Now Tackle Kashmir

Friday 18 April 2003, by Mervyn DYMALLY

The war in Iraq is over and Saddam Hussein is either dead or on the run. Iraqis are welcoming American troops with open arms. U.S. President George W. Bush stands vindicated. Time to celebrate?

Not so soon. Washington now needs to turn its attention to another foreign policy challenge in the works — the threat of a war over Kashmir. A war which not only runs the risk of escalating into a nuclear confrontation but which would also gravely undermine Pakistan’s cooperation with the war on terrorism.

The recent killing of 24 Hindus in the troubled province by Pakistani-backed Islamist terrorists has already brought dire threats from India to retaliate, citing the invasion of Iraq as a precedent. And things are only expected to get worse. As the snow in the Himalayan passes melt in the coming months, it will open the way to increased infiltration by Jihadis (holy warriors) from Pakistan into Kashmir — India’s only Muslim-majority state. This is a pattern repeated every year and 2003 isn’t likely to be any different.

Though Pakistan was quick to condemn the recent killings, the fact remains that terrorists based in Pakistan have been carrying out attacks on civilians in Kashmir for over a decade. These attacks resulted in the 1999 clash between India and Pakistan and brought the two countries to the brink of another catastrophic war last year.

The recent attacks come at a time when the U.S. is preoccupied with Iraq and North Korea and are clearly designed to provoke the Indians into retaliation. It once again reminded the U.S. that Kashmir remains a dangerous flashpoint that could easily trigger a nuclear exchange with unimaginable consequences. That danger comes not so much from India , which has superior conventional forces and so is less likely to resort to weapons of mass destruction. Instead the real risk is that Pakistan, in an attempt to level the playing field, will use its nuclear arsenal first.

The war of words has already reached alarming heights. Pakistan’s ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in Dec. 2002 that had India invaded Pakistan in the military standoff earlier that year, he would have been prepared to respond "unconventional" weapons (a.k.a. nuclear weapons). George Fernandes, India’s defense minister, replied chillingly that "we can take a bomb, or two, or more . . . but when we respond there will be no Pakistan".

The Bush Administration has formally acknowledged the link between the Kashmiri terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and the Pakistani state itself and Gen. Musharraf publicly denounced these terrorist acts in a Jan. 2002 address on Pakistani television. Since then, unfortunately, apart from a few shows of house arrests of leaders of these Islamist terrorist organizations, the he has done almost nothing to dissuade these Islamist fundamentalists from continuing their activities on Pakistani soil.

What is particularly worrying is the apparent relaxation of controls on two of the most dangerous groups — Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Both are radical Muslim organizations, blacklisted by the U.S., which have claimed responsibilities for many previous murders in Kashmir. They were banned by Gen. Musharraf early last year, after strong pressure from the U.S. But recently, prominent figures in both organizations have been released from custody, including Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad.

America urgently needs to use its strong leverage with Pakistan to convince the Musharraf government to withdraw all support for these militant organizations. It won’t be easy. With anger against America over the war in Iraq spreading quickly, Gen. Musharraf will find it extremely difficult to rein in the religious fanatics preaching hatred in their mosques and religious schools. He will also find it hard to enlist the support of the military, which remains very hawkish against India , and the secretive and powerful leaders of the Interservices Intelligence Agency (ISI), who have never been enthusiastic about the country’s alliance with Washington.

Yet Mr. Bush holds a stronger hand than may be apparent at first sight. For the first time, since the end of the Cold War, Washington is on good terms with both Pakistan and India . It can exploit these good relations to the full to promote goodwill between the two countries and decrease tensions. The challenge for the American government will be to use a mixture of pressure, diplomacy and financial aid to convince Pakistan to starting being serious about cutting its links with terrorists operating from within its borders.

Mr. Dymally is a former U.S. congressman.

The Asian Wall Street Journal
April 16, 2003

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