What will it take to bring the governments of India and Pakistan to their senses? Once again, the two nuclear-armed neighbors are flirting with disaster. Tensions have been escalating since December, and they will continue to rise as summer approaches. Both governments appear to believe that war is impossible; ironically, that belief seems to encourage both sides to push harder still. Unless leaders in both countries recognize that miscalculation is possible, a horrific tragedy may be in the making.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, when the two nations gained independence. Two of the conflicts have been fought over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Islamic extremists have waged war against Indian authorities in Kashmir, determined to wrest the province from Delhi. India claims that the extremists are supported by Pakistan, a charge that Islamabad denies but is believed by many observers.
There had been hopes that the nuclear tests the two countries conducted in 1998 would prove sobering, and encourage the governments to reach a solution to the long-festering problem of Kashmir. Those hopes were dashed, however. Pakistani extremists have continued to try to infiltrate the disputed territory, bringing the two countries to the brink of war in 1999.
Tensions have been on the rise since December, when a Pakistani-based terrorist group launched a suicide attack on India’s Parliament. That attack claimed nine lives, mostly those of the terrorists, but a strike at the heart of the Indian government is a desperate move that demands a response. India has mobilized its troops, and now some 1 million men are facing off at the Line of Control that divides the two countries in Kashmir. The two sides regularly trade artillery fire, and the list of casualties has been steadily mounting.
India has warned that if Pakistan does not shut down the terrorists Delhi will take matters into its own hands. Under pressure from the United States, Pakistan’s leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf promised early this year to eliminate all forms of terrorism in his country. He followed up the pledge by having some 2,000 suspected militants arrested and replacing the head of Pakistan’s intelligence services, which are said to have supported the extremists.
That has not satisfied India — and for good reason. Mr. Musharraf did not hand over 20 individuals India had identified as responsible for the December attack. Nearly three-quarters of the arrested militants have since been released. India charges that the terrorist training camps have reopened. And last week, terrorists launched another attack against Indian forces in Kashmir, which claimed 34 lives, most of them soldiers’ wives and children. More attacks are expected as the summer approaches and the snow blocking the mountain passes melts, making it easier for terrorists to infiltrate Kashmir.
India’s patience is running out. The terrorists are striking at Indian targets with impunity: In addition to the attack on India’s Parliament in December, they also bombed Kashmir’s Parliament in October. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is under mounting pressure to act. His Bharatiya Janata Party has lost every state election it has contested in the past year. The worst communal violence in a decade has compounded the perception of government weakness. A move against Pakistan would erase that image.
Both governments seem to believe that there is little or no risk that war will escalate out of control. The two sides exchange artillery fire along the Line of Control daily. Indian analysts call for punitive strikes against the terrorist camps that Islamabad refuses to close. Despite explicit warnings by Mr. Musharraf that Pakistan would consider a nuclear response if it felt its strategic interests were threatened, strategic thinkers dismiss the possibility of such a response, claiming that the U.S. would strike first to ensure that Islamic extremists did not gain control of Pakistan’s weapons.
Pakistan, meanwhile, reportedly continues to support terrorists. Senior officials in Islamabad argue that the government cannot abandon the Kashmiri rebel groups before elections scheduled for the fall.
Kashmir also will be holding elections next fall. The Indian government is trying to convince moderates in Kashmir to participate in the balloting, which would give the results legitimacy. That will encourage the Kashmiri extremists to do their best to disrupt the vote. That may well be the match that sets the subcontinent on fire. The international community is seriously concerned about the possibility of such a development.
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