Looking Down the Barrel

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The Indian Border Security Force patrols the increasingly fortified frontier

Kirat Chand lives on one of the hottest spots on the globe, the disputed border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. Life is never tranquil in his Galar village. Troops on either side continually take potshots at each other. These days the situation is nothing less than explosive. On Dec. 23, Pakistan lobbed an 81-mm mortar into Chand's courtyard, the first time such heavy ordnance has been used in the area since 1971. The mortar landed in mud and failed to detonate. Now army engineers are trying to extricate it, whacking around the shell with heavy pickaxes. "If that thing had burst," says Chand, observing from a few feet away, "nothing would have survived."

In the final weeks of 2001, the entire subcontinent became an unexploded bomb. The antagonistic neighbors geared up their war machines to a level not seen in 30 years. Colossus India ranged tanks and troops in strike formations along the border, deployed warships in the Arabian Sea and moved medium-range missiles—capable of carrying nuclear warheads—closer to Pakistan. A plan was publicized to pull camouflage tarps over the stately Taj Mahal to protect it from air raids. Vulnerable Pakistan moved troops and hardware from its border with Afghanistan, where they were supposed to be stopping fleeing al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, to its Indian border, although it did so without publicity. Both countries have said explicitly over the past month that they were ready to go to war. It would be their fourth major conflict in a half-century. And this time each side is nuclear armed.

Would it come to war? The Bush Administration worked desperately to head off that possibility, with Secretary of State Colin Powell at one point camping in his office to work the phones to Islamabad and New Delhi. The last thing Washington needs as it strives to complete its goals in Afghanistan is a separate, new war in the region. That would distract Pakistan, whose cooperation is essential to the American strategy in Afghanistan, as well as complicate the fortunes of its leader, Pervez Musharraf, who has proved a handy partner to the U.S.

At the same time, the U.S. war against terrorism has actually helped set the stage for a new conflagration on the subcontinent. The proximate cause of the current tensions was the outrageous Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament complex in New Delhi by suspected Muslim rebels who India claims were tied to Pakistan. India's response to the assault was conditioned by America's reaction to Sept. 11. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee immediately equated the attack to the Sept. 11 devastation in the U.S., blamed Pakistan for backing terrorists, demanded that Musharraf crack down on them and made plain that the alternative was war. Late last week the two leaders met at a regional conference in Kathmandu and even shook hands—significant in tense times—but they were still far from resolving the crisis. Musharraf talked of distinctions between terrorists and freedom fighters, while Vajpayee said he would welcome friendship as long as Pakistan prevented terrorists from "mindless violence" in India.

The Sept. 11 comparison has been strenuously promoted by India. "Dec. 13" is now accepted parlance among Indian politicians and journalists, even if the analogy is a stretch; 14 people, including the five attackers, were killed that day, and despite the apparent intentions of the assailants, the Parliament was left standing. Still, in the post-Sept. 11 environment, India finds itself on a new moral plateau. Its government has vehemently protested Pakistan's active support of armed insurgents—which is well known, even if Islamabad has denied it. In the past, the world paid little attention; it seemed to be a Hatfield and McCoy situation. The U.S. war on terrorism changed that. "It's a different world now," Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes told Time. "Sept. 11 made the U.S. realize the damage that a couple of terrorists can cause." While fearful that New Delhi's military maneuvers would set off a new war, Washington—to avoid hypocrisy—had to mute its protest. Though feeling protective toward its new pal Musharraf, Washington pressed him to rein in the militants.

So far, Musharraf is doing just that, buying what Washington assesses will be a cooling-off period of several weeks. "We now have a breathing space," says a senior Bush Administration official. However, it remains unclear whether Musharraf's actions will appease India sufficiently to reverse the escalation toward war. Clearly, neither side wants to unleash its ultimate arsenals. "Nobody is going to use the weapon," says Fernandes. But, notes a State Department official, "it's a question of unintended consequences. You never knew where it would end up, and you always knew they had nuclear weapons."

New fighting over Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan lay claim to, has loomed as a possible complication in America's battle against terrorism ever since President Bush declared war. Until then, the U.S. gave Pakistan the cold shoulder, in punishment for its 1998 nuclear test, and snubbed its leader, Musharraf, who came to power in a coup. Now, suddenly in need of Pakistan as a staging ground for the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. was embracing the country and offering $600 million in aid, a figure that will reach $1 billion by the end of the year. Mostly Hindu India, which has been at odds with mostly Muslim Pakistan since the departing British partitioned the subcontinent into the two countries in 1947, grew fearful that the U.S., which had been growing closer to India, would now tilt toward Pakistan. Then, on Oct. 1, Muslim extremists attacked the state legislature building in Srinagar, in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing 38 people. In mid-October, while Secretary Powell was visiting Islamabad, the Indians shelled Pakistani army positions in Kashmir, breaking a 10-month cease-fire and reminding the U.S. that India would not be ignored.

