India, Pakistan Inch Toward War as Clinton Visits


Amid the pageantry that will envelop President Clinton when he arrives here today to begin a weeklong tour of South Asia, a sobering task awaits him: stopping a war before it starts.

The subcontinent’s two nuclear-armed rivals, India and Pakistan, are embroiled in their worst relations in a quarter of a century. Fighting along their 450-mile disputed border, still covered in Himalayan snow, is raging with an intensity ordinarily reserved for summer. Islamic guerrillas battling Indian rule in the region of Kashmir are crossing from Pakistan and into India at a growing rate. Both sides are talking war, and in New Delhi, the generals reportedly are asking the politicians for authority to strike across the border.

A macabre joke making the rounds in each nation’s capital is that the fourth Indo-Pakistani war will start as soon as Clinton’s plane heads back to the U.S.


“It’s been a hot winter,” said Col. A. S. Kler, an Indian soldier stationed in Kashmir. “And it is going to be a very hot summer.”

Clinton’s South Asia tour is supposed to focus on improving U.S. relations with India, an emerging ally and a growing center of U.S. investment. The president and daughter Chelsea are expected to engage in a bit of tourism as well, with visits to the Taj Mahal and a tiger sanctuary. This defiantly shabby capital has polished itself up for Clinton’s arrival, and U.S. diplomats are talking business deals, scientific exchanges and closer ties between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest.

Low Point in Relations

But looming over the visit is the fight for Kashmir, a 53-year-old struggle that assumed global importance two years ago when India and Pakistan each exploded nuclear devices underground. A series of recent events that began last year with a border skirmish near the Indian town of Kargil has brought the two countries to the point where the possibility of war between them is being openly discussed.

“The relationship between India and Pakistan is at its lowest point in recent memory,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of politics at Quaid-i-Azam University in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. “There is a fear here that the Indians are getting ready to start a war.”

U.S. leaders are worried that the fighting along the border could escalate into a larger war and even a nuclear exchange. In recent testimony before Congress, CIA Director George J. Tenet said he was concerned that the Indian army might be preparing to strike guerrilla camps in Pakistan. Clinton recently declared South Asia “the most dangerous place in the world right now” and volunteered to help make peace.

There’s the rub: While Pakistan’s leaders say they would welcome a U.S. role in helping settle the Kashmir dispute, India’s leaders angrily reject the idea. The mere mention of Kashmir by a U.S. president prompts objections from New Delhi. The rival countries have ruled out any limits on their nuclear programs, which are proceeding aggressively toward the deployment of nuclear-tipped missiles. In India, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee must answer to a core group of hard-liners who already feel that India has grown too close to the U.S.

Clinton’s dilemma, in short, is how to cool tensions in Kashmir without offending the Indian leadership. That probably means keeping the Kashmir issue separate from the public side of his visit. In private, he is likely to press the Indians and the Pakistanis to halt their shelling and cross-border attacks and to start talking again.

“This is the tensest situation since the 1971 war, and the danger for miscalculation is high,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Clinton is coming at exactly the right moment to play the role of peacemaker.”

In just two years, the fight over Kashmir has grown from an obscure ethnic and religious struggle to perhaps the most likely starting point for a nuclear war. The conflict began in 1947, when India and Pakistan, in breaking from the British Empire, split along religious lines. The subcontinent’s predominantly Muslim areas went to Pakistan--except for Kashmir, where the Hindu ruler handed over his princely state and its Muslim majority to India.

India and Pakistan’s first war over the region began in 1947; they waged a second one in 1965. The two countries now jointly occupy Kashmir and face off along a disputed border known as the Line of Control. Since 1989, a Muslim-led insurgency to expel the Indians has resulted in the deaths of 25,000 people. In May 1998, the quarrel became more dangerous than ever when the two countries conducted their underground nuclear tests.

Things got worse last year, when Pakistani soldiers secretly crossed into Indian territory and seized a string of peaks near the Himalayan town of Kargil. The Indians expelled the intruders, but not before 1,000 people had lost their lives. In October, the Pakistani considered to be the architect of the Kargil venture, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ousted the country’s democratically elected prime minister and declared himself in charge.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a group of pro-Kashmiri guerrillas hijacked an Indian Airlines jet, killed an Indian passenger, and secured the release of three comrades held in Indian jails. The freed guerrillas went to Pakistan and began making warlike speeches, while the hijackers vanished. Indian officials accused Pakistan of sponsoring the taking of the plane and harboring the hijackers. Pakistani leaders deny that, but U.S. officials charged that a Pakistani-backed guerrilla group active in Kashmir, Harkat Moujahedeen, was behind the hijacking.

