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May 28, 1999


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Washington Worried About Escalation In Kargil

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Seema Sirohi in Washington

The Clinton Administration views the current situation in Kargil on the India-Pakistan border as a "military-style operation" which is qualitatively different from the exchanges of fire that occur routinely between the two sides through the year.

US officials believe the infiltrators have come far into the Indian side of the Line of Control and need to be expelled. Some agree that without logistical support from the Pakistani military, the militants could not have pulled off such an operation at this altitude.

The downing of two Indian air force jets by Pakistan has caused widespread concern in Washington about the conflict escalating out of control, a prospect that gives analysts jitters in light of last year's nuclear tests by both countries. At the same time, there is a greater understanding at the official level about India's need to take retaliatory action against the armed infiltrators.

But the fighting in Kargil has claimed at least one casualty in Washington – the sentiment in the US Congress to lift sanctions against India and Pakistan. Senator Sam Brownback, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on South Asia, withdrew a plan yesterday to push an amendment to suspend sanctions for five years when he heard about the firing. Even though the provocation came from one side, both countries will suffer as a result.

Congressman Sherrod Brown warned that even though the fighting was limited to Indian territory, it could erode support in Congress for lifting sanctions, especially if tensions continue to escalate. "It is in the best interest of both nations to have better relations with the United States. Diplomacy, not force, should be used to settle their dispute," he said.

Indian diplomats are trying to brief officials in the Pentagon, State Department and the Congress to stress New Delhi's commitment to prevent any escalation into a full-fledged conflict with Pakistan. As evidence of Pakistani involvement, they told US officials that the infiltrators came through areas held by Pakistan, they were provided with intense and continuous artillery fire support, they are supported by helicopters and snowmobiles and they have electronic command and control equipment.

Senior US officials, who have been closely monitoring reports from the region, agree that India is facing "a serious situation" where a large number of armed men have crossed the Line of Control, occupied posts and are looking to cut the key Kargil-Leh road.

Karl Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, met Indian Ambassador Naresh Chandra and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokhar, to reiterate the message of restraint to both countries.

He urged them to reduce tension on the border and maintain a dialogue.

Chandra also briefed Gary Ackerman, the chairman of the India Caucus in the House of Representatives.

But India cannot hope for any high-level pressure on Pakistan from the Clinton Administration just yet because of Washington’s preoccupation with Kosovo. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is busy dealing with the indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as a war criminal. Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, who has conducted eight rounds of talks with India and Pakistan on the nuclear issue, is currently in Europe to work out details of a peace plan for Kosovo.

Even though the Kargil infiltration was discovered on May 6 when an Indian patrol noticed movement on the ridge inside the Line of Control and firing began on May 7, senior US officials were not aware of the gravity of the situation mainly because New Delhi took two long weeks to decide on a response. It was only when press reports began appearing in the Indian papers, US officials noted that something more serious than the periodic exchange of fire was brewing.

The US administration which tries hard to maintain an equal distance from both India and Pakistan, this time agrees with most of the pertinent facts as provided by India. "Infiltration is on the Indian side. It is a serious situation that India is facing with a large number of people who are threatening a key road," a State Department spokesman said.

Stephen Cohen, a South Asia scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the operation could be an attempt by the Pakistanis to "grab some territory and bloody the noses of the Indians." Both countries have been playing this "game" on border for years and as soon as the snows melt, there is a rush to occupy the posts. Only this time, the Indians were too slow to claims theirs.

When asked how Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief could approve of such an plan after the much-hailed Lahore Declaration, Cohen speculated that it could be a "rogue" operation jointly launched by the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence. "We just don't know. They could have done it without his knowledge."

The signs to watch out for are any mobilization and alerting of bigger army units on Pakistan's side, he said.

Michael Newbill, a research associate at the Stimson Center which works on confidence-building measures in South Asia, raised the issue of overt nuclearization of South Asia. "The current operations in Kashmir have presented a test case for both sides claims that nuclear deterrence would head off conventional conflicts, even in Kashmir." It is one thing to claim that nuclear weapons will deter conflict but another to translate it into reality."

But he added that the Indian actions, however, did not occur in a "vacuum." "Pakistan's encouragement of cross-border violations by armed militants have continued to be a major destabilizing factor in an already tense region."

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