Why Bush Can't Let Kashmir Spin out of Control

Once again, tension is close to the breaking point in the long-running conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. As Pakistanis brace for all-out war, polls in India show that 96% of the population supports military action against alleged terrorist training camps in Pakistan. Even businesspeople such as Rajive Kaul, president of New Delhi's All India Management Assn., speak matter-of-factly of a potential exchange between the two nuclear rivals. If Pakistan were to launch a nuke-tipped missile, he says calmly, New Delhi could handle the loss of 5 million people--because Pakistan would be wiped out in India's second strike.

A dire scenario indeed--one that has spurred a frenzy of diplomatic activity, especially by the U.S., Britain, and Russia, since May 14. That is when militants, claimed by New Delhi to be backed by Islamabad, killed 35 Indian civilians in Kashmir, and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee threatened to retaliate. Although the situation could spin out of control, Washington is still counting on Vajpayee's restraint--at least for a few months. The rationale: The consequences of war could be so terrible that the Indian Prime Minister will have to give Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf more time to deliver on his pledge--repeated on May 27--that he won't let Pakistan be used as a staging ground for terrorist infiltration into Kashmir. In the meantime, the U.S. will work overtime to defuse the crisis.

It's vital to the foreign policy of President George W. Bush that his diplomats succeed. Even a limited war, such as an Indian attack on terrorist camps in Kashmir, would set back the U.S. campaign against terrorism. If Islamabad diverts troops from the Afghan border to face down India, it would give freer rein to al Qaeda and Taliban forces aiming to disrupt the new government in Kabul. "Our paramount concern is our ability to deal with the Taliban and al Qaeda, and stability in Afghanistan," says an Administration official. A deeper crisis in South Asia will also distract U.S. officials from brokering peace in the Middle East--and figuring out how to deal with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

That's why the U.S. is sending Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage on an urgent mission to Islamabad and New Delhi on June 6-7. He is likely to pressure Musharraf to crack down on militants and shut training camps. And he will urge Vajpayee to be patient. If consultations don't work, Washington could freeze arms sales to both countries and cut economic aid to Pakistan. Britain and Japan are considering similar measures. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to meet with Musharraf and Vajpayee at a regional summit in Kazakhstan on June 3-5.

Some analysts say Musharraf could ease the tension by handing over 10 of 20 terrorists wanted by New Delhi. "All it takes is a gesture," says Padmanabha R. Chari, director of the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies in New Delhi. But it's politically difficult for Musharraf to fulfill the Indian and U.S. demands. He is already under pressure from his military for allowing the U.S. to deploy special forces against al Qaeda inside the country.

For now, the U.S. is hoping it can parlay its improved ties with both India and Pakistan into at least an interim solution to the crisis. It's the first time in decades the U.S. has had good relations with both countries. The alternative to a solution is terrible to contemplate. Millions of lives hang in the balance.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay, Naween A. Mangi in Karachi, and bureau reports

Edited by Rose Brady

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