India set to launch 'small war'

US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld will go to Asia next week to try to ease tensions between India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan are edging closer and closer to war.

Pakistan confirmed Thursday that it is moving troops away from the Afghan border, where they have been helping the US hunt for Al Qaeda fighters, due to the looming military threat on its eastern flank. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will head to the region next week to try to defuse tensions.

Indian military sources say India has secretly told the US and Britain that it will wait two weeks to see if international diplomatic pressure halts infiltration of Islamic militants into Indian territory. "This could be easily verified by monitoring [radio and telephone] intercepts," says Ret. Major Gen. Ashok Mehta, an Indian military analyst. If infiltration does not significantly drop, a senior Army official says India plans a 10-day assault in Kashmir. "It will be like Kargil [the 1999 war between India and Pakistan]," says Mr. Mehta. "The military action will be predominantly infantry led and intensively supported by the Air Force."

The short Indian military operation is designed to capture territory and destroy the infrastructure of Islamic militants quickly. The battle-field scenario, says a senior Indian military official, is premised on the calculation that it will operate under the nuclear threshold and that the international community will step in to prevent the conflict from escalating.

Within the first 48 hours, India is expected to attack the Neelam Valley Road across the Kupwara sector in Indian-held Kashmir, says an Indian Air Force officer involved in the planning. The Indian Air Force will try to destroy an important bridge over the Jhelum River which connects Pakistan with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. But "Indian action will attract heavy Pakistani punishment," says General Mehta.

In the Kargil conflict, the Indian government decided not to cross the 460-mileLine of Control that divides Indian-held Kashmir from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This policy was to ensure that the "limited conflict" did not escalate into a full-fledged conventional war. The two nations have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Two of the wars were over Kashmir.

In the last two weeks Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has given bellicose speeches decrying Pakistani "cross-border terrorism" and calling on Indian soldiers to "prepare for sacrifices" in a "decisive fight." Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has responded by donning his general's uniform, testing short- and long-range ballistic missiles this past week, and vowing that any Indian attack would be met with a swift response.

While few expect India and Pakistan to use their nuclear weapons against each other, the possibility of a bloody conventional war between two key allies in the US "war on terrorism" is shaking the international community. Indeed, some analysts say India is stealing a page from Israel's game plan to initiate their own "war on terrorists." Others see a classic brinksmanship strategy that India, in particular, is using to invite external pressure on its enemy.

"The Indians are practicing a policy of 'compellance,' " says Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow in security issues at the Brookings Institution, reached at a conference in Tokyo. "They are threatening to use force to compel another country to alter its behavior. In this case, their target is both Pakistan and the US, and they are compelling the US to put pressure on Musharraf to rein in cross-border terrorism."

It may be working. Numerous diplomats have visited the region since January, including US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca. This week, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw arrived with a proposal to beef up the 35-member UN monitoring force.

According to Pakistan's UN ambassador Munir Akram, Mr. Straw said that a helicopter-borne force of 300 could "effectively monitor [the Line of Control and verify] whether the Indian charges are right or not." Next week, Richard Armitage, a deputy Secretary of State, will also arrive in Islamabad to impress on Mr. Musharraf America's concerns in the region.

The leverage of the Western powers is significant. The US could withdraw further economic support, thus sending Pakistan's rebounding economy back into a tailspin. In addition, the US could put Pakistan back on its watch list of terrorist countries, alongside North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. But this lever works both ways. The US depends on Pakistan to rein in Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives hiding in Pakistan; any loss of Pakistani support undermines the US "war on terrorism."

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, it's clear that Indian officials are offering the Pakistani state no easy way out of the current imbroglio. Those close to the prime minister and to External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh say that India intends to keep up the pressure on Pakistan until Musharraf follows through on promises made in a Jan. 12 speech to "break from the jihadi mindset" and to shut down terrorist groups based on Pakistani soil.

"It was the international powers led by the US that said we are in a global fight against terrorism, and the US would shoulder the responsibility for Pakistani misbehavior," says K.K. Nayyar, a retired rear admiral and behind-the-scenes participant in Indo-Pakistani negotiations over Kashmir. "But you see the result. There is an escalation by the militants."

But India's tough talk of war may create an environment into which the US and other Western nations may feel compelled to intervene and to seek lasting solutions to the Kashmir conflict.

"This is the ultimate nightmare of India, to have the US meddling in this issue," says Sumit Ganguly, a political scientist at University of Texas in Austin, and author of a book on Indo-Pakistani wars called "Unending Conflict." "There is a deep reservoir of suspicion among Indian intellectuals toward the US, because of its past alliance with Pakistan during the cold war."

Yet in the present environment, India may feel the need to bloody Pakistan's nose.

"The question is, how do you get out of the present bind?" says Dr. Ganguly, the UT professor. "The Indians cannot afford to back down without looking silly to the Pakistanis."

Admiral Nayyar agrees. "Conventional war is inevitable, and the later it takes place, the fiercer will be the campaign and the higher the death toll."

Still, some analysts say that the tough talk by India and Pakistan are just rhetoric, aimed at domestic hard-liners in both countries.

"Frankly, I don't think there's going to be war and there's not going to be peace," says Mr. Cohen. "This reminds me of sumo wrestling. There's a lot of posturing between two giants, a lot of throwing of salt, but neither one wants to crash against the other."

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