Clouds over the subcontinent


United States Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca made her third trip in as many months to south Asia last week, hoping to reduce tension between India and Pakistan. When she left, though, tension was higher than it has been at any time since the current crisis started in December. There are real fears that India and Pakistan could be on the verge of yet another war.

Rocca landed in New Delhi on Tuesday hoping to talk peace. But within hours of her arrival, a horrific terrorist attack took place near Jammu in Indian Kashmir. Three militants dressed in army fatigues disembarked from a bus outside an army camp. They had killed seven passengers on the bus before entering the residential quarters of the camp where they primarily targeted women and children. By the time Indian soldiers had killed the three militants, more than 30 people were dead.

Needless to say, the attack totally scuppered Rocca’s peace mission. From that point on her goal was not to promote dialogue between India and Pakistan, but to avert a war. For the Jammu attack, with its majority women and children victims, caused immense shock and anger among the Indian public. India wasted little time before blaming Pakistan for that act or in calling for retaliatory military action. Defence Minister George Fernandes summed up the national mood: “Pakistan is directly responsible for this. They train young people and send them here to spread terrorism. The situation calls for punishment.”

The Jammu incident took place against a backdrop of already heightened tension between the south-Asian neighbours, triggered by a previous terrorist attack. On 13 December a number of militants attempted to force their way into the Lok Sabha in New Delhi. All of them were killed, along with 15 soldiers and civilians. India claimed the militants were backed by Pakistan and took a number of punitive measures in response. The Indian high commissioner was recalled from Islamabad, Indian airspace was closed to Pakistani aircraft, all road and rail links were shut down, and massive numbers of troops were deployed along the Indo-Pak border. The Indian government demanded that Pakistan stop supporting “cross-border terrorism”, and that it extradite 20 people wanted for terrorist attacks.

Pakistan did not recall its high commissioner from New Delhi, but otherwise it responded in kind — closing its airspace to Indian aircraft and deploying its forces along the border with India. In a speech on 12 January Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf did promise to clamp down on religious extremism, and he banned five militant organisations — including two blamed by India for the Lok Sabha assault, namely the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LT) and Jaish-e-Mohamed (JM). Thousands of religious activists, including Hafez Saeed and Azhar Masood — leaders of LT and JM respectively, were arrested. But Musharraf refused to extradite anyone to India.

That response did not satisfy the Indian government and it continued to deploy some 700,000 troops along the border. The Indians said they would wait for spring — when weather conditions allow penetration from Pakistani to Indian Kashmir — to see if there was a genuine reduction in cross- border militancy. Only then would they consider withdrawing their troops. The subsequent release of many of those arrested by the Musharraf government, including Hafez Saeed and Azhar Masood, who were transferred to house arrest, had already led the Indian government to dismiss President Musharraf’s promises to curb militancy.

Last Tuesday’s attack only confirmed their belief.

If New Delhi is angry, so too is Islamabad. The Pakistani government condemned the attack, but stressed the need for a “comprehensive and independent investigation”. Major-General Rashid Qureshi, President Musharraf’s spokesman, pointed to the correlation between high profile visits to south Asia and terrorist attacks: “It leads one to believe that these coincidences happen whenever India wants them to”. He — and many other Pakistanis — suspect an Indian plot to embarrass and malign Pakistan. Analysts, including some from “neutral” news organisations, also point to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) domestic political troubles, and suggest it could be using the crisis with Pakistan to beef up flagging support at home.

Two previously unknown groups, Al-Mansoorain and Jamiat-ul-Mujahedin, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack. But New Delhi continues to blame Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Jaish-e-Mohamed, backed by Pakistan. On Friday, amid a growing national consensus for some form of military reprisal, the Lok Sabha met to discuss what the Indian response should be. Such is the level of public anger in India that many expected parliament to at least agree to an attack on Pakistani Kashmir — if not Pakistan itself. In the event though, the Indians confined themselves to a diplomatic response. Ashraf Javed Qazi, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India for the last four years, was ordered to leave the country. Islamabad expressed its disappointment over the move, and said it would continue to pursue a diplomatic solution.

Qazi’s dismissal has not averted the threat of war. Increased firing across the LOC has left several people dead, and caused some residents to pack their bags and leave the area. With thousands of troops facing each other in a state of high alert, and with feelings running very high in India, the possibility of regional conflict remains very real.

The international community, understandably alarmed by the prospect of conflict between two nuclear powers, is urging restraint. The Americans in particular have been at the forefront of war prevention efforts. President George W Bush phoned Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to express his sympathy and call for patience. Secretary of State Colin Powell made several calls to his Indian counterpart, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, and to President Musharraf. There is speculation that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage could be dispatched to the region to ease tension.

The Americans have an additional reason — apart from fear of nuclear escalation — for wanting to avert a south Asian war. Their own war against terrorism in Afghanistan is ongoing, and increasingly its focus is shifting to the northern tribal belt of Pakistan where hundreds of Al-Qa’eda and Taliban fighters are believed to have fled. Large numbers of American troops are stationed at bases in Pakistan. War with India would put them in a very awkward position.

American pressure has prevailed for now and stopped India from attacking Pakistan. But tension remains extremely high and, should there be another terrorist attack like that in Jammu, it could well lead to war.