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South Asia: Pakistan-India Dispute Simmering, Impacting Campaign Against Al-Qaeda, Taliban

India's prime minister today toned down his rhetoric about the threat of war with Pakistan over the divided region of Kashmir, but he says war is still possible. RFE/RL reports on the latest developments and talks with an analyst about what impact the ongoing row could have on the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in nearby Afghanistan.

Prague, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL -- Indian Prime Minister Ata Behari Vajpayee today toned down his statements about a crisis with Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Vajpayee told journalists in Srinagar -- the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir -- that he does not see an immediate threat of war with Pakistan. He said the situation along the border is still "serious" and could lead to war, but added that he hopes war can be avoided.

Vajpayee today also called on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to take action on his pledge to stop Islamic militants from using Pakistan as a base for terrorist attacks in India and Indian-administered Kashmir.

Vajpayee raised concerns yesterday about the possibility of war with Pakistan when he told Indian troops in Kashmir that it is "time for a decisive battle." The two nuclear-capable countries have been exchanging heavy artillery fire for six days across the line of control that divides Kashmir.

Earlier today, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that a confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir could escalate into nuclear war. Straw said Pakistan and India lack the nuclear doctrine and channels of communication that helped prevent nuclear war in Europe during the Cold War. Straw plans to visit both India and Pakistan next week in a bid to defuse the crisis.

New Delhi accuses Pakistan of training and arming Islamic militants with the aim of achieving Kashmir's independence from Indian rule. Pakistani authorities have accused India of killing a moderate Muslim separatist leader in Kashmir this week in order to prevent any dialogue on the issue of Kashmiri independence.

Vajpayee's remarks today followed a plea by British Prime Minister Tony Blair for both sides to resolve the crisis peacefully: "It is essential in the end both that Pakistan stops support for any form of terrorism whatever in Kashmir or indeed anywhere else in the region, and that at the same time that India is prepared to offer a proper system of dialogue to resolve all issues between the two countries, including disputes over Kashmir."

Blair also asked India and Pakistan to seriously consider the ramifications of their actions: "I do urge both countries and the leadership of both countries to pause and reflect before taking action that could plunge not just their countries into conflict but the wider region, with implications for the whole of the world."

Western experts agree that the threat of a military confrontation between India and Pakistan has risen in recent weeks. Among them is Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka (1992-95) who now serves as a South Asia analyst for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The primary issue is the question of whether India and Pakistan are heading toward open conflict. And I have to tell you that a few days ago, I thought the answer to that was yes. If the problem of violence in Kashmir and in India continues, then I suspect that [the efforts to avoid war are] not going to be good enough. And I think you will see some military action."

Schaffer says most analysts agree with Straw's assessment that a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan is a growing possibility. "It is a reasonable fear that if a conflict got started, you would see a tit-for-tat process. And out of that tit-for-tat process, as the targets potentially get bigger and more threatening, you have to worry about the conflict reaching the point where Pakistan would feel its national existence was threatened. And I think most analysts would agree with me that this is the background out of which you are most likely to see somebody reaching for the nuclear button."

Even if the dispute does not escalate into direct military action, Schaffer says the tense relations between India and Pakistan already are having an impact on Islamabad's ability to contribute to the U.S.-led campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

That's because Pakistani forces are tasked with guarding the border with Afghanistan in Pakistan's mountainous tribal regions of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Provinces.

"I think they probably have [pulled troops away from the Afghan border in order to send them to the border with India]. But I think you've got to keep in mind that the key element in the operations in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier [Province] is not so much how many troops Pakistan deploys, but how they work with their U.S. counterparts. The big problem there is not so much the amount of manpower as it is the politics of putting any kind of outside troops in those tribal areas in the first place. Normally, not even the Pakistan army operates there."

Schaffer, who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, also says the conflict with India could lead Pakistan to move some of its armed forces from the Afghan border to the border with India. "It's my understanding that the operations against Al-Qaeda are not terribly personnel-intensive [for Pakistan]. They do not require enormous numbers of troops. But if it comes to having to make a choice, I think Pakistan is going to opt in favor of keeping its readiness high on the front with India."

Domestic political concerns for Musharraf also are impacting Pakistan's contribution to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. The latest international operations in Afghanistan's southeastern border provinces of Khost and Paktia have resulted in little contact with fighters from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But reports suggest there have been clashes between Al-Qaeda and Western troops within Pakistan's tribal regions.

"These are sort of murky operations, and it is in the interests of all the participants not to publicize, any more than they absolutely have to, any involvement by foreigners. So I suspect that the precise operational details are going to be pretty hard to get."

Schaffer explained that the Pashtun-dominated tribal regions of Pakistan are areas that have always maintained a level of autonomy from outside rule -- whether from Islamabad or from the 19th-century British colonial rulers of the Indian subcontinent: "For the Pakistan army plus some elements of a foreign army to be operating [within Pakistan near the Afghan border] is a big challenge to the supremacy of the tribal leaders there, and one they are not likely to take kindly to."

Schaffer says another problem for Musharraf is that his promised crackdown on Islamic militants within Pakistan could result in a backlash against him by militant groups. "There's no question that [Musharraf] is in a difficult position. The thing which is really driving the deployment of Indian and Pakistani troops is the Indian government's firm belief that infiltration [of Kashmir by Islamic militants from Pakistan] is continuing. On the other hand, cracking down on infiltration is something that would, without doubt, bring about a backlash from the militant organizations -- which have already shown that they can be quite dangerous within Pakistan and beyond."

But Schaffer said Musharraf really has few good options other than to follow through on his promises to challenge Pakistan's militant Islamic organizations. She sees that as one of the few ways for Pakistan to reduce the risk of war with India.

Washington has announced plans to send Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the region to help broker a resolution to the crisis.

Pakistan's top military commanders today reviewed the preparations of their armed forces against military attacks. Musharraf told his joint chiefs of staff committee today that Pakistan wants peace but is prepared to respond effectively to any attack.