S. Asia crisis hits US war on terror

The US strives to ease tensions as India and Pakistan mass troops, trade charges over Dec. 13 attack.

When India then Pakistan successfully tested nuclear devices in spring 1998, a shudder went through the international community. The two nations, created in a bloody religious partition in 1947, were in a seemingly perpetual, bitter sibling rivalry punctuated by three wars - two of them across the cannon-studded Kashmir border.

In time, concern over South Asia's nuclear capability lessened. Experts divined that New Delhi and Islamabad were quite aware of the devastation they could wreak on each other in a matter of minutes, and that they had no desire to do so.

But concerns reignited as the Dec. 13 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament - allegedly by terrorists trained and supported in Pakistan - has tensions at a new high. In recent days, India has been massing troops and arms along their 1,100-mile border in the largest such buildup in more than a decade, has cut bus and train service to Pakistan, and recalled its diplomatic envoy there. Late yesterday, India's

Cabinet was meeting to consider trade restrictions and flight bans on Pakistan. And voices in Delhi are discussing "hot pursuit" - attacks on camps across the border that train militants.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are scheduled to attend a meeting of regional leaders in Nepal next week, but Indian foreign ministry officials told the Associated Press they would not hold separate talks.

While both leaders say they do not want war, both sides seem to be taking the recent diplomatic and military moves as more than symbolic gestures. How much more is the question.

The crisis is escalating just as the US is trying to cultivate new partnerships with both Delhi and Islamabad, and it threatens to diffract, if not divert, the US war on terror in Afghanistan. US policymakers worry, for example, that the Pakistan Army - with 60,000 troops deployed on the Afghan border near Tora Bora on the lookout for Al Qaeda fighters and Osama bin Laden - could redeploy those troops elsewhere in response to India's moves.

The US has not formally accepted Delhi's claim that the suicide attack on its legislative assembly was carried out by either Lashkar-i-Tayyaba or Jaish-e-Mohammad. But on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced he had placed both of the Islamist groups on a list of terrorist organizations. In an effort to ease tensions, Mr. Powell has spoken twice with the Pakistani leader and India's foreign minister.

"We have to take this [buildup] pretty seriously, and it is critical that the tensions lessen," says one senior US State Department official, who declined to be identified. "It would be nice to say this is just all maneuvering, just a couple of squabbling kids looking over their shoulders to see how the US reacts at this sensitive time. But matters are taking a more sobering turn. We are worried about people misreading radar screens, about unintended consequences."

Pakistani officials say the Indian government is using the assault on its Parliament - in which 14 people died, including the five attackers - to tarnish the image of Pakistan and depict it as a "rogue state." They claim India is trying to thwart Pakistan's emergence as a credible state, just as that country is developing closer ties with the US by assisting with the coalition against the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda. They say India is using the Dec. 13 tragedy to blur any distinctions between "terrorists" who wantonly target civilians and "freedom fighters" supporting the anti-Indian side in the 50-year-plus Kashmir dispute.

"The Indians would like to use this period of global antiterrorism to confuse the world about the struggle in Kashmir, and to lump all resistance under the label of terrorism," says Anwar Sayed, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts. "Freedom fighters, dissenters, resisters, everyone who disagrees - they are all supposedly terrorists. India sees this as an opportunity to make the Kashmir issue just disappear, with help from the US."

Indian officials say the Parliament attack illustrates in the starkest way the kinds of illegitimate violence that are being sanctioned in Pakistan. They point to a still murky bombing this fall of the parliament in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, and say public pressure is naturally building in India for some kind of response.

"An attack on the Indian Parliament in broad daylight by groups supported in Pakistan is pretty clear. These are facts for the world to see," says Navtej Sarna, spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Washington. "Whatever cover these groups had now has been blown. The terrorists can change their names, or organizations, they can hide their sponsorship. But the fact that the US banned the two groups we named is a pretty good indicator of what the US believes."

The US puts groups on its terrorist list after accruing what US officials say is enough evidence to bring a case against such groups in US courts of law, should it so desire. Under the US definition, attacking military or police targets does not qualify for terror listing.

Lashkar-i-Tayyaba is widely regarded as being supported by the Pakistani secret service, the ISI. A Lashkar member took credit for a recent attack on the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, a popular tourist spot.

Jaish-e-Mohammad is a relatively new group, formed by Maulana Masood Azhar. Maulana Azhar, born in Kashmir, was in an Indian prison until January 2000. He was released in a trade for Indian passengers of an Air India jetliner hijacked by his supporters. Among other activities, Jaish-e-Mohammad trains young boys as suicide bombers, mostly in the Kashmir region. Both groups were incubated as Islamic, Kashmir-based organizations, though they eventually developed links with Arab and Afghan groups. This week, General Musharraf had Azhar detained.

Discreet US pressure on Musharraf to crack down on Islamic extremists puts the general in a very tough spot, though one with some advantages. Musharraf started off his leadership of Pakistan after a 1999 coup by supporting Kashmiri militancy. (He was also the general in charge of Pakistan operations during the brief 1999 Kargil war against India in the Himalayas of Kashmir.) At the same time, Lashkar has grown rapidly in Pakistani popular esteem. In cities such as Lahore, young men all over town sport turbans of lime green - the Lashkar color. Whether Musharraf can get away with routing out Lashkar, whose Kashmiri cause he actually supports, is unclear.

The US, after steadily downplaying its relations with Pakistan in the 1990s, much to India's delight, suddenly reappraised the strategic value of the Muslim state after Sept. 11. While Pakistanis widely feel the US will soon abandon them - as it did after the Soviet-Afghan war was over in 1989 - some US sources feel that sentiment is unfounded. Pakistan will be needed by the US to rebuild Afghanistan, for a steadying influence in Central Asia, and as a continuing partner in monitoring extremism in the region, experts say.

Yet James Mulvenon of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rand Institute argues that while the new partnership with Pakistan is here to stay, and the US should increase its military-to-military relations with Pakistan, the more natural ally of the US is India.

"India is a democracy, the economy is functioning, we can do the info tech thing with them, and then there is a good military to military prospect," he says.

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