Why India and Pakistan Aren't Backing Away From the Brink

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Indian soldiers train at a camp near the Pakistan border

Walking India and Pakistan back from the brink of nuclear war ought to be easy, since — as the old adage goes — nobody wins a nuclear war. But the challenge facing the U.S. and other Western mediators derives from the fact that both sides appear to believe they can fight a limited war without going nuclear, and that both sides fear the consequences of backing off right now. Mediation is further complicated by the limited leverage available to Washington to restrain both sides from marching into what, the best intentions notwithstanding, could turn out to be more than just a "limited" engagement.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is due to visit the region next week, where U.S. officials hope he'll be able to make the case for restraint, backed up by the Pentagon's worst-case scenarios estimating that millions could die on both sides in an all-out war. Calls by the U.S. and other Western nations to evacuate all non-essential diplomatic personnel from India suggest that Washington believes a dangerous clash may be imminent.

Despite the ongoing artillery duels across the Kashmir frontline, the massive troop deployments and ongoing incursions onto the Indian-controlled side of Kashmir by Pakistan-backed militants, the situation has not yet escalated beyond "business-as-usual." After all, India and Pakistan have fought three of their four wars since independence over Kashmir, and have punctuated those wars with an almost constant pattern of exchanging fire over the Line of Control. In 1999, already in possession of nuclear weapons, the two armies fought a pitched battle in the Kargil region of Kashmir before pressure from Washington forced Pakistan to withdraw. In other words, they're practiced in the art of limiting their combat.

This time around, though, Pakistan is showing little inclination to act in response to Washington's demand that it stop the infiltration of separatist fighters from its side of the Line of Control. Friday Islamabad began moving troops who'd been helping U.S. forces against al-Qaeda and the Taliban along the Afghanistan border and redeploying them against Indian forces in Kashmir. The message to Washington: Get India to back off, or else Pakistan will have more important priorities than the war on terrorism.

The Bush administration's growing exasperation over Musharraf's failure to close the spigot of insurgency in Kashmir dates back to the Pakistani leader's promised crackdown on extremism last January. With India threatening to attack following a terrorist attack on its parliament, Musharraf declared a wide-ranging crackdown on Islamist extremists operating in Pakistan, and vowed that no group on Pakistani soil would be allowed to commit acts of terrorism in the name of Kashmir. Although infiltration of fighters into Kashmir stopped for a time, it soon resumed, and many of the extremists arrested in the initial crackdown have subsequently been released.

Severing the link between Pakistan's security forces and the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance was a gamble Musharraf was willing to make to ensure his regime's long-term survival, but Kashmir is a different matter. The battle for control over the mountainous territory has raged since Britain partitioned colonial India, creating the India we know today and the Islamic state of Pakistan. In Pakistan the standoff with India over Kashmir is also a central pillar of the military's claim to political power, and General Musharraf is the latest in a long line of generals that have seized power in Islamabad. Although Musharraf is politically popular, right now, being perceived to be anything but bellicose on the Kashmir issue could cost him not only in the court of public opinion, but more importantly among the military commanders on whom his power ultimately rests.

Support for insurgents in Kashmir has long been part of the Pakistani military's game plan, as a means of keeping up the pressure over the region's status without risking a direct confrontation with its militarily stronger rival. (In any developing combat situation, it also gives the Pakistanis a useful tactical presence behind Indian lines in Kashmir.) Pakistan is loath to ease the pressure in Kashmir without guarantees that its political demands over the region — for its fate to be determined in a U.N.-supervised referendum — will be addressed. Restoring peace in order to maintain the status quo, from Pakistan's point of view, simply strengthens India's grip on Kashmir, and that's something Islamabad is reluctant to countenance. But it's far from clear that Washington can cajole India into any political concessions that might help Musharraf back down from military confrontations. New Delhi believes Musharraf has no intention of acting to restrain the insurgents, and that he's getting carte blanche because of his importance to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

New Delhi remains in a difficult position, however. It can't afford to escalate to a nuclear confrontation, and yet it may have reached the point where it can no longer refrain from responding to attacks from Pakistani-controlled territory. India could opt to launch air strikes or even commando raids at training camps used by the insurgents on the Pakistani-controlled side of Kashmir and in Pakistan itself. But once battle is joined, it may quickly assume a dangerous logic of escalation.

The Bush administration is hoping to keep the two sides talking and buy time to ease the crisis, constantly reminding both sides of the dangers to their own interests inherent in a confrontation. But confrontation between India and Pakistan certainly works in favor of al-Qaeda elements that are increasingly active in Pakistan, and a substantial number of the insurgents sent into Kashmir got their original training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. It's a relative certainty that any Western efforts to defuse the crisis will be matched by extremist attempts to exacerbate it by launching new terror strikes against India in the coming weeks.