Living in a Tinderbox

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Born out of conflict when Britain walked away from its greatest Imperial possession 52 years ago, India and Pakistan are once again headed toward catastrophe. The two countries, now the world's newest nuclear powers, appear to be sliding toward their fourth major war, prompted this time by a squabble over a line of uninhabitable mountain ridges. For India the issue has become one of honor, touching directly on its sovereignty. For Pakistan, which engineered the crisis, the conflict is fast getting out of hand. As in 1947, and again in 1965, the battle is over Kashmir, a spectacularly beautiful mini-kingdom wedged in the Himalayan mountains between China and Afghanistan. The territory's Hindu ruler handed it over to India soon after independence. Although India considers the matter settled, Pakistan, which occupies one-third of Kashmir, has never accepted that the transfer of the predominantly Muslim territory was fairly decided. Last week both sides were putting their land, air and sea forces in a state of readiness. They were moving troops and heavy weapons to their common border in disputed Kashmir, farther south in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as along the flat open spaces of Punjab and India's Rajasthan desert. Indian villagers, who had taken the brunt of the fighting there when tank forces of the two armies clashed in 1965, were moving out of their homes to safety deeper into the Indian hinterland. Speaking to troops at Kargil, the Himalayan flashpoint where the crisis began, India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared: We can go to any extent. We want peace but we are prepared for war. We are determined to get back our territory.

The trouble began seven weeks ago when an Indian military patrol was ambushed and wiped out near Kargil. The soldiers had been sent to investigate herdsmen's reports that Pakistani infiltrators were occupying Indian bunkers along a series of 5,000-m-high ridges. The intruders had crossed the de facto border known as the Line of Control and taken up well-protected positions as far as seven km inside Indian-held Kashmir. India had been caught napping. Literally overnight its ability to protect the eastern approaches to the populous Kashmir Valley and its supply routes to its armed forces in Ladakh, on the Chinese border, was called into question.

Pakistan has insisted that the estimated 700 intruders who are occupying the Indian positions are indigenous fighters, Kashmiri mujahedin, whom it backs only with diplomatic and moral support. Last week the goal posts were moved. Pakistani military spokesmen said the positions lie on their side of the Line of Control. Sartaj Aziz, the country's Foreign Minister, had noted earlier that the Line of Control was well defined on maps but not on the ground. Such assertions were met with indignation in New Delhi. This questioning of the Line of Control is an ingenious attempt to disguise aggressive action and will not affect our ongoing air and ground operations, boomed India's Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. The sanctity of the Line of Control must be restored and respected. This incursion will be undone by military or any other means.

Undoing the incursion is proving to be difficult. Indian troops have been exposed to withering fire from the Pakistani-held positions as they slowly make their way up the steep unsheltered rock faces. Casualties have been heavy. Although the official toll of dead and wounded stands at 350, army sources suggest the total is at least double that. Indian air strikes and artillery bombardment have done little to hamper the infiltrators. India has lost two MiG fighter-bombers and a helicopter, shot down by surface-to-air missiles. The question has always been how long the Indian armed forces would be able to accept such attrition without any real progress, says a Western military observer. I think we have almost reached that point.

The issue now facing India is whether it can afford to widen the conflict by crossing the Line of Control in Kashmir or elsewhere to cut off the intruders' supply route and win the war quickly. If we are to get back the area occupied by the Pakistanis, the Indian army needs to cross the Line of Control, says former army chief General Shankar Ray-Chaudhuri. We cannot succeed with our hands tied. Vajpayee's government is under political and military pressure to go for a quick solution with a decisive knockout blow. By early October, the Kargil area will be snowbound once more, and military action will have to come to a halt. The government has done little to discourage Indian newspapers that reflect warlike sentiments and have been printing photographs of young soldiers killed in Kashmir. Reports of atrocities against Indian prisoners, denied by Pakistan, have been given wide publicity. Pakistan has also turned up the volume, accusing India of using chemical weapons and purposely shelling civilian settlements.

Such intemperance holds risks for both sides. In India, Vajpayee's coalition faces political disaster if the Kargil conflict drags on through general elections scheduled for September. Vajpayee's handling of the dispute will almost certainly dominate the campaign, though opposition parties have been careful so far not to criticize the government for fear of a chauvinist backlash. Already Vajpayee's much-vaunted bus diplomacy, named after his conciliatory bus trip to the Pakistani city of Lahore earlier this year, is in shreds, doomed by what Indians see as Pakistan's unprovoked aggression. Officials confirmed last week that the government is looking into the possibility of postponing the polls if the fighting continues, on the grounds that the country's forces are stretched too thin to ensure security during the voting. For Pakistan, a costly war with India could send an already weak economy into a nosedive. Politically, the government is caught between a desire to advance its claims to Kashmir, always a popular cause in Pakistan, and the risk of failure.

Perversely, both countries have gained diplomatically from the conflict. India has won international support for the restraint it has shown in choosing , until now at least, not to widen the fighting. New Delhi has not received such plaudits in years, especially from Washington. At the same time, Pakistan has found its claims to Kashmir and its demand that the dispute be settled once and for all by international mediation listened to with new attentiveness. Islamabad has long tried to internationalize the dispute, but New Delhi has insisted it is a bilateral matter. Yet according to Western diplomats, Pakistan has made a serious misjudgment in attempting to change the de facto border. We are very focused on seeing the sanctity of the Line of Control reaffirmed, says Karl Inderfurth, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. After that there could be a cessation of the fighting and a resumption of the Lahore process, which we see as potentially the greatest casualty of this dispute. The bus from Delhi to Lahore was not supposed to go from Lahore to Kargil. We want to get back to the Lahore process.

Toward that end, U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened directly with Vajpayee and Pakistan's Prime Minister Mohammed Nawaz Sharif. In separate telephone calls last week he urged restraint. Says a senior Clinton official: We believe it is important for the infiltrators to go back. The status quo ante is what is being sought here. We are not trying to affix blame. We just want to see the situation resolved.

China, the other major power in the region, has also appealed for a peaceful resolution to the dispute. This message was delivered in almost back-to-back meetings held in Beijing between Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and each of his subcontinental counterparts. That even-handedness came as a disappointment to Pakistan, which expected firmer backing from its ally. With India and Pakistan in no mood to compromise, there seems little chance that fighting will end until a victory of some sorts is declared. For both combatants there is too much at stake. The fledgling process of reconciliation, put into place to prevent a nuclear war, has already been cast aside. As for the victim at the heart of the dispute, Kashmir's voice has yet to be heard.

With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing, Barry Hillenbrand/Washington, Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad, Yusuf Jameel/Srinagar and Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi