Musharraf on the Spot

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Pakistani President Gen. Musharraf addresses his troops

The Urdu phrase is Shadeed Garmi, extreme heat. It was 120[degrees]F last week in Delhi, 110[degrees] in Islamabad and well over 100[degrees] in Kashmir. For the Indian grenadiers of the J.K. Light Infantry regiment and the Pakistani troopers of the 15th Northern Division entrenched on opposite sides of Kashmir's Line of Control, the torrid weather made for itchy trigger fingers and an eagerness to join the battle — anything would be better than pointlessly sweltering in full battle gear. For Calcutta day laborers and Lahore rickshaw drivers, the unseasonably warm weather meant abandoning the bricklaying or cruising for fares and squatting in the shade of wilting bodhi or neem trees to chat and stoke their suspicion and hatred of their neighboring nation. And for the nations' leaders, India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his New Delhi bungalow and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf in his Rawalpindi villa, central air conditioning may have alleviated the high temperatures, but both men were scorched in the searing glare of the showdown, the Pakistani especially. As the world and, more importantly for Musharraf's political future, his countrymen take his measure, his handling of this latest Kashmir crisis could be a defining moment. Pakistan's general turned dictator now finds himself on the hottest seat of all.

The issue this time, as it was in January and in two wars since the departing British partitioned the subcontinent in 1947, is Kashmir. On the Indian side, Jammu and Kashmir have a Muslim majority, which fuels Pakistan's claim over the territory. Hindu India, anxious to prove its secular credentials, refuses to let go, clinging on with a mix of high-handed vote rigging and indifference to public opinion. For Muslim Pakistan, still smarting decades after the 1971 war in which India successfully broke Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — away from West Pakistan, Kashmir remains a call to arms, a national obsession and the one topic on which there is near unanimity. The cause is seen by some in Pakistan as a jihad, a holy war; it is viewed with clarity and single-mindedness of purpose. The identity of Pakistan, whose rulers, it can be argued, have failed their people over the years — literacy is only around 40%, and infant-mortality rates are among the world's highest — is now tied dangerously to this holy war, or this terrorism, depending on who is doing the talking. "This is the red line of Pakistani politics," says retired Pakistani army lieutenant general Talat Masood, "the one issue on which we can never back down."

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The standoff is causing concern inside the Bush Administration too. A skirmish over Kashmir could easily accelerate into a broader war. The remote but frighteningly thinkable worst-case scenario would see the two sides escalate in stages to an exchange of nuclear weapons. But even short of that unlikely cataclysm, the seriousness of the dispute requires American diplomatic attention and threatens to affect Washington's war on terror, particularly as Pakistan moves troops away from its western border with Afghanistan to the Kashmir front. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is scheduled to visit India and Pakistan this week to lean on both sides. Soon thereafter, it will be Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's turn to journey to the region and remind both parties that mutually assured destruction means just that.

How did we get to this point? For one thing, the change in seasons has made incursions possible again across the Line of Control. But the flash point was the May 14 suicide strike by three suspected Pakistani militants on an Indian bus and at an army barracks in the city of Jammu that killed 31 people, mostly the wives and children of soldiers. Coming as it did in the wake of a December attack by what India insists were Pakistani militants on Parliament in New Delhi, this most recent round of violence was enough to have the two sides mobilize a total of 1 million troops to advanced positions, start lobbing howitzer shells at one another and commence a round of warlike speechifying and saber rattling. Vajpayee, during a frontline visit to his troops, promised a "decisive battle," prompting Musharraf into his grandstanding decision to test-fire ballistic missiles. A Musharraf speech last week that diplomats had been counting on to soothe irate Indians by giving assurances that Pakistan did not want war instead also served notice that Musharraf remains committed to the Kashmiri struggle and determined not to bow down. "Pakistan will always support the Kashmiris' struggle for liberation," he said.

Shrewd observers point out that Musharraf has little choice but to strike a stalwart pose. If he is perceived as being soft on Kashmir, his last shred of credibility will be in tatters. Since seizing power in 1999, he has sold himself as an incorruptible steward who will ensure stability until he peacefully transfers power to a democratic government. But by holding in April a rigged referendum on his continued rule, the equivalent of fixing a high school popularity contest, Musharraf has come off looking vain, insecure and, for the first time since Sept. 11, like something of the class clown to those in the political center, the very constituency Musharraf needs if he is to rule effectively.

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