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Indian Leader's Threat of War Rattles Pakistan and the U.S.

Indian Leader's Threat of War Rattles Pakistan and the U.S.

Author: Barry Bearak
Publication: The New York Times
Date: May 23, 2002

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told Indian soldiers along the tense frontier in Kashmir today to prepare for a "decisive battle" against terrorism, words powerful enough to rally his troops, threaten Pakistan and scare much of the world.

India has a grim choice at hand: make good on its pledge to retaliate forcefully against militant groups based in Pakistani territory, or appear at home and abroad as a nation that draws a line in the sand only to keep moving it back.

The prevailing expectation is that the Indians will soon strike a punitive blow, perhaps against the militants' training camps in the Pakistan-controlled area of the disputed state. The overarching fear is that such a provocative act might lead to swift escalation, unleashing the kind of nuclear combat that has long been mankind's worst nightmare.

For five days, the two nations have exchanged artillery fire across the frontier. A million troops face each other. Defense councils meet. Stock prices have plunged.

Pakistan responded to Mr. Vajpayee's call with a statement saying it would use "full force" if attacked.

Worried diplomats are scheduling visits to New Delhi and Islamabad, trying to apply the brakes. The United States deputy secretary of state, Richard L. Armitage, plans a visit.

At the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the administration was deeply concerned about the rising tensions and that senior American officials were speaking with their counterparts in both nations.

"There's no question but that the entire administration has been in touch with associates in Pakistan and associates in India," Mr. Rumsfeld said. He said the "message, clearly to everyone, is that it is a dangerous situation and that our hope and all of our efforts are aimed at encouraging them to lessen the tension along the border, both in Kashmir and elsewhere."

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, heads here next week. On Tuesday Mr. Straw explained bluntly, "India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons and the capacity to use them, and have talked publicly about a possible nuclear exchange." He called the situation "potentially devastating."

India for now seems willing to listen to the envoys, but officials made clear that India's clock is ticking. The alarm is specially set to awaken the United States.

The threat of a war that would jeopardize the American hunt for Osama bin Laden is India's leverage to get Washington to pay attention to what is sees as Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism against India.

"The Americans are asking us for some time to let them sort things out, and India is not going to do anything hastily," a senior Indian official said this week. "At the same time, it is not going to be an indefinite wait."

Regularly in private, and increasingly in public, Indian leaders are talking resentfully about the United States, which to them has declared a global campaign that defines terrorism too narrowly, as evil that occurs within the 50 states.

Specifically, the Indians are disappointed with American coziness with Pakistan, a nation they accuse of fighting a proxy war against India with guerrillas instead of uniformed soldiers. That war continues apace.

"There's no doubt that the overwhelming amount of terrorist infiltration into Kashmir is planned by the Pakistan Army," said C. Raja Mohan, one of India's leading journalists. "India knows it, America knows it. How long will it be allowed to go on? I think America has to be asking Pakistan that question."

The Indians want the United States to use the full weight of its power to get Pakistan to abandon its support for the anti-Indian attacks in Kashmir, just as it successfully pressed Pakistan after Sept. 11 to jettison its support for the Taliban.

United States officials have in fact been urging Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to rein in militants within his borders. They say they are pleased a crackdown has taken place, although one official said it is difficult to find the precise pressure point that would make the general fully change his ways.

"What do you come up with that will convince the general we're serious, when we need him so much?" one American official asked.

India insists Americans are either being gulled or turning a blind eye. The United States military needs Pakistan's help in capturing the remnants of Al Qaeda. Would the White House hurt the chances of snaring Mr. bin Laden for the sake of halting anti-India attacks in Kashmir?

"Our observation is that General Musharraf has a divided agenda," said a senior Indian intelligence official. "He provides limited support to America on his western border with Afghanistan while assisting the terrorists - sometimes the very same terrorists - on his eastern border with India."

Five months ago, in the fashion of the United States, India proclaimed it was ready to fight an all-out war against terrorism.

India declared that the last straw came on Dec. 13, with an attack by a five- man squad at the national Parliament building. India reacted by mobilizing more than half a million soldiers along its 1,800-mile border with Pakistan.

Just as now, the world fretted. America pressed General Musharraf. He responded on Jan. 12 with a bold speech, decrying terrorism, making promises. Hundreds were arrested, including some of the best-known militants in Pakistan.

The Indian intelligence official, recalling those months, pulled out a sheet of statistics. The numbers are often guesswork, a compilation of clues, he admitted. But in January and February - perhaps because of especially bad weather, perhaps because of a crackdown - infiltration into Kashmir decreased. Then, in March and April, things reverted to the violent norm, he said. By then, most of those arrested had been released.

The current crisis was set off on May 14, when militants attacked a crowded bus, then stormed the family quarters of an army camp, killing 32 people, including many women and children.

Yet another straw had been added to the last one. In India's eyes, Pakistan was calling its bluff. Retaliation seemed required.

Many Indians are impatient, arguing that it is time to attack inside Pakistan. "Our credibility is already at the zero level, and I don't think anyone will ever take us seriously again if we don't quit yapping and take some action," said Satish Nambiar, a retired lieutenant general.

But others wonder why India has wedged itself into such a corner, risking either terrifying hostilities or a humbling loss of face.

The idea of a limited war is folly, writes V. R. Raghavan, a retired lieutenant general and now a defense analyst. "Once war breaks out," his analysis goes, "the military dynamic of obtaining a favorable outcome takes control. The spiral of politico-military escalation that begins to unfold has a momentum of its own, which even experienced statesmen find difficult to control."

Still others say that the mere threat of war already has brought India a diplomatic bonanza. Just as Pakistan has employed its usefulness to the United States to good effect, India can now threaten to undo that usefulness and imperil the fight against Al Qaeda.

And what if Washington and its allies are unable to exert more pressure on Pakistan, and India finds no alternative but to attack?

"That's O.K., too," said another Indian official. "If you bomb, you at least get some deterrence. Tell me, what do you get by not bombing?"

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