Hindu Vivek Kendra
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The Kashmir Time Bomb

The Kashmir Time Bomb

Author: David Ignatius
Publication: The Washington Post
Date: May 10, 2002
URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63059-2002May9.html

Sometime this month, the Indian intelligence service -- known as RAW because of the initials of its more genteel official name, the Research and Analysis Wing -- will complete a report on whether Pakistan has complied with an Indian ultimatum that it halt terrorist infiltration into Kashmir and hand over alleged terrorists.

The Indians will doubtless report the truth, which is that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- for all his good intentions -- has so far failed to meet the two demands the Indian government made last December, after pro-Pakistani terrorists bombed the Indian parliament.

But what will the Indian government do then? Up to 500,000 Indian troops are poised along India's 1,800-mile border with Pakistan, in what experts say is the highest state of Indian mobilization in the past 30 years.

With a three-to-one superiority in conventional forces, the Indians could burst across the border and, in a matter of days or even hours, overrun Lahore and effectively cut Pakistan in half. And many hawkish Indians will demand military action when RAW and other security agencies issue their reports, perhaps next week.

What would Pakistan, a state with nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles to deliver them, do in response to an Indian military move?

Pakistan is vague about its nuclear doctrine, so it's hard to be sure. But many analysts fear Pakistan's missiles are targeted against Indian cities, and that facing an Indian conventional onslaught, it would launch a retaliatory nuclear attack on, say, New Delhi, that would leave millions dead. India would probably retaliate with its own nuclear weapons, probably dropped from bombers -- killing many millions more.

Welcome to what a senior State Department official calls "the other crisis." It's difficult these days to focus on anything other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its grisly daily death toll. But in this case it's essential. Because if the India-Pakistan situation gets out of hand, the death toll could run, not to dozens, but to tens of millions.

The Indian subcontinent is the only part of the world where nuclear war is today a serious possibility. U.S. and European officials are increasingly worried about what could happen there this summer. They warn that all the ingredients are in place for a disastrous chain of miscalculation on the order of August 1914, when over-armed European nations blundered into World War I.

The State Department is alarmed enough that it is hurriedly sending a senior official to visit India and Pakistan -- probably next week. Secretary of State Powell is expected to call top officials in the two countries by telephone this week to caution against miscalculation.

Intelligence reports make clear why U.S. and European officials are so worried. Western analysts believe Musharraf doesn't have the political clout to comply with the Indian demands, even if he wanted to. These analysts argue, for example, that Musharraf still doesn't fully control the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, even after firing its chief, Gen. Mahmoud Ahmad, last October.

The Indians believe ISI is deeply involved in the long-running terrorist campaign to free Kashmir from Indian control, and the list of 20 alleged terrorists they have given to Pakistan for extradition includes some people who are reputedly close to the ISI.

Musharraf cannot meet the other Indian demand, for an end to Pakistani infiltration of Kashmir, even if he finds some face-saving compromise on the 20 names. The Pakistani president already ordered such a halt in a widely praised Jan. 12 speech, but analysts say the flow of potential terrorists into Kashmir has continued. Indeed, they say it has increased in recent weeks as the Himalayan snows have begun to melt and transit routes have opened.

It's almost inevitable that pro-Pakistani terrorists eventually will strike again inside India -- triggering demands for military retaliation by the fully mobilized Indian forces.

Another factor worrying U.S. and European analysts is the political weakness of India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Though he has restrained Indian militants in the past, and held what appeared to be a productive summit with Musharraf over Kashmir last year, Vajpayee is in poor health. The dominant Indian political figure now is the home minister, L. K. Advani, a hard-liner who has no interest in making a deal with Musharraf for outside mediation that could at last defuse the Kashmir time bomb.

India has maintained its costly mobilization since January, and analysts note that it has scheduled the rotation of troops and equipment to keep its forces at peak levels through June and July -- when analysts fear the danger of military action will be highest.

A nuclear war between India and Pakistan would mean loss of life on a scale the world has never before seen. The simple but unpleasant fact for the Bush administration is that to reduce this danger, it must play a more active diplomatic role. As in the Middle East, the United States is the only power with enough leverage on both sides to make a difference.

The apocalyptic scenarios may prove wrong, but the Indians and Pakistanis will have trouble averting them on their own. This is the real thing, Mr. President -- one of those moments when history is watching and will not forgive inaction.

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