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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta

The gamble for peace

May 08, 2003

Everyone knows something is brewing in Washington over Kashmir, and that this brew is likely to be forced down the subcontinent's throat with typical US disregard for subtlety.

If a Jang report is to be believed, the White House has even set a December 2004 deadline to resolve the issue which has plagued the subcontinent since Partition.

State Department denials aside, the fact that America has plans for Kashmir became obvious when even at the height of the war with Iraq, senior administration officials took time out to speak on the issue.

Not only that, Secretary of State Colin Powell categorically told The New York Times that the US would focus on addressing the strains in the India-Pakistan relations after the war on Iraq.

And apart from a joint statement with Powell calling for Islamabad to rein in its terrorists, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw found time to call his counterpart in China, Li Zhaoxing on March 31, urging Beijing to use its considerable influence on Pakistan to check cross-border infiltration.

Two days before that, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villipin phoned his counterpart in Islamabad, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, reminding him of General Musharraf's repeated pledges to check the export of terrorism to India and to respect the Line of Control.

Thus, while making it clear that America's strike on Iraq should not be used as a precedent by India to attack Pakistan, Washington is thus seen to be stepping up the pressure on Islamabad.

The reasons for American concern are obvious. They know that the Bharatiya Janata Party is aware that even a minor punitive strike by India against terrorist camps in Pakistan held Kashmir would greatly enhance the party's electoral prospects next year.

Obviously, the only thing holding it back is the unpredictability of Pakistan's response.

Washington believes that chances of a major terrorist attack will increase as the snows melt in Kashmir, which would ease infiltration across the border. This in turn is likely to put pressure on the Indian government to act decisively.

Unlike India, Washington also believes that Musharraf is partly correct when he says he has no control over terrorists who operate in the region.

At the same time, it believes actively cutting assistance to the militant groups would threaten Musharraf's already shaky position, particularly after hardline Islamic parties won the election last October.

In fact, most of the senior leaders of fundamentalist parties arrested in a crackdown early last year have been freed, much to India's chagrin. And while Washington isn't too happy either, the frequent arrests and deportation to the US of senior Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan ensures that its protests are somewhat muted.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Vajpayee knows that even if he wants to, a climbdown from his earlier position rejecting dialogue until terrorism was stopped would not go down well with the electorate.

He also knows that sticking scrupulously to the decision would ensure that his hope of being known as the architect of a lasting peace in the subcontinent would remain just that.

Each side therefore needs to save face, to able to claim some sort of victory in negotiating, a factor that has scuttled all the earlier talks between the two nations.

Meanwhile, time seems to be running out, with reports of at least a thousand hardcore terrorists waiting for the snows to melt before sneaking into India. This time, Indian reports suggest they might be armed with chemical weapons and poison gas.

(Under India's recently modified nuclear doctrine, the use of chemical and biological weapons against it could sanction a nuclear response.)

In order to prove that Pakistan was not helping terrorists cross the border, Kasuri reiterated the proposal for joint monitoring of the Line of Control.

Pakistan, he said, was willing to accept representatives of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to verify Indian claims that Pakistan was sponsoring cross-border terrorism.

New Delhi insists this is a bilateral issue. And instead of foreign observers, it prefers to depend on TES [Technical Experimental Satellite].

Launched October 22, 2001 aboard a PSLV from Sriharikota, the TES allows India to get real time imagery with a resolution of one metre.

This allows India to not only monitor the border with Kashmir reasonably better, but more importantly, it will also be able to pick up any action against the terrorist training camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Having sent the precise coordinates of over 50 of these camps to both Islamabad and Washington, Delhi believes that action against these camps would be a first sign of Pakistan's willingness to stop terror.

So what peace proposal can the US suggest which doesn't ruffle feathers on either side of the border?

Conventional wisdom seems to indicate declaring the LoC as the international border, permanently and officially dividing Kashmir into two, is a major part of the plan.

Combined with that, Indians expect there will be tremendous pressure on Pakistan to rein in the terrorists.

Apart from the political ramifications of such a decision for both nations, the fact remains that even while making allowances for his compulsions, Indians haven't forgotten Musharraf's repeatedly broken public promises on the issue.

Besides, New Delhi is likely to view any 'plan' that US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage brings with him for the subcontinent through the prism of the largesse in the form of money and sophisticated armament that Washington is now rewarding Pakistan with.

Despite Vajpayee's offer for talks on all issues including Kashmir, and his decision to revive diplomatic and air rail links, it is unlikely he will actually agree to a summit date until the end of the month, when the snows melt in the mountain passes of Kashmir.

But what he is likely to accept is the proposal for an Indo-Pakistan force to police Iraq, provided there is an agreement on who will lead the joint force.

Essentially, Vajpayee's move is seen as strategically brilliant, since any act of terror on Indian soil now is likely to raise the heat on Musharraf.

Vajpayee's Principal Secretary and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, who returned from a visit to Iran and an unscheduled visit to Afghanistan, was in Washington for a meeting with his American counterpart Condoleezza Rice this week to discuss India's peace overtures.

Meanwhile, to keep the Americans guessing, New Delhi is making overtures to both China and Europe.

The rumours that China had toned down its objections to a Russia-China-India military and strategic axis following Defence Minister George Fernandes' recent China visit must have raised a lot of flags in the Pentagon and State Department.

There is now talk that the actual talks might take place at the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, summit, scheduled for December in Islamabad. Instead of Musharraf, Vajpayee is likely to meet Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali there.

Which gives the two sides some time to prepare their positions on the issue, and India time to assess whether American pressure on Pakistan to halt the export of terror is working on the ground.

But it also gives the terrorists time to plan and implement another major attack on India, with or without Pakistani assistance.

If they succeed, it's back to the drawing boards once again.

Ramananda Sengupta

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