A tenuous calm in Kashmir

US works to ease tensions as India plans its response to an Islamic militant attack.

Calls for war with Pakistan echoed in India's sweltering capital yesterday, after Islamic militants attacked a civilian bus and Indian Army barracks Tuesday in Kashmir.

"There's a limit to our patience. We have to hit their locations either by air, artillery, or surgical strike. We have to be prepared for collateral damage and accept it," India's Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis told reporters here.

The two nuclear-armed rivals still have about 1 million troops massed on their border, following an attack on the Indian Parliament in December. Twice, the South Asia nations have fought wars over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

But cooler heads appear to be prevailing, in part, because of continuing political pressure from the United States. "The level of tension needs to be eased somehow, and acts like this are clearly aimed at achieving the opposite," said US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, who was in Delhi and Islamabad this week on her third round of shuttle diplomacy since March. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is expected to announce his government's response to the attack today in Parliament.

"Although the public mood is extreme anger and many people just want to get this war on and over with, I don't think there will be any serious military action, at least not in the immediate future," says Retired Gen. Ashok Mehta, a noted defense analyst.

India's anger isn't just reserved for Pakistan. Yesterday, Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani criticized the US and Europe for giving financial aid to Pakistan when it "has not given up supporting terrorism in India."

Pakistani officials deny any involvement in the attack, calling such claims "baseless accusations."

General Mehta says the Indian government will respect American calls to give Pakistan more time to get its house in order and crack down on terrorists. Since January, Pakistan has arrested more than 2,000 Islamic militants, although many have been released.

The US also has troops in Pakistan and is using bases there in its campaign against remnants of the Al Qaeda and Taliban organizations in Afghanistan.

Rahul Bedi, an Indian correspondent for Jane's Defense Weekly, agrees that "there is not going to be any war or any serious hostilities break out at the moment."

US pressure is a factor, but India will exercise restraint also because it lacks a clear political objective regarding Pakistan, he says. "For 50 years, India has been nebulous about what to do about Pakistan. Do they dismember it, resuscitate it, or do business with it? And so, without this clear political course, there is no guidance for the military."

Most government officials recognize any calls for surgical strikes against Pakistan, he says, are "sheer stupidity." Mr. Bedi says it's more likely India might take diplomatic reprisals, such as delaying the Indus Water Treaty talks scheduled for May 29. The Indus River flows between the two countries and represents a liquid lifeline for many Pakistanis.

Bedi doesn't rule out the eventual possibility of war however. He said the elections scheduled in Jammu-Kashmir for next fall could be a flashpoint. By then, he expects that more terrorist attacks could occur - aimed at disrupting the elections. He also thinks that Americans' patience with Pakistan's slow-motion crackdown on Islamic militants may also be wearing thin.

"The Americans will be ticked off at Pakistan and will want them taught a lesson, and India will be ready to go because the BJP will be concerned about their own re-election in future," says Bedi.

During a visit to the Indian Army base in the city of Jammu – where 35 people, including the wives and children of soldiers, where killed in Tuesday's attack – India's Defense Minister George Fernandes told reporters: "This kind of terror will not go unpunished." And he said his own officers keep asking him: "When will we be allowed to do something."

The risk of war was underscored by a recent report by Bruce Riedel, who was an advisor to President Bill Clinton. Published by the University of Pennsylvania, the report says that in 1999 the US intelligence had evidence that the Pakistani military was "preparing their nuclear arsenals for possible deployment." According to Riedel's account, Clinton used the evidence to pressure then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw forces from Kashmir.

But Vinod Mehta, editor in chief of Outlook, a respected Indian newsmagazine, says that India is not on the brink of war now. "The options that remain are so complex because every solution right now seems to create a bigger problem. But I do think the bottom line is that nobody really wants a war with Pakistan," he says. "There will be lots of huffing and puffing, but war isn't on the agenda."

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