South Asia's tinderbox

India and Pakistan's Kashmir conflict heats up, one year after nuclear

Late spring in mountainous Kashmir usually means the snow and ice melt enough for troops on the contested India-Pakistan border to move up to their usual standoff positions for the summer.

But last Wednesday, India acted on the discovery that fighters from the Pakistani side beat them to their positions and threatened a key resupply road. Indian airstrikes failed to dislodge the guerrillas, Pakistan shot down two MIG fighters - and relations between the countries went into a deep chill.

Eight days into the escalation of a 52-year-old conflict, and one year after testing nuclear weapons, neither India nor Pakistan wants to end up in another full-scale war. Earlier this year, in the now famous "bus diplomacy," the two sides signed a peace accord and a set of confidence-building measures.

This week, India accepted Pakistan's offer to negotiate over Kashmir, though a firm date has not been set. Yet US officials privately point to Pakistan as the main culprit.

In a series of strongly worded messages and exchanges with Pakistani officals that border on the undiplomatic, senior US officials have, behind closed doors, virtually accused the Pakistanis of supporting if not creating the current crisis - in order to bring international sympathy for their claims on Kashmir and force action by the UN Security Council.

They say the size, planning, and the organized nature of the operation in Kashmir, the remote location of the guerrillas in the hills above the Indian town of Kargil, the use of Stinger missiles against Indian jets, which suggests premeditative action - could not have been accomplished without military assistance and some strategic coordination from Pakistan.

"The Indians took a lot of casualties and the whole thing became so embarrasing that they had no choice but to send in aircraft, some which were then shot down," a senior US official told the Monitor. "This is a unanimous view not only in the [Clinton] administration and the State Department, but is shared by important allies. The Pakistanis may have miscalculated if they think this will force a debate in the Security Council."

For their part, Pakistani officials continue to deny any involvement with the fighting in Kashmir, and pointedly say that Kashmir has been an international issue dating to Security Council resolutions in the early 1950s. "We have said repeatedly that this war was started by an escalation of Indian repression in Kashmir," states Pakistan's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tariq Altaf when contacted by phone. "Kashmir is already an international issue. We don't have to make it one."

The government of India is strongly opposed to any negotiations by outside parties on the issue of Kashmir.

TWO of the three wars between India and Pakistan since independence were over Kashmir, which may be the issue most relevant to Pakistan's historic desire for self-identity and esteem, and India's desire for sovereignty.

Following nuclear tests by both countries last spring, world attention was focused for the first time in many years on Kashmir as a dangerous flash point, say experts. As India's only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir is widely regarded as the chief source of tension in the region since 1947 when British India was sundered into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. In the late 1980s, Muslim separatists in Kashmir began an insurrection that was eventually put down by Indian troops through a massive deployment in the region and a widespread counterinsurgency campaign. During that period, both Indian and Pakistani forces were on high alert, and according to several accounts, on the verge of a nuclear standoff.

Tensions even in the current crisis are running relatively high, though among South Asia experts, it is conceded that both India and Pakistan are quite aware of their limits. Yet an incident in the border town of Wagah a week ago showed that in the heat of the moment, matters can escalate.

Wagah is the border crossing that Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee traversed on the way to sign the Lahore Declaration last February. During a daily ceremony to close the gates of the border, soldiers from both sides cocked their guns at each other. Only the quick reaction of officers on both sides prevented a shooting at the Wagah crossing.

Currently, 17,000 Indian troops are attempting to flush out an estimated 500 Islamist fighters who entrenched themselves on the top of Himalayan mountains that rise to 20,000 feet between the towns of Drass and Kargil. The area is well known as a stronghold of Shiite Muslims; however, the fighters on the Pakistani side in this operation are widely thought to be mainly Sunni Muslims. They are well equipped with portable antiaircraft weapons, including US-made Stingers left over from the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, and they have excellent communication gear.

From their positions, they can control the only road that services Kargil, the staging area for one of the strangest ongoing wars in present times - a standoff on the Siachen glacier in northernmost Kashmir, the highest battlefield in the world. The two sides spend nearly $1.5 million dollars per day to fight an artillery war that has no real strategic significance, that costs dearly in lives lost (mainly through altitude sickness and frostbite), and that is largely waged due to national pride, say many experts.

Reports filtering in from the most recent fighting suggest that when the Indian Army troops marched up to inhabit their positions along a disputed border known as the "line of control," they were unprepared to fight back against the Islamic fighters, partly because they had not yet been acclimatized to the thin air and high altitudes. Indian casualties after storming the heights were said to be heavy, more than the 46 the Indian government has officially reported. In the past two days, Indian shells hit two schools on the Pakistan side of Kashmir, killing 13 students.

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