The Lessons India and Pakistan Learned From the Middle East

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Pakistani protesters act out a mock hanging in a display against India

When General Pervez Musharraf made his landmark speech denouncing Islamic extremism last January, there were hopes, even in India, that Musharraf was destined to be Pakistan's Kemal Ataturk — the nationalist general who founded a modern, secular Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. But now that terror attacks from militants based in Pakistan-controlled territory have brought the South Asian rivals to the brink of war, there's a growing fear that Musharraf may instead turn out to be Pakistan's Yasser Arafat — a domestically weak leader caught between his obligations to the West and to his neighbors, on the one hand, and his own instincts and the passions of his power base on the other.

Western diplomats, fearing a dangerous distraction from the anti-terror effort in Afghanistan and even the possibility of a nuclear conflagration, worked to defuse the Kashmir crisis Friday by insisting that Musharraf do more to stop attacks on India. The general this week repeated January's promise that "no organization in Pakistan will be allowed to indulge in terrorism in the name of Kashmir," but India was not buying. New Delhi, under mounting domestic pressure to retaliate forcefully for two grisly attacks in as many weeks in Kashmir, has said it will give Musharraf time to act on that promise. But if he fails to, it will go to war. And as if to drive home the Arafat comparison, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee this week wrote to President Bush to warn that India has last all faith in Musharraf and is unable do business with him. Avoiding a war now will depend, Vajpayee warned, either on a complete and unlikely turnabout by Musharraf, or else on his ouster — a position familiar as Sharon's on Arafat.

No two geopolitical situations are ever the same, of course, and comparisons are apt to be misleading. Still, it's hard to avoid the similarity between Musharraf's domestic political situation and Arafat's — even in the tactics adopted by their domestic opponents. Musharraf's strategic choice to align with the U.S. against al-Qaeda involved a wrenching 180-degree turnabout for the Pakistani security establishment that is his power base. Pakistan's intelligence service and military had nurtured the Taliban, helped it win power and fight off its enemies. The camps run by al-Qaeda had also been used, with the connivance of Pakistani intelligence officers, to train Pakistani and Kashmiri militants for the "jihad" in Kashmir. Letting go was not easy, and Musharraf was forced to purge the top ranks of his military and intelligence services of Taliban sympathizers in order to head off any signs of mutiny.

While Musharraf could sell the decision to support the war in Afghanistan as an existential imperative for Pakistan, Kashmir was different. The battle to wrest that territory from Indian control is an article of faith of Pakistani nationalism, and nowhere more so than in the military. Moreover, the almost permanent brink-of-war-with-India condition that derives from the unresolved conflict over Kashmir has long been the centerpiece of the military's claim to govern Pakistan. And Musharraf, of course, is not an elected politician, but simply the latest in the parade of generals that have ruled Pakistan for most of its 55 years as a nation. He could renounce terrorism, at least verbally and crack down on extremists on the grounds that they're a domestic threat, but he could never renounce the fight to "free" Kashmir.

India charges that despite his declarations, Musharraf is continuing to sanction terror attacks from Pakistani-controlled territory. Indian commentators suggest that the general may be trying to divert hostility to his support for the Americans in Afghanistan by channeling the extremists' energies towards India. But even if he were doing his level best to stop such attacks, Pakistan's militant Islamists may well learn from the experience of their Palestinian cousins. Hamas and Islamic Jihad long ago learned that attacking Yasser Arafat directly would earn them the ire of the Palestinian people, and that the best way to challenge Arafat was to launch terror attacks against the common enemy — that way they could simultaneously undermine Arafat's negotiating strategy and maintain popular support. In Pakistan, too, elements (which may include military and intelligence officers) opposed to Musharraf's relations with Washington may be learning that the best way to challenge that alliance is by provoking a confrontation with India in Kashmir.

The net effect of the recent attacks has been to rekindle a crisis that detracts from Pakistan's assistance to Washington against al-Qaeda. Indian troops are massing in Kashmir now, and their prime minister has urged them to be ready to fight a "decisive" battle. Indications are that India will hold off attacking in order to give the U.S. time to pressure Musharraf into shutting down the militant groups on the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir. But faced with Indian pressure, Musharraf had no choice but to vow to respond in kind. And, in what may have been an attempt to warn Washington of the consequences of confrontation with India, he announced Thursday that Pakistan may have to begin moving troops away from the Afghanistan border, where they're supporting U.S. search-and-destroy efforts against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and deploying them in Kashmir.

The Israelis and Palestinians, too, have mastered the art of taking their quarrels to Washington. But one crucial difference is that the Palestinians don't have nuclear weapons. Although India has an overwhelming advantage in any conventional military confrontation, Pakistan won't necessarily fight a conventional war. For years it has pursued the Kashmir conflict through the proxy of Islamist guerrillas and terrorists. And although its nuclear doctrine is not yet clear, recent reports suggest that Pakistan actually mounted nuclear warheads atop missiles during the 1999 showdown with India over the Kargil section of Kashmir. Washington now has the unhappy task of averting a conflict every bit as intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian one, but with nuclear weapons on both sides.