Harkat Moujahedeen, previously known as Harkat Ansar, is the group believed to have been responsible for the July 4, 1995, kidnapping of six Western hikers in Kashmir, including two Americans, one of whom escaped. One of the trekkers was found beheaded, and another’s body was exhumed in 1997. The others are presumed dead.

Since January, fighting along the Line of Control has been savage in a way rarely seen in winter, when freezing conditions make the Himalayan region almost uninhabitable. More than 100 people--Pakistani and Indian--have been killed in fighting so far this year, many of them in the artillery shelling that thunders up and down the border every night. In January, a group of men dressed in black entered the hamlet of Lanjoot and bayoneted and shot to death 15 Pakistani men, women and children. Pakistan’s leaders accused the Indians of launching the attack, but the Indians denied the charge. A few days later, a group of men retaliated by crossing the border from Pakistan and killing eight Indian soldiers.

India Rethinking Battle Plans

Around New Delhi, many Indians talk of avenging the humiliations of Kargil and the hijacking. Although the Indian army scrupulously avoided crossing into Pakistani territory during the fighting last year, it might not be so restrained this year.

“The Indian army wants to review its strategy,” said Commodore Uday Baskar of the Indian navy. “They’re saying, ‘We’ve been fighting a defensive war. Perhaps now the time has come to get more aggressive.’ ”

In Kashmir, Indian generals say shelling from the Pakistani side since January is at its highest level ever for this time of year. The infiltration of Pakistani-supported guerrillas into India, they say, is at a pace rarely seen during the winter freeze. A series of suicide attacks on Indian camps and headquarters has struck fear into the officer corps.

“There is impatience in the ranks,” a senior Indian army officer said on condition of anonymity. “We would like to solve this problem.”

On the Pakistani side, the guerrillas say they will keep crossing into India--no matter what Pakistan’s leaders tell them.

“The Kashmir problem has not been resolved through politics,” said Kaleem Siddiqi, a leader of Hizbul Moujahedeen, one of the largest guerrilla groups fighting in Indian Kashmir. “The Indians will be in for a tough fight in Kashmir this year.”

U.S. Gets No Help From Islamabad

Pakistani officials seem either unwilling or unable to clamp down on the guerrillas. The militants operate out of camps in Pakistani Kashmir and often cross into India under cover of Pakistani army artillery fire. When U.S. officials demanded earlier this year that Musharraf crack down on Harkat Ansar, he rebuffed them.

“The militants are too strong, and Musharraf knows he cannot challenge them,” a Western diplomat said.

And so goes the cycle--Pakistani-backed infiltration followed by Indian riposte--that Clinton seems likely to try to break when he meets with Vajpayee and Musharraf.

In Talwani, a village in Indian Kashmir, Hindus and Muslims lived together for generations--until last month. It was then that a squad of pro-Kashmiri guerrillas slipped into the town at night, surrounded the Hindu homes and opened fire with machine guns. The gunmen killed four people, including an 8-year-old girl.

Now, there are no Hindus in Talwani. The last of them--about 30--packed up and moved south a few days after the massacre. And that story has been repeated countless times in Indian Kashmir as tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims have fled their homes and moved to safer ground.

Things were a little different in Talwani, however: The Muslim villagers were angered and ashamed by the attack. They begged their Hindu neighbors to stay and offered to live in their homes to shield them.

The Muslim villagers of Talwani say the militants these days are mostly foreigners who struggle with the local language. That appears to buttress a main contention of India’s leaders--that the war in Kashmir is a struggle sustained by outside help.

In Talwani, the villagers say they’re glad Clinton is coming, and they are hoping that he can do something to bring peace to Kashmir. But the biggest topic in Talwani is not the U.S. president; it is their friends.

“The Hindus belong to this soil,” said government clerk Ghulam Hussain, 60. “Our garden will not bloom with only one type of flower.”