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June 7, 2002
Back to the Brink
India and Pakistan talk tough.

The recent tensions between India and Pakistan could be dismissed as just another round in their interminable conflict—were the potential consequences not so terrifying.

The latest crisis arises out of a number of dramatic terror incidents in India. On October 1, a suicide bombing of the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly in Srinagar killed 40 people. On December 13, a suicide squad apparently linked to the Kashmir cause (and alleged by Indian officials to be Pakistanis) attacked the Indian Parliament and killed 14 people. This prompted India to launch its ongoing buildup of hundreds of thousands of troops on the India-Pakistan border.

Then, on May 14, terrorists (whom India also accuses of being Pakistanis) attacked an Indian army camp, killing 30 people, mostly women and children. Shortly thereafter, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told his forces in Kashmir—over which the two countries have fought three major conflicts, and where a Pakistan-backed insurgency has raged since 1989—to prepare for a “decisive victory.”

Gen. Pervez Musharraf promised in a January 12 speech to deal firmly with militant groups operating within Pakistan. At the time, this seemed like a major breakthrough. “A president of a country can’t make such a speech and then not implement it,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid said at the time. “He should be taken more seriously by India.” But Rashid writes in the May 30 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review that “Musharraf’s promised crackdown was a sham. Some 2,000 militants were freed after a few weeks.”

The recent incidents in India have aroused global indignation. The chorus of voices asking Pakistan to control terrorist incursions across the Kashmir border includes President Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. The question now is whether all this sustained international pressure can convince Musharraf to change his regime’s policy—but could he change it, even if he wanted to?

Musharraf, for his part, made a speech on May 27 that was more belligerent than conciliatory. Although Pakistan also has gone ahead with badly timed missile tests, the bravado may just be bluster, masking a change in his Kashmir policy. “This is the kind of rhetoric that you need to make when you are covering your tracks in retreat,” Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times, told the New York Times.

Observers disagree on the extent of the links between Pakistan and the terrorists. There is no doubt that Pakistan has hosted and trained many of these people. But it’s unclear how much control the government has over them, or how deeply it is tied in with specific incidents like the May 14 massacre. If the militants are indeed acting on direct orders from the Pakistani regime—as India often alleges—how high up do the linkages reach?

It is in India’s self-interest to allege that the entire Kashmir insurgency is directed by remote control from Pakistan, since this lends credence to its claim that the insurgents are foreign troublemakers rather than indigenous Kashmiris with genuine grievances. But the recent attacks don’t seem to serve Musharraf’s interests. “This is the work of elements linked to al-Qaeda who are bent on destroying Pakistan and destroying Musharraf,” says Ayesha Jalal, a professor of history at Tufts University and author of several books on South Asia. “The timing is completely wrong for Musharraf to indulge in this sort of thing, and the Americans are aware of that.”

Both sides seem intent on playing a chess game, with each move designed to impress domestic audiences. The domestic situation in both countries contributes to the tough posturing. Both sides need to rally their countries behind them, especially with parliamentary elections coming up in October in Pakistan and the recent losses by Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in key states. The questions are how far both leaders are willing to go to retain power, and whether they can back down without losing face.

Musharraf’s credibility in Pakistan has been hurt by the sham referendum he organized on April 30 and by his inability to control terrorist activity in Pakistan, from the killing of Shiite doctors to the blowing up of French workers in Karachi. Vajpayee’s government has severe credibility problems of its own, after a government headed by the BJP failed to prevent—indeed, colluded in—the killings of hundreds of Muslims in the state of Gujarat as reprisals for the torching of a train compartment of Hindus.

Post-September 11, India and Pakistan also have been playing a game of what commentator Achin Vanaik has called “competitive servility” to the United States. The Indian ruling coalition has tried to prove to the Bush administration that India has been as great a victim of terrorism as America and has adopted a similarly tough posture toward its enemies. Pakistan, under intense U.S. pressure, has done an about-face by abandoning the Taliban, its creation, and aligning itself, however half-heartedly, with the West.

