High stakes for mission to South Asia

Analysts hope Clinton can defuse tensions between India, Pakistan

March 18, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton leaves for India and Pakistan today,seeking to defuse what foreign policy analysts describe as a nuclear war in the making.

Long the favorites among geopolitical oddsmakers to produce a nuclear conflict, India and Pakistan are at the highest state of mutual suspicion and hatred in years. For Clinton, any reduction in tensions will mean a successful mission, analysts say.

"If the trip results in resumed dialogue between India and Pakistan, as a former professor I'd give Clinton an A," says Stephen Cohen, a South Asia specialist for the Brookings Institution. "If it results in simply no war between the two, I'd give him a B, and the grades drop progressively down from there."

Foreign policy specialists and U.S. officials dismiss Pakistani suggestions that Clinton can referee the argument over Kashmir, a northern province that India possesses and Pakistan wants and where there has been intermittent fighting for years.

"The president is not going to Pakistan to mediate the Kashmir dispute," says Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Instead, Clinton will seek any relaxation of antagonisms he can get and otherwise emphasize the symbolic, long-term dividends that accompany almost any presidential visit.

The trip "is largely for public relations value and relationship building," not immediate achievement, says Jon Wolfstahl, a nuclear nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Clinton will travel for a week in South Asia, including five nights in India and day trips to Pakistan and Bangladesh. The stop in Pakistan was in doubt for months as the administration worried that it might signal approval of Pervez Musharraf, a general who overthrew an elected government last fall in Islamabad.

In the end, officials opted for a five-hour Islamabad appearance, thinking that a nuclear-equipped Pakistan was too important to snub -- elected government or not.

The president will meet with both Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Clinton will address the Indian Parliament, visit various Indian commercial and cultural sites, and give a televised speech in Pakistan.

Clinton will be the first U.S. president to set foot in India since Jimmy Carter, the first to visit Pakistan since Richard Nixon and the first ever to see Bangladesh.

India, which was sympathetic to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is slowly reaching out to the West as it watches its neighbor, China, gain strength. Pakistan is a longtime U.S. friend, but ties with Washington have frayed over Islamabad's debut as a nuclear power two years ago and Musharraf's coup in October.

While the tension over Kashmir was not the main reason for Clinton's visit, it adds urgency to the trip, analysts say. The president's critics contend that the crisis might have been prevented by greater U.S. attention to India and an earlier presidential call on South Asia.

"This trip is long overdue," says Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies for Brookings and a former South Asia specialist for the National Security Council in the Bush administration. "It is a more difficult situation he will be wading into."

Spawned by religion, by Kashmir and by decades of hostilities, the enmity between India and Pakistan is as bitter as any in the world, say regional specialists.

Both countries were created in 1947 out of the former British Empire. Pakistan is predominantly Muslim; India, mostly Hindu. A third country on the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh, was once part of Pakistan but became independent in 1971.

Pakistan and India have waged open war twice and skirmished or glowered at one another the rest of the time. Each tested nuclear weapons in 1998 -- Pakistan for the first time.

White House officials say Islamabad and New Delhi came within inches of war last summer before Clinton persuaded Pakistan to withdraw insurgents from Kashmir.

"Kashmir is a sucking chest wound," says John Pike, a nuclear nonproliferation expert with the Federation of American Scientists. "There are just innumerable opportunities for the leadership of both countries to be confronted with the perception that the other guy is the problem. They're killing each other there all the time. Every day."

Perhaps most worrisome about India and Pakistan, says Brookings' Cohen, is the nonchalance with which they brandish their deadly arms.

"There is only a limited understanding of the risks and consequences of nuclear war in either country," he says. "The leadership on both sides, especially in India, have only the vaguest notion of the relationship between doctrine, strategy and public bragging."

All dialogue between India and Pakistan has ceased -- even low-profile, "back-channel" communications through business people and humanitarian organizations, diplomats and analysts say.

In typical, pre-trip rhetoric, U.S. officials said this week that they are merely seeking dialogue and better relationships with India and Pakistan. They deny plans to present those nations with even minor demands from the United States.

"All issues will be on the table, including nonproliferation, including the tensions we see within the region," said a senior administration official. But, he added, "I'm going to wave you off of thinking that we're going there trying to get them to sign off on pledges."

Such soft-pedaling reduces perceptions of U.S. browbeating in Pakistan and India and makes it easier for the president to paint the trip as a success.

"In this very, very dicey period -- quiet diplomacy is extremely important," says Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to India.

But South Asia specialists expect Clinton at least to ask Islamabad and New Delhi to start talking to one another and to loosen the hair-triggers on their weapons of mass destruction.

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