U.S. will try to heal Pakistan-India rift

Threat to coalition prompts Powell plan to visit both next week

War On Terrorism : The World

October 11, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - America's war on terrorism has reshuffled the deck of political alliances in Central and South Asia, and one of the wild cards is the volatile relationship between the region's neighboring nuclear powers: India and Pakistan.

As the United States has turned to Pakistan for support against the Taliban, India has been largely overlooked and has felt the slight intensely.

The two neighbors have been implacable enemies since Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India went their separate ways after partition in 1947 and began fighting for control of Kashmir.

Today, their quarrel is as intense as ever, threatening the fragile coalition the United States has been building in its assault on terrorism.

Clearly aware that a war between India and Pakistan could quickly overshadow the one started against terrorism, the United States is dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to Islamabad and New Delhi next week.

His official mission is to thank leaders of both countries for their support for the war against terrorism. He will also urge calm in their dealings with each other.

Powell follows in the footsteps of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited the two nations last week with the same goal - to prevent the long-simmering battle over Kashmir from lurching out of control.

"They [U.S. officials] are in a position to influence both parties to resolve the dispute," said Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute in the Pakistani capital. "I hope and pray Colin Powell uses the opportunity to reinitiate some kind of negotiated process."

Until last month, the United States was busily courting India and neglecting Pakistan. The switch in allegiances added hurt feelings to bitter and long-held grievances in a part of the world where the stakes are frighteningly high. Here, all grievances lead to the mountainous Muslim region of Kashmir.

Last week, a suicide bomber killed 38 people in the Kashmir capital of Srinagar. India, which has accused terrorists supported by Pakistan of the attack, has been waiting ever since for the United States to reprimand its ally publicly. It has not.

The rhetoric quickly began to escalate, with Kashmiri Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah calling for India to bomb alleged terrorist training camps in neighboring Pakistan.

The loud voices have begun to die down, but the anger has not. India is waiting for the United States to do something.

"The U.S. today has acquired new leverage over Pakistan," said C. Raja Mohan, strategic affairs editor of the Hindu, a prominent English-language daily in India. "If the U.S. can persuade Pakistan to put the gun down and turn off the tap temporarily on terrorism, India would have little objection to engaging Pakistan."

Although some worry that fighting over Kashmir could turn into another Islamic holy war, other analysts say the realignment in the region may offer opportunities for improved relations as well.

Given the war in Afghanistan, both countries share concerns about regional stability. The United States, which was at odds with India during the Cold War, has more influence with both nations than it has had in years.

Perhaps quietly prodded by the United States, Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf has invited Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to renew talks, which broke down last summer after a failed summit in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

Vajpayee declined the offer, saying the time was not right, but analysts saw Musharraf's overture as a smart move and positive sign.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon redrew the political map in this part of the world.

Washington had abandoned Pakistan at the end of the Cold War after it had served its purpose - helping fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The swerve back toward Pakistan, though, helped bolster Musharraf's international standing and unnerved New Delhi. Some in India worried that the new confidence might make Pakistan more aggressive in the dispute over Kashmir. In deference to India's fury, the United States is studying the group that initially took responsibility for the blast and then denied it, Jaish-e-Mohammed. The U.S. State Department says it may put Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Mohammed's Army, on a list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Kashmir has been the source of two of the three wars the nations have fought since the late 1940s. India alleges that Pakistan is funding Muslim separatists in the portion of Kashmir it administers. Pakistan denies the accusation and says it provides only moral, political and diplomatic support.

The situation in Kashmir, though, raises tough questions for America's war against terrorism. What is the definition of a terrorist and how far is the United States willing to go to track terrorists down? After the bombing in Kashmir, New Delhi insisted that the United States acknowledge the role Pakistan has played in protecting militant Muslim separatists.

"Frankly, each country which is experiencing some form of terrorism is going to come up with some definition that suits them," said Cheema. In Kashmir, "they call it terrorist, we call it a freedom fight."

If India is uncomfortable with the new diplomatic arrangements in the region, Pakistan feels vulnerable as well. Islamabad had cultivated the Taliban, in part, to secure its Western border and free up resources and energy for its rivalry with India. Now Pakistan is sandwiched between a war to the west and a sworn enemy to the east.

New Delhi, though, is not likely to put up with further attacks in the name of regional stability and its friendship with America.

"To be restrained is one thing, but it's entirely another to sit back and be hit," said Mohan, the Indian newspaper editor. "I think India does not want the U.S. and Pakistan to be under the misimpression that it is open season on India."

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