Next came the Dec. 13 rampage. At 11:40 that day, one of the Toontown-type sedans used by Indian bigwigs got through the Parliament gates in New Delhi because it had an official-looking light on top and a home ministry decal on the windshield. Five militants got out and started firing assault rifles and grenades as they moved toward three separate entrances of the structure. None got inside; one man, who was wired with explosives, detonated himself near the main gate, through which he could have reached the chamber filled with legislators. After some 20 minutes of gunfire, all five militants were dead, along with eight paramilitary security guards and a gardener who was caught in the crossfire.

The suicide mission wasn't terribly sophisticated. The windshield decal that gave the terrorists access to the compound was anything but official. It read, in fractured English: "No body allows to stop this car. India is very bad country and we hate india we want to destroy india ... brother bush he is also a very bad person he will be next target." Once the carnage was over, the government recovered the terrorists' cell phones, with records of recent calls to Kashmir and Pakistan. Arrests in New Delhi and Kashmir came up with some alleged collaborators.

The police put an alleged accomplice, Mohammad Afzal, in front of television cameras, where he admitted helping the terrorists reach New Delhi from India-controlled Kashmir. New Delhi announced it was fully satisfied that Pakistan was behind the plot, though evidence was scant. In Islamabad the expected hot denials had an unmistakable timbre of truth. In the wake of Sept. 11, such an assault on India was probably the worst thing that could happen to Musharraf & Co. The general turned President condemned the attack. But it hardly mattered what Musharraf said. India already realized that the attack on Parliament, though similar to suicidal assaults of the past in more remote reaches, could alter the goalposts of its conflict with Pakistan—thanks to Sept. 11.

For 12 years India has been trying to put down an independence insurgency in the part of Kashmir it holds. Its official line is that the insurgency is fueled by Pakistan, not by the Kashmiri people—that it is a proxy war. The world has disregarded that argument, knowing India was stubbornly ignoring its own problems with the mostly Muslim Kashmiris, who have revived a call for a plebiscite that the U.N. promised them in 1949 to determine whether they would be part of India or part of Pakistan.

Pakistan, on its side, did aid the insurgency, although it claimed it gave only moral and political support. One thing it never denied was that militants were based on its soil, many in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. That's a dangerous claim in the post-Sept. 11 world. It means you are harboring terrorists, just as the Taliban harbored al-Qaeda. "America must ensure that those who are part of the war on terrorism are themselves not guilty of providing a safe haven to terrorists," proclaims hard-line Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani, referring to Pakistan.

New Delhi has withdrawn its top diplomat from Pakistan, canceled train and bus service across the border and widely publicized its troop and hardware movements, always threatening to go further. "The mood of the nation is to hit back," says Sahib Singh Verma, a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Indians were instructed by the media what the logical escalation of pressure would be: limited air strikes, sorties across the border to hit terrorist camps, perhaps an abrogation of a 41-year-old treaty that would deny Pakistan vital waters from rivers that originate in India. After that: all-out war.

Militarily, Musharraf could do nothing but match India's escalation, moving troops to the 1,800-mile border and ordering retaliatory shelling across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Politically, he was being pushed to the wall. For more than 50 years, Pakistan has been dedicated to "liberating" Kashmir from India, and Musharraf has gone further than most in pursuing that goal. As army chief of staff, he ran Pakistan's six-week (unsuccessful) battle for the sparsely inhabited mountains of Kargil in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Most Pakistan watchers knew that Pakistan would have to change its Kashmir policy after Sept. 11. "We hoped they'd have longer," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad.

To turn away from the Kashmiri rebels, especially under pressure from India, was a lot to ask of a Pakistani leader. It was hard enough for Musharraf, under U.S. pressure, to abandon the Taliban, whom Pakistan had supported before Sept. 11. But the Kashmir cause is much closer to the hearts of Pakistanis, who partly define themselves through their opposition to India. Anyway, Musharraf had few options. "If he didn't give the appearance of responding to Indian concerns, he might have a war on his hands, and it would be a war he'd lose," notes Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.

