Release Date: March 5, 2000
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

India, Pakistan Spoiling for a Fight

by Eric Margolis

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN -- India and Pakistan are engaged in an increasingly dangerous confrontation over the divided Himalayan mountain state of Kashmir which they have disputed for the past 53 years. For the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the armed forces of two nuclear-armed powers are clashing directly.

This week, Indian troops crossed the Line of Contro1 (LOC) that divides Kashmir and slaughtered 14 Muslim villagers, beheading some of the victims. Pakistani troops killed seven Indian soldiers. Inside the two-thirds of Kashmir controlled by India, Muslim guerrillas fighting for independence killed ten Hindu civilians and Indian troops. As the decade-old rebellion by Kashmir's 80% Muslim majority against often brutal Indian rule grows, 10-20 people are dying daily in Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani artillery trade heavy fire along the entire LOC and are on high alert. According to CIA, the Kashmir LOC is the world's most dangerous border and the likeliest place for a nuclear war to occur.

India just announced a staggering 38% increase in its defense budget. In Delhi, PM Atal Vajpayee threatened Pakistan with nuclear attack if Islamabad dared use its own strategic arsenal and proclaimed there would be no further negotiations with Pakistan until it handed its third of Kashmir over to India.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Abdus Sattar, says he has never heard such threats from India, calling Vajpayee "shrill" and irrational. Hindu extremists may be driving government policy, Sattar suggests. India is violently frustrated and enraged over Kashmir and ready to lash out.

Here in Rawalpindi, the former headquarters of the British Indian Army on the wild northwest frontier, I met with Lt. Gen. Muhammed Aziz Khan, chief of the general staff of Pakistan's 587,000 armed forces. Though guarded and soft spoken, Aziz Khan is tough, highly intelligent and fiercely determined. He is one of the three strongmen of the new military regime, along with his superior, Chief Executive, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and the redoubtable Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, Director General of Inter-Service Intelligence.

I asked Gen. Aziz if India's 700,000 regular and paramilitary troops now crammed into Kashmir - including three overstrength corps, 250 warplanes, and 300 heavy - were not poised to attack Pakistani Kashmir. "India has the capability to undertake tactical action," replied Aziz. "On the Kashmir front they outnumber us five to one. But our troops are prepared to fight at a moments notice."

Regarding the strategic arms race between Pakistan and seven-times larger India, whose population just reached 1 billion, Aziz says his nation can still keep up with India's growing military power. "But, if the relative strategic balance keeps shifting against us, I am concerned."

India has embarked on a massive arms buildup, including new aircraft from Russia and France, an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine, ballistic and cruise missiles, space warfare systems, and a large nuclear arsenal developed with covert aid from Israel and France.

The US Congress cut off all military and financial aid to Pakistan a decade ago to pressure Islamabad to give up its nuclear program, which Israel's friends on Capitol Hill saw as a possible threat to the Jewish state - though Pakistan has never shared any of its nuclear technology. Meanwhile, Washington winked at India's far larger, older nuclear program, which was seen as a useful counter to China.

Ironically, due to the US embargo, Pakistan has had to rely increasingly on its nuclear forces to offset India's growing superiority in men and material. India is now trying to spend Pakistan, which is almost bankrupt, into the ground by developing new high-tech weapons systems, such as anti-missile defenses and satellite surveillance.

Pakistan's tough new military leaders refuse to be cowed. Gen. Aziz is said to be the main planner for Pakistan’s incursion across the LOC last spring. In May, Pakistani special forces and Kashmiri guerrillas crossed the LOC and seized commanding positions atop the towering mountains above the Indian-held city of Kargil. Pakistan staged the operation to internationalize the Kashmir issue, which was fading into obscurity at a time when brutal Indian repression was threatening to extinguish the uprising.

Two months of fierce combat ensued, costing India 400 lives and a huge amount of money. The fighting ended when Pakistan's then prime minister, the inept and despotic Nawaz Sharif, was ordered to Washington for a humiliating public dressing down by President Clinton. Nawaz, who had approved the operation, denied prior knowledge and blamed it all on his generals. He then tried to split the army and dismiss its professional leadership. The military struck back, deposing Nawaz, to great public delight, and named Gen. Musharraf as Pakistan's new leader.

Pakistan is now waging a war of nerves against India, convinced the rebellion in Kashmir, discreetly supported by ISI, and growing regional rebellions inside India in Assam and the eastern hill states will eventually force India to withdraw. India is retaliating by upping military pressure against Pakistan and using its intelligence agency, RAW, to stage bombings and sabotage designed to destabilize Pakistan. At the same time, the 800,000 Indians living in the US have formed a powerful lobby that has teamed up with the influential Israel lobby to militate against Pakistan and get it branded a "terrorist state."

President Clinton, who is due to shortly visit the subcontinent, may skip Pakistan because of charges it backs "terrorists" in Kashmir, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and was involved in the hijacking of an Indian airliner. Pakistan considers Kashmiri insurgents "freedom fighters," not terrorists. Islamabad has little influence over the fiercely independent Taliban, nor was it involved in the recent hijacking. Little matter. Any state or person accused these days of being involved in "Islamic terrorism" is guilty until proven innocent.

But, as usual, Clinton is driven primarily by domestic politics, and may bow to lobby pressure by avoiding Pakistan or merely making a "refueling" stop. This would be a grave mistake. Only the United States has the diplomatic clout to prevent the drift to war now underway between India and Pakistan, who have already fought three wars since 1947. American diplomatic intervention is urgently required, as is outside mediation of the explosive Kashmir dispute.

Clinton's failure to visit Pakistan, and increasing US hostility to old ally Pakistan could be taken by Delhi as a green light to launch an offensive against Pakistani Kashmir. The huge number of Indian troops being maintained in constricted Kashmir, where they have no operational room, suggests a sort of counter-Kargil offensive is in the works. India is seething with revenge for being humiliated last spring by Pakistan. An Indian attack would not cross the international border between the two foes, but penetrate only into Pakistani Kashmir. By seizing parts of Pakistani Kashmir - possible the Lipa or Nilum valleys or Kotli - India would restore face, weaken Pakistan, and undermine the military leadership in Islamabad.

Wars too often begin because of miscalculation or over-estimation of one's power. This is precisely the case between India and Pakistan. Neither wants a general war, but both believe they can keep up the war of nerves and limited military operations under security of their nuclear umbrellas.

This week India gave its commanders the right of hot pursuit of Kashmiri militants across the LOC. CIA analysts have long said that just such an event may trigger a large battle that risks escalating into a full-sca1e war that might end with a nuclear exchange. According to Rand Corp, a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan would kill 2 million people at once, and 100 million subsequently as well as polluting the entire globe.

If ever real diplomacy was needed, it is now.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]

Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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