Washington Pushed back from impending military conflict in June by forceful U.S. diplomatic intervention, India and Pakistan have resumed their deadly minuet of threat and counterthreat. Iraq is not the only locale that war threatens to visit and devastate this winter.
On present trends, the end of 2002 will be a season of widespread conflict: American troops will still be in Afghanistan hunting al-Qaida; Israelis and Palestinians locked in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of terror and retaliation may fight on; the U.S. campaign for regime change in Iraq will be approaching its military go-or-no-go point. You can now add to that bleak picture the news that President Pervez Musharraf is moving Pakistan back to the brink with India to secure his increasingly shaky grip on power at home.
Each of these conflicts runs on its own dynamic. But they all are now linked by President Bush's war on global terrorism. They are moving parts that Bush and his aides must manage individually in ways that do not undermine the president's larger war goals.
Musharraf brought the threat of war in South Asia back into focus last week by delivering a saber-rattling speech on Pakistan's Aug. 14 celebration of its 55th year of independence.
But it is not only the Pakistani military ruler's rhetoric that points toward a new crisis in the making. Discussions with influential Indian opinion-makers and analysts at an Aspen Strategy Group meeting in Colorado this month suggest that the attitude of India's political and military leaders has changed since June on two points that make war more likely.
First, India's leaders are letting it be known in New Delhi that they cannot afford to back down in the face of Pakistan's open threats to use nuclear weapons to counter India's overwhelming conventional superiority. India was, in their view at least, the victim of history's biggest nuclear bluff last spring. To let Musharraf continue to practice brinksmanship and nuclear deterrence would paralyze Indian strategy and discredit these leaders with their own electorate.
Second, U.S. diplomatic intervention is now a devalued tool in Indian eyes. The promise that Musharraf made to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in June to end cross-border terrorism in India and Kashmir "permanently" has not been carried out by any one's measure, and the United States has not forcefully pressed Musharraf to keep his word.
There has in fact been no meaningful effort to close down the 50 to 60 known terrorist training camps located in Pakistan and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The infiltration supported by Pakistani army units across Kashmir's line of control has begun to rise toward normal levels again after a dip. When Secretary of State Colin Powell, on his recent trip to New Delhi, ducked a question by saying that infiltration was difficult to measure, Indian officials reacted bitterly to the blatant evasion.
"Powell's visits have become a diminishing asset," said one Indian with access to official thinking. The government may make that point through protocol as well. Armitage is due in New Delhi late this week as part of an Asian tour. But meetings with senior officials he has seen before may be difficult to arrange this time around, Indians say.
Powell's deputy may also face tough going in Islamabad. Musharraf will no doubt complain (accurately) that India has not reduced its mobilized border force of 700,000 soldiers, despite the promise that Musharraf gave (insincerely) to Armitage in June to behave in Kashmir. Instead, India says the litmus test for defusing tensions must be the orderly conduct of statewide parliamentary elections scheduled in Indian-controlled Kashmir in September and October.
But Musharraf gave a decisive green light to the subversion of the elections by Kashmir terror groups with his independence day vow never to compromise on the disputed territory.
Musharraf has isolated himself at home on every other issue of importance. He has antagonized political parties by upending Pakistan's constitution and its version of democracy in a personal power grab. He has antagonized fundamentalist Islamic forces by giving lip service to Bush's war on terrorism. Now without any constituency of his own except the army, Musharraf cannot afford to appear weak on Kashmir.
U.S. policy-makers are scared stiff that Musharraf will be overthrown or assassinated and American access to bases used in fighting al-Qaida will be lost. But they overlook the greater risks for Bush's war on terrorism and his presidency created by giving Musharraf a relatively free hand in Kashmir and a pass on cracking down on fundamentalism in Pakistan. That is pouring kerosene, not water, on an already blazing fire.