Rock and a Hard Place

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ANTHONY SPAETHOn his domestic stage, Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammed Nawaz Sharif takes a wide stride. Since riding to power on a 1997 electoral landslide, he has revised the country's constitution, won a bruising battle with the judiciary over the appointment of judges and cracked a fierce whip at critical local journalists. In February, he talked peace with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at a summit in Lahore--no mean accomplishment as the antagonistic neighbors both now have nuclear weapons. And then, a few months later, he gave India a military black eye. Pakistani soldiers, along with recruits from Islamic fundamentalist groups, took control of strategic, Indian-held territory in the mountainous Kargil region of Kashmir. New Delhi has been struggling to dislodge the occupiers for the past two months, with a combined body count exceeding 1,000.

But last week, Sharif paraded on the world stage with a notable lack of confidence. To ascertain the depth of Pakistan's isolation on the Kargil conflict, he made a hurried trip to Washington. U.S. President Bill Clinton interrupted his Fourth of July holiday and spent more than three hours hashing out the issue with Sharif in Blair House, the official guest quarters across from the White House. At one point, the two men also held a private discussion, joined only by a notetaker. During a break in the talks, Clinton called Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to confer for 10 minutes.

In the end, though, Sharif emerged a loser. Not only did he fail to get U.S. support, but he and Clinton issued a joint statement that amounted to a slap on Sharif's wrist. They announced that the Line of Control--the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir since 1972--would be respected, further stating that concrete steps will be taken for the restoration of the Line of Control. In other words, Sharif promised Clinton to give India back its territory--though Pakistan still maintains that none of its soldiers has crossed the line, or even materially aided the ostensibly independent guerrillas giving the mighty Indian military such a terrific fight.

But if Sharif felt buffeted in Washington--not to mention in London and Beijing, where he also made similarly chilly pilgrimages--he was in for far worse back home. The news from Washington prompted fury across Pakistan. We gained a great deal in Kargil, which was our finest hour, says Aliffudin Turabi, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which claims to have trained some of the volunteers fighting in the conflict. We have thrown it all away in Washington. Conservative Islamic groups held rallies at which effigies of Sharif were burned. The compromise on Kargil inked in Washington is being seen as Pakistan's worst-ever defeat on the diplomatic, political and media fronts, wrote Khalid Qayyum, chief reporter for The Nation newspaper, in a front page analysis. Sharif didn't return from Washington for four days, prompting scathing comparisons with Wasim Akram, captain of the national cricket team, who has yet to come home and face the music following his team's embarrassing loss in the World Cup final last month in London.

Sharif's promises in Washington were exactly what India has been demanding: that the occupying forces go back to Pakistan, after which the fighting can stop. His efforts to get international mediation for the Kashmir problem--which India steadfastly refuses--went nowhere. He created the mess for himself, says a senior U.S. official. He has no good choices. He will have to find a way to manage the domestic consequences.

Public ire is so hot in Pakistan that an immediate pullout isn't likely, although Pakistan Army Chief Pervez Musharraf told local journalists last week that the Kargil fighters would be requested to change their position. Across the border, a confident Vajpayee was still talking tough at week's end. We are not waiting, he said. We are fighting. We are determined to throw them all out. If Pakistan pulls its troops back to its own territory, the Kargil conflict will end. But Sharif's biggest battle--for political survival--may just be starting.

Reported by Meenakshi Ganguly and Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi, Barry Hillenbrand/Washington and Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad

The fighting in Kashmir between Indian troops and Pakistani intruders has all the earmarks of a real war--and no end in sight

Indian forces begin to win back turf

The view from a Pakistani artillery position

A soldier admits that Islamabad's army regulars are leading the infiltration