U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived today in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to begin work on defusing a tense standoff between India and Pakistan. Powell's aim for the trip is to build on a relative reduction in tensions since Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in a speech on 12 January, met more of India's demands for a crackdown on militant Islamists attacking Indian forces in the disputed Kashmir region.
Prague, 16 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Upon arriving in Islamabad today, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met his Pakistani counterpart, Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar. He is due to meet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf later today.
Powell's first stop on a five-nation trip -- that will also include India, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Japan -- is likely to be one of his most sensitive and difficult. He is confronting a dispute that has resulted in the largest military buildup on the India-Pakistan border since 1971 and the possibility of a fourth full-out war between the two nuclear-equipped nations.
In remarks aired on Pakistani television today, Powell said his presence in the region "shows the importance that [U.S. President George W. Bush] attaches to this issue and his desire to find a peaceful solution." Powell said there can be no war in South Asia and that a way must be found to work through the crisis.
Tensions escalated after India deployed its troops and seeded its border with thousands of land mines in response to a militant attack on the Indian parliament last month. Pakistan condemned the attack, but responded to India's deployment with its own troop buildup.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane yesterday, Powell welcomed Musharraf's hour-long televised speech on 12 January, which outlined a broad plan to crack down on terrorists and banish religious extremism from Pakistani society. Powell said the speech helped slow the "rush toward conflict" between Pakistan and India.
Earlier this week, Powell said the U.S. wants to see the standoff reduced even further so that it no longer resembles "a hair trigger that the slightest thing will set off."
"At the moment, we have a very tense, delicate situation along the line of control in Kashmir and also along the international border. And I think we have stabilized things right now to the point where we can continue working the diplomatic and political track and persuade everyone that that is the direction we should continue to move [in]. And the last thing we want to see happen right now in South Asia is a war between these two nuclear-armed states."
India cautiously welcomed Musharraf's pledges and the subsequent police crackdown on militants in Pakistan. But Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh has said there will be no troop de-escalation until India sees "visible action in regard to curbing cross-border terrorism and preventing infiltration" in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
India also wants Pakistan to hand over 20 citizens suspected of terrorism. Musharraf says he will never hand over Pakistani citizens, although 14 of the men on India's list are Indian nationals.
Ahmed Rashid, a correspondent for the "Far Eastern Economic Review" based in Pakistan, says that before Powell can convince India to demobilize its troops, he must convince the two countries to resume normal diplomatic relations.
"Clearly, [Powell is] here to try and persuade the two armies to get back to barracks and to slow down the military mobilization that's been taking place. What diplomats have said is that his strategy seems to be, first of all, to try and persuade both sides to resume a normal diplomatic dialogue; to resume air and road and rail traffic, which has been stopped by both countries since the crisis erupted; to get the diplomats back in the embassies, because both embassies have reduced their staff. And in fact, the Indian ambassador to Pakistan has been recalled to Delhi. Basically, [Powell's] trying to get the two countries to get back to the point where they were before this crisis erupted."
In essence, what Powell is really trying to do is prevent a war. With the heaviest military buildup in three decades, the slightest misfire in diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan could trigger a military engagement. Cross-border skirmishes still continue in Kashmir and Jammu. India has also planned large-scale military exercises over the next three months.
Rashid says getting India to reduce its military profile on the border in the near future is unlikely.
"I think the Indians are going to keep the troops there because they want to see Musharraf implement his speech, and they want to keep the pressure on. I think part of U.S. strategy is also that, although they don't want a trigger-type situation which is now existing, the U.S., I think, will turn a blind eye to continued Indian pressure because the U.S. is also wanting to put pressure on Pakistan to make sure Musharraf does what he says he's going to do."
Yet, the military buildup on the border between India and Pakistan is actually undermining a major U.S. foreign policy objective in the region: the capture of Al-Qaeda operatives loyal to terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden.
Rashid says: "The Pakistani military has denied that it's taken out any troops from the Afghan border, but we are presuming and we know in fact that they have taken out large number of troops from the Afghan border. They still have a large number of paramilitary forces on the border, about 50,000 to 60,000. But clearly, this is going to affect the containment of bin Laden's people coming into Pakistan."
Ultimately, the issue at hand is the resolution of the confrontation over Kashmir. In his speech, Musharraf promised to crack down on militants and called for new dialogue on the region, which has triggered two of the three wars between India and Pakistan. Musharraf would like to see a referendum called on the status of the Muslim-dominated region, but India, which considers Kashmir an integral part of its territory, is unlikely to agree.
Powell told reporters on his plane that the U.S. would "like to be helpful" in the mediation of the Kashmir problem but will reject any official role. And on this trip, Rashid says, Powell "probably won't get into that."