On the Brink

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When India and Pakistan conducted copycat underground nuclear weapons tests in May of last year, bureaucrats and commentators in both countries argued that a new balance of terror would end military conflict between them. Twelve months later, Pakistan and India find themselves engaged in some of the most serious armed conflict of their half-century histories as independent, often antagonistic, nations. The confrontation involves Kashmir, the long-disputed territory where the two countries' heavily armed troops face each other, often in bunkers no more than 100 m apart. For the first time since the two were last at war in 1971, Indian planes last week were in combat over Kashmir, trying to dislodge infiltrators from Pakistan. The intruders had dug in along mountain ridges on the Indian side of the United Nations-imposed Line of Control, which divides the territory. During mid-week raids, two Indian fighter-bombers were downed inside Pakistani-held territory, and on Friday, a Stinger missile fired by the infiltrators felled an Indian Mi-17 helicopter. Indian armed forces spokesmen said the air raids would continue until the occupied land was retaken. The two sides offered differing views of the air attacks. Islamabad said its surface-to-air missiles had shot down both fighters after they crossed into Pakistani airspace. It claimed that one pilot died and the other was taken prisoner, and that the wreckage of both aircraft was a few kilometers inside Pakistani territory. Military spokesman Brigadier Rashid Quereshi said Pakistan has the right to take whatever action is needed to defend its territorial integrity. India's Air Vice Marshal S. K. Malik accused Pakistan of a hostile and provocative act and insisted the planes were flying within Indian air space. He said one of them, a MiG-27, developed engine trouble on the Indian side of the Line of Control and the pilot had radioed that he was falling rapidly. The second aircraft, he said, was a MiG-21 that was tailing the stricken plane when it was shot down by a Pakistani missile. The chopper was attacked by the infiltrators themselves, and all four men on board were killed. This shooting confirmed India's suspicions that the infiltrators had shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

India's opposition political parties swung behind the government in demanding that the armed forces be given every support in ending the incursion. A mood of anxiety nonetheless took hold, and newspaper editorials warned of the danger to peace in the region. In Pakistan, the fighting coincided last week with official celebrations to mark the earlier nuclear testing. Triumphalist rallies were held in major cities, and the government gloated at the downing of the Indian warplanes.

Fearing the confrontation was about to spin out of control, Western governments and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged caution and appealed to the two sides to pull back. Russia, Delhi's long-standing ally, supported the Indian actions. The U.S. State Department urged both countries to work to reduce tensions. International concern focused on protecting the fledgling confidence-building measures, which were set up in Lahore at a February summit meeting, to deal with the two countries' new status as nuclear powers. Diplomats in Delhi and Islamabad were at a loss to explain the timing and reason for the escalating conflict.

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The tension raised questions over Prime Minister Mohammed Nawaz Sharif's relationship with the Pakistani armed forces. The military's role in backing the incursion, which analysts said would have required several months planning, contrasted with his government's peace overtures to India. In Delhi, officials seemed to absolve the Pakistani government, as Defense Minister George Fernandes called the strikes a big conspiracy of the army. The Prime Minister's principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, went on television to reassure Indian viewers that there was no risk of Indian operations in Kashmir escalating to a full-scale war. India's aim is to flush out the intruders in the quickest possible time, officials say. Over the long term, India faces a permanent military presence in this formerly empty wasteland.

India and Pakistan have gone to war twice over Kashmir, in 1947 and 1965. For 10 years, Pakistan has backed a separatist uprising in the Indian-held part of Kashmir that Indian security forces have fought ruthlessly to suppress, leaving more than 30,000 casualties. In recent years Islamabad has given covert support to battle-trained Islamic extremists from outside Kashmir who seek to liberate the mainly Muslim territory from Indian control. The infiltrators tend to enter Indian-held Kashmir under cover of artillery bombardments from Pakistan. The latest fighting is taking place over a 140-km stretch of mountain ridges 4,500 m high near the strategic Indian garrison town of Kargil. The town lies on the only usable road between Srinagar, capital of Indian Kashmir, to the west and Leh, another military stronghold near the Chinese border, to the east. During the winter, the area is isolated from the rest of India by heavy snow. At the first sign of spring both armies move in to reoccupy the heights they abandoned during the winter freeze.

This year was different. By all accounts the Indian forces were taken by surprise by the latest incursion. According to Bharat Karnad, a strategy analyst at India's Centre for Policy Research, the Indian military was lulled into a certain complacency after the Lahore summit. When Indian patrols returned to the mountains at the beginning of May, they found that about 600 infiltrators had taken advantage of the low snow levels to dig in early on the high ground about 5 km inside Indian territory. They had occupied positions previously held by the Indian army and were impossible to dislodge by frontal assault up steep ravines. Pakistani long-range guns also opened up on Kargil with a daily artillery barrage, destroying part of the Indian army's main munitions dump and forcing the town's 10,000 inhabitants to flee. Indian officials said the infiltrators--whom they described as a mixture of regular Pakistani soldiers and mercenaries--threatened India's main supply route to its forces on the Chinese border. What we are looking at is an orchestrated and well-organized operation by the Pakistani army, said Brigadier Mohan Bhandari, deputy director-general of military operations. On Saturday, the army reported finding a Pakistani soldier's identity card after retaking one position. Pakistan denied that its forces were involved.

Before the air strikes began, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called Nawaz Sharif to advise him that India would take all steps necessary to push back the intruders, and the Indian leader remained tough when his counterpart called back later in the week to determine how to resolve the crisis. Pakistan has long sought international backing for its case in Kashmir. After the air raids began, Information Minister Mushahid Hussain called on the U.N. to send an envoy to settle the conflict. By contrast, India considers the dispute an issue between the two countries and has opposed international intervention. As the reality of the conflict hit, both governments seemed eager to prevent the fighting from spreading. But the long history of military confrontation over Kashmir means that the spring surprise could lead to a long, hot summer.

With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly and Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi, Ghulam Hasnain/Islamabad and Yusuf Jameel/Srinagar

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