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India/Pakistan: Crisis In Kashmir Begins To End

Prague, July 8 (NCA/) - Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan today to begin defusing tensions over Kashmir. Many analysts believe the process will lead to a pullback of Pakistani-supported militants who have seized strategic heights on the Indian side of the line of control dividing the region.

Sharif comes back to Pakistan following a trip to the United States and Britain. He met with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington on Sunday and promised to try to take "concrete steps" to end tensions with New Delhi over the fighting in eastern Kashmir which has raged since mid-May.

So far, Sharif's commitment to Clinton has aroused fierce criticism inside Pakistan. Leaders of Islamic political parties have denounced the prime minister and called for his overthrow. Comrades of the militants fighting inside India have vowed the guerrillas will hold their ground, no matter what Sharif's government says.

New Delhi, for its part, has largely discounted Sharif's promise to Washington, saying it will continue launching air and ground assaults on the guerrillas until they retreat.

But analysts say that the Pakistani leader's trip to Washington nonetheless has set the stage for the Kashmir crisis to now wind down and for the militants to withdraw to the Pakistani side of the disputed border.

Alex Lennon, an expert in Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., talked by telephone with RFE/RL about the conflict. He says that Sharif's trip to Washington was a sign that the Pakistani leader had already decided before going that Islamabad could no longer support the incursion and had to find a way out.

He says the trip to meet Clinton was an effort to gain the political clout he needs at home to successfully sell the idea of a pullback as being in Pakistan's larger national interest.

"I think Sharif was thinking that the only way he could try and stabilize the situation and defuse the tension was to get political cover from the outside so that he could turn to the domestic sources and say 'look, I had to do it' because of the tremendous international pressure that was put on him."

Lennon says that Pakistani leaders -- including those in the country's powerful military -- increasingly recognize that the incursion into Indian-controlled Kashmir has brought more problems than benefits. He says they have been persuaded by diplomatic pressure from Western powers, which have rejected Pakistan's argument that the fighting is being done by militants indigenous to Kashmir who receive only moral support from Islamabad.

Equally decisive has been the strength and effectiveness of India's military response to the incursion. India has committed thousands of troops and massive air power to retaking the strategic peaks in eastern Kashmir which the guerrillas occupied by surprise two months ago. Since then, New Delhi has slowly but steadily forced the guerillas, whom it says are Pakistani-based militants led by regular Pakistani soldiers, back toward Pakistan.

Analysts say one reason both the international and Indian reaction to the incursion has been so strong is that it marks a sharp escalation in an annual routine of Pakistan helping Islamic militants infiltrate into Kashmir. The militants seek to join the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley to Pakistan.

This year marked the first time the militants have received enough Pakistani-army support to penetrate deep into mountainous eastern Kashmir and seize strategic peaks overlooking a key highway India uses to administer the region and re-supply its forces there.

Lennon says that the Pakistani leadership may have been emboldened to support such an ambitious incursion this year because it wanted to test the strength of Islamabad's new status as a nuclear-capable power. That status was confirmed by New Delhi and Islamabad conducting tit-for-tat nuclear tests last year.

"What started this latest round of conflicts was some test by Pakistan to see how much they could get away with given the new nuclear environment that was started by the nuclear tests just over a year ago. They basically found that it is no different and they can't use that as a means of gaining greater influence on the ground."

Sharif now faces the tough task of convincing the militants who advanced into Kashmir to reverse course after bitter fighting in which hundreds of guerrilla and Indian soldiers are reported to have died. The process could be complicated by the fact that it remains uncertain to what degree Islamabad directly controls the fighters' activities. Analysts say that the militants receive aid and encouragement from the Pakistani military for their annual incursions into Kashmir. But it is not clear whether it was the government, the military or the militants themselves who decided to go so deep into the province this year.

Still, Lennon says that whoever ordered the militants into Kashmir, once the government advises them to pullback, they have no choice but to comply. The range of armed militant groups involved and the Islamic parties which outspokenly support them will be bitter, but most will not dare risk losing the government's military support for their future operations.

"[The militants] are basically losing the on-the-ground battle, as it is, pretty badly and if they were to try to defy the Pakistani government they would be jeopardizing their long-term assistance. The majority of the people on the ground in those militias will toe the line and follow the initiative that was agreed by Sharif in Washington. But there still remains the potential that there are some rogue factions that could break away and create some trouble during the withdrawal phase in the coming weeks."

The Defense Committee of the Pakistani cabinet is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss the Kashmir crisis, with a full meeting of Sharif's cabinet due this weekend.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir since their countries were created in 1947 by the partition of Britain's Indian empire. Pakistan controls the northern third of the disputed territory, while India controls the southern two-thirds.