Musharraf started slowly, banning the two organizations that India linked to the Dec. 13 attack, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, and freezing their bank accounts. Then, under U.S. pressure, he had the groups' leaders, 22 of their henchmen and more than 100 other extremists arrested in the name of domestic security, and instructed his intelligence agency to scale back its support of insurgents going into Kashmir.

In fact, since Musharraf took over the country in a bloodless coup in 1999, he has wanted to crack down on the country's extremist religious groups, which often feed people into militant organizations, including those fighting for Kashmir. It's not a task for the fainthearted. Three weeks ago, the brother of Pakistan Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider was gunned down in the port city of Karachi because, police believe, Haider was outspoken against fanatical religious groups.

On Dec. 25, Musharraf gave a speech against "wicked, bigoted" religious extremism, saying it could lead "to our own internal destruction." But even if he had his own reasons, once India demanded a crackdown, it became politically dicey for Musharraf to pull it off. "The shriller the Indians, the more difficult it is for Pakistan," notes a Western diplomat in Islamabad. Still, Musharraf's crackdown against the militants has at least impressed Washington. "It's real, and it's going to continue," says a senior State Department official.

The U.S. has been intensely involved in mediating the dispute. Because Washington is friendlier with both India and Pakistan than ever before, its role has been elevated beyond recognition. In the three weeks after Dec. 13, Powell phoned Musharraf four times and Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh three times, pleading with both sides to "slow down" their escalation toward war. President Bush called Musharraf and Vajpayee as well. Along the way, Powell pleaded with Musharraf to act more forcefully against the militants. Then, in every call to Singh, he emphasized what Musharraf was doing.

As the situation evolved, Powell got into the details of the army maneuvers. Noting that the Pakistanis were acting against the militants, Powell told Singh, "You need to reciprocate." He asked that India halt its soldiers at their assembly points instead of transporting them to the front lines; late last week New Delhi announced it would do just that. For Washington, which still needs Pakistan's assistance in hunting down al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar, the stakes are enormous. "A war between India and Pakistan would make the conflict in Afghanistan an afterthought," says Hathaway. "You could kiss goodbye any hopes for capturing Osama bin Laden."

Of course, on the ground in Kashmir, the stakes are high and personal. On both sides of the Line of Control, people are fleeing border villages in fear of war. They aren't the only ones on the move. At this time of year, Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, is usually teeming with teenagers in camouflage jackets who have arrived from Pakistan proper for winter training as jihadis. But the young radicals these days are sullenly waiting for buses, headed not for war but for home. Militant groups confirm that they have been told by the Pakistani government to wind up their operations, at least for now, and to evict "guest mujahedin," non-Kashmiri volunteers. The biggest training camp in Muzaffarabad, run by the now banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, is quiet, as are its sister facilities not far away. "People no longer sleep at the camps," says a Kashmiri militant in Aath Maqam, a village near the Line of Control. "There is a fear of attack by India." In the past couple of weeks, pro-jihad flags and posters that lined the streets have been hauled in or scrubbed away.

Commanders of the insurgency insist that despite Pakistan's crackdown, they can continue sending infiltrators across the loc, which has many secret passages. "We know we cannot operate fully without government help. But we can carry on. Instead of 10, we can send two people into India now," says a Lashkar militant. But without the help Pakistan once offered, life will become tougher for the militants. They will face two enemy forces—one Pakistani, the other Indian.

If war between India and Pakistan is averted, the countries will still have plenty of challenges between them—and on their own. Musharraf will have to explain to his people his crackdown on terrorism, which he used to call by a more glorified name. Lots of those people lived for the jihad that is now under such attack. "When I was a child, my mother wanted me to get settled in London," says Abu Haroon, 28, returned to Pakistan after two years fighting in Kashmir. "But I opted for jihad after one of my friends died in India. I abandoned my education and don't know anything else than to fight and die over there." Haroon is a walking metaphor for his nation. Pakistan's main moral purpose for decades has been to stand up to India, and Kashmir has been its principal platform.

India has its own worries. The indigenous militants in Kashmir now think they have a fighting chance—and they're as bloodthirsty as their visiting colleagues—at forcing India to start addressing decades of grievances. Given the stakes of a new India- Pakistan war, the rest of the world, especially Washington, might now become involved in untangling the Kashmir mess, a notion India has long abhorred. Which goes to show that when the world starts changing, no one knows where it's going to stop.

Reported by Hannah Bloch and Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad, Meenakshi Ganguly/Galar, Ghulam Hasnain/ Muzaffarabad, Yusuf Jameel/Srinagar, Sankarshan Thakur/New Delhi and Douglas Waller/Washington