offensive and impede Washington’s next military steps in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.