Meanwhile, the United States has tried to maintain a balance between the two sides. On the one hand, Washington needs Pakistan’s help to root out al-Qaeda. A major U.S. concern is that any rise in tensions will lead to a cessation of Pakistani cooperation in hunting down al-Qaeda, and the redeployment of Pakistani troops from the Afghan border to the Indian border—something that is already happening.

On the other hand, for the first time, the United States has developed a close relationship with India, one that could pay great strategic and economic dividends in the future, given India’s size and population. After initially being noncommittal, President Bush has directly pressured both leaders, though he seems to have come down on India’s side. “[Musharraf] must stop the incursions across the line of control,” Bush remarked on May 30. “He must do so. He said he would do so. We and others are making sure that he must live up to his word.”

Whenever India and Pakistan talk tough, thoughts turn to the threat of nuclear warfare. The consequences could be almost incalculable, with U.S. intelligence estimates saying that as many as 12 million people could be immediately killed in a nuclear exchange between the two countries. A U.S. Air Force report states that as many as 100 million people could eventually die. How great is the risk of a nuclear holocaust in South Asia as a result of the current crisis?

“I would say that the situation is one of concern, but not one of alarm,” says M.V. Ramana of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, an expert on the nuclear situation on the subcontinent. “There is concern that the Pakistani army may decide to take some action to counteract India, and then things may quickly escalate out of control.”

Neither India nor Pakistan have deployed nuclear missiles before, Ramana says, and the few reports that they have mated warheads with delivery systems are not very credible. Fighter planes could deliver nuclear bombs, he adds, but that would have to be after the outbreak of combat, thus ruling out a pre-emptive strike by either side. “I don’t think a nuclear exchange is likely because India is smart enough to realize that military action will not get it what it wants,” agrees George Perkovich, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation.

But neither Ramana nor Perkovich see the United States as being able to do much to stabilize the nuclear situation. “The United States could help India and Pakistan secure their stockpiles,” Perkovich says. “Persuading India and Pakistan to have the United States intervene in their command-and-control systems is the harder part. It is not realistic at all.”

But Ramana adds that the United States could assist in verifying that both countries are maintaining their non-deployment posture. “The U.S. can help on the conventional military front by helping stop the sales of high-tech arms by various countries, which have increased systematically in the case of India in the past few years,” he says. “Since Pakistan hasn’t been able to keep pace, it has relied more and more heavily on its nuclear option, leading to instability.”

Ramana and Perkovich concur that if it wasn’t for India’s nuclear project, Pakistan probably wouldn’t have gone nuclear. “First, China helped Pakistan develop the bomb, and its motivation would have been severely diminished in the absence of an Indian bomb,” Perkovich says. “Secondly, Pakistan itself would have felt that it was unnecessary and perhaps a bit out of reach.”

If they’re right, then it is incumbent upon India to initiate measures to reverse the subcontinental nuclear race. Pakistan, for its part, must firmly rule out a nuclear first strike. But the Bush administration is hardly in a position to lecture either side. The hawkish stance on nuclear weapons of Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Armitage, whom the White House dispatched to the region, doesn’t add to their credibility as peacemakers.

India and Pakistan must also drastically rethink their positions on Kashmir. Jalal says the United States has a positive role to play in helping mediate. This is despite its history of aiding jihadi elements in the war against the Soviets (some segments of which are the ones committing atrocities in Kashmir) and of condoning a succession of military dictators in Pakistan, including Musharraf. Perkovich suggests that a framework be established, with the help of Washington, and that India make dialogue contingent on Pakistan’s progress in cracking down on terrorists.

But Jalal argues that the lasting solution lies in a totally different notion of sovereignty on the subcontinent. This would entail broad autonomy for the Kashmiris, with opportunities for them to engage each other across the line of control. But this would require India and Pakistan to change their concept of nationalism and develop power-sharing arrangements on important economic and military issues. “The mindset needs to end,” she says. “It is endangering the lives of millions of people and doesn’t make any logical sense.”

All easier said than done. But the alternative is endless rounds of brinkmanship, until the horrendous day when either India or Pakistan decides to do the unthinkable and cross the nuclear threshold.

Amitabh Pal is editor of the Progressive Media Project. He can be reached at amideepa@merr.com.

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