India and Pakistan decline to be superpower battlefield

"Most intriguing," says Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Afghanistan crisis. "Most unhelpful," says one Western diplomat of India's wobbly response.

If President Carter is finding it difficult to coordinate post-Afghanistan signals with his Western allies, the task has proven doubly difficult with the major South Asian powers closer to the fray:

Both India and Pakistan, South Asian rivals, are concerned over the Soviet invasion. Pakistani diplomats, is the days after the invasion, evinced outright panic. But neither Asian neighbor wants to become the front line in a brewing superpower storm.

So both states seem to have opted for a somewhat aligned version of "nonalignment." Pakistan wants lots of American arms, but insists they be delivered with discreetly low profile.

And India? New Delhi officials, suspicious of Moscow but far more suspicious of Washington, insist that the Soviets must be reasoned into a withdrawal, not pressured into one.

India, with February talks in New Delhi between Mrs. Gandhi and the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, began its campaign of reason. In early March, an Indian Foreign Ministry official acknowledged there was still "no clear way out of the Afghan tangle."

But if there is a way, Indian officials maintain, it is not be found in what Mrs. Gandhi has termed a revived "cold war."

"The message that India has been transmitting to the West," says a Western diplomat in New Delhi," is that we must simply mat in New Delhi, "is that we must simply wait . . . not do anything. The Americans, in particular have trouble swallowing this and see India as part of the problem, not part of the solution."

However disturbing to Washington, the South Asian response to the Afghanistan crisis should not have been surprising, Asian political analysts argue.

Perhaps even more than the Arab-Israeli arena, South Asia carries to potential for great-power conflict. To the north lurk the Soviet Union and China -- with Moscow backing India while China supports Pakistan. In the wake of the Afghan invasion, the third great power seeks renewed presence in the region.

An African saying, which is applicable to the local scene, has it that "when elephants fight, only the grass gets trampled." Neither Pakistan nor India wants to be the grass.

Yet both countries want to take out some superpower insurance against threats from outside -- or in the case of Pakistan's military regime, from inside.

So Pakistan, while signaling Moscow publicly that it does not want to pick any fights, would like US arms if this could be arranged within a framework of "nonalignment."

India, for its part, would like to maintain its traditional "nonalignment," if this could be arranged within the framework of a 1971 friendship pact with the Soviet Union.

Both countries -- not unlike most Arab states and some NATO members -- Want Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, but want this accomplished in concert with their own particular priorities and concerns.

Mrs. Gandhi, Indian analysts point out, has ample reason to be suspicious of the superpowers.

Her father, longtime Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, developed a measure of sympathy for Soviet socialism during visits to the USSR and steered Indian on a course of distinctly pro-Soviet nonalignment.

Yet when India and China went to war in 1962, it was the West -- not Moscow -- that came to Mr. Nehru's aid.

Nine years later, India fought its third major battle with neighboring Pakistan. This time, in Indian eyes, it was Washington that had failed to come through.

Angered by what was seen as an American "tilt" toward Pakistan over the Pakistan-Bangladesh civil war in 1971, India penned a 20-year friendship treaty with Moscow. Relations with Washington, which had thrived during the days of the Peace Corps and food aid in the 1960s, promptly soured.

No one here maintains that Pakistan's dilapidated military machine, humbled in two weeks by India in late 1971, presents an immediate threat. But Indian officials are concerned over Pakistani nuclear development and by the "Peking-Pakistan connection."

Pakistani leader Zia ul-Haq said in a recent interview published here that Mrs. Gandhi had sent him a note advocating a "regional approach" to Afghanistan, presumably pointing to further moves for Indo-Pakistani detente.

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