Colin Powell heads back to nuclear-armed South Asia on Saturday to press for further de-escalation between India and Pakistan, where more than 1 million troops face off along the line dividing disputed Kashmir. Even though shelling across that border has subsided, the political conditions for lowering tensions further have worsened — in New Delhi and Islamabad and, arguably, in Washington.
Nearly a dozen guerrilla groups are fighting over the predominantly Muslim Kashmir region, now divided between India and Pakistan along what is known as the Line of Control. Some guerrillas are fighting for its complete independence. Others want it to be ruled entirely by Pakistan.
Pakistan is accused of supporting at least some of these militants, who are believed responsible for terrorist attacks over the years, including a December assault on the Indian parliament — the incident that drove the two countries to their most recent game of chicken.
If the standoff escalated into a nuclear exchange, experts predict that millions could die.
After a parade of anxious envoys from the United States and elsewhere, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, called on militant groups to end their incursions into Indian territory, which they did, for awhile anyway. India largely stopped shelling across the Line of Control and pulled its warships back to peacetime positions.
But as Powell returns to the region, the core problem of the territory remains, and tensions are once again on the rise. New attacks by suspected militants have worn New Delhi’s patience. Pakistan’s willingness and ability to control them remains in question.
Powell’s mission, “to work with Pakistan and India to develop dialogue, comes at a time when political pressures in both New Delhi and Islamabad work against this goal.
“This could be one of the central hot spots in the world again,” warns Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Complicating Washington’s task, he says, is that “the U.S. has to weigh growing Indian pressure against dependence on Pakistan to fight terrorism.”
Powell will find that, even since last month, the climate for peace has deteriorated.
In New Delhi, a political reshuffle in early July put hard-line Hindu nationalists firmly in control of the government. With the hawkish Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani elevated to deputy prime minister — and heir-apparent to the more moderate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee — a more conciliatory tone on Kashmir withered.
Advani’s approach to the United States has been jarring. Within weeks of being named deputy prime minister, he demanded that Washington put Pakistan on its list of terrorist nations, a move that New Delhi surely knows is politically impossible, given U.S. reliance on Pakistan to fight militants fleeing its operation against terrorists in Afghanistan.
In the exchange of words that followed, the U.S. State Department made it clear that Pakistan had been a “stalwart ally” in the war on terrorism.
Another ominous sign was the removal of West-leaning Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, who had spent most of his four years in office trying to renew relations with Washington, breaking down mutual mistrust left over from the Cold War. Singh was moved to head the Finance Ministry.
Even though the U.S.-Indian relationship is much broader than it used to be and includes joint military exercises, the government in New Delhi is now, more than ever, unwilling to be pushed on Kashmir.
On the contrary, says Cohen of Brookings: “The Indian government wants the U.S. to push Pakistan without making concessions of its own.”
Indeed, the attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir have resumed and as always, it is unclear how much Musharraf is capable of, or willing to, crackdown on the perpetrators.
Earlier this month, militants attacked a slum in Indian Kashmir and gunned down 28 Hindu residents.
In the latest violence, at least 10 people were wounded on Thursday when suspected separatist guerrillas lobbed a grenade at a crowded crossing in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, where a revolt has raged since 1989.
An Indian government official said at least 224 people were killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir in June in more than 230 attacks by suspected insurgents, about half of them on government forces. The claim could not be independently verified.
After his own crackdown, Musharraf was waiting for India to offer dialogue, pull back some troops or make another gesture. After all, cracking down on Islamic militants carries political risks in his country — a mostly Muslim nation that has long championed the Kashmir cause.
But it now looks like he’ll have to wait a very long time. Both New Delhi and Islamabad say the ball is in the other’s court. “It’s hard to see who would break the logjam,” says Arun Swamy, a fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu. “Every outcome is just inconceivable.”
Powell certainly doesn’t arrive in the region with a blueprint for peace.
There’s no question of the United States mediating in the dispute. India would not agree to it. Setting up direct talks between India and Pakistan is unlikely, though it may be possible for the period after India holds its next state elections in Kashmir this fall.
Despite Powell’s generally internationalist sensibilities, analysts say that the Bush administration as a whole seems ambivalent about getting involved in the tangled Kashmir dispute - that its only clear interest is in defusing a nuclear crisis and maintaining momentum in its war on terror.
“Powell’s agenda is to minimize U.S. involvement … to the extent that it’s possible to obtain U.S. goals,” says Swami. “It’s clear that they don’t want to go out on a limb on any of this.”
If they do get more involved, says Brookings’ Cohen, “it may be a case of parallel bilateralism, talking separately with (India and Pakistan) to press them to move in areas to where they should have moved perhaps years ago.”
Certain to be ignored are the militants fighting for Kashmir’s independence from both India and Pakistan who complain that they are always left out of the equation.
Playing both sides
For now, the U.S. strategy appears to be one similar to the old Mideast policy of leaning toward one side or the other depending on behavior and interests.
Perhaps by coincidence, a military delegation from the United States is in Pakistan this week, discussing the possibility of allowing key weapons sales to Islamabad. The United States lifted sanctions on military sales to both India and Pakistan — imposed after both countries conducted nuclear weapons tests — but still reviews them on a case-by-case basis.
Earlier this year, the United States approved the sale to India of a $140 million Thales Raytheon Weapon Locater Radar system, which disarmament activists argued would destabilize the region.
On this trip, Powell is expected to tell New Delhi it objects to India’s proposed purchase of an Israeli missile defense system. He will argue that the Arrow Weapon System would create a dangerous imbalance.
Reuters contributed to this story.