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South Asia powerplay: The threat of war

South Asia powerplay: The threat of war

Mark Tully for CNN

NEW DELHI, India -- Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has told soldiers serving in Kashmir that the time has come for a "decisive battle".

This has increased alarm in America and Europe about the possibility of a war between India and Pakistan both of which now have nuclear weapons.

The dangers of going to war are too obvious to be ignored by India or Pakistan.

But it is difficult to see what Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf can offer that would allow India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to soften his tough stance without losing face.

The war options have been endlessly rehearsed in the Indian press.

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None of them offers a guarantee that infiltration by armed militants from the Pakistan controlled side of Kashmir will stop.

None of them guarantees that if Pakistan faces humiliation it will not respond with a nuclear attack.

Pakistan's President Musharraf is a serving general and he knows that the very survival of the Pakistan army would be in question if it was to suffer another defeat by India.

He also knows that the nuclear option would in the end be even more disastrous for India than for Pakistan.

So both sides have every reason for not going to war but neither seems able to pull back from the brink.

India: Notching up the pressure

Vajpayee did first what one military commentator recently said he should have done last.

He moved the army to the border with Pakistan after the attack on the Indian Parliament five months ago.

This left him with only limited military options to notch up the pressure on Musharraf without actually going to war.

In the last few days he seems to have exhausted even those options with the strengthening of the fleet on the west coast, putting the air force's deep-penetration planes on high alert, and stepping up the artillery barrage in Kashmir.

Vajpayee cannot now just send the army back to barracks and the fleet to its normal dispositions without having something to show for it.

Pakistan: Between militants and politicians

What can President Musharraf offer?

He does now appear to have moved from his position that the militants are not his responsibility because they are operating from Pakistan controlled Kashmir, which is known as Azad or independent Kashmir.

According to the Indian press he has now said he will not allow any territory whose defense is the responsibility of Pakistan to be used for terrorism.

But can Musharraf put the genie back in the bottle? Curbing the militants is not as easy as India suggests with its simplistic demand, "Pakistan must end cross-border terrorism".

The attack on families of Indian soldiers in Kashmir during the visit a few days ago of Christina Rocca, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, is the last thing that Musharraf would have wanted.

He is trying to convince Washington he is doing all he can to curb terrorism.

What the attack on the Indian army families and now the killing of Abdul Gani Lone, the prominent politician from Indian administered Kashmir, show is that the militants don't want peace.

They want to push both the countries into war.

The militants and the Pakistani politicians who support them are opposed to Musharraf.

They resent his cooperation with America in the war against terrorism, and oppose the actions he has taken against Islamic extremists, and would be quite prepared to see the Pakistan army humiliated.

The Islamic parties believe that they could fill the political vacuum, which was left.

But an unstable Islamic Pakistan would be far worse for India than a Pakistan ruled by General Musharraf.

International concern

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Unfortunately Vajpayee does not believe that Musharraf is necessarily his best bet, and will not take the advice he is being given by America and European leaders, which is to accept the general's word and reduce the tension by talking to him about Kashmir including ways of cooperating in curbing terrorism.

Although India has always opposed any third party mediation in its dispute with Pakistan it is now demanding that the international community put yet more pressure on Pakistan to end terrorism unconditionally.

Exactly what that means has not been spelt out.

But Musharaf cannot meekly submit to all India's demands, including handing over the men on the list of suspected terrorists India has given him, without endangering his own position.

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is expected in South Asia next week and he is to be followed by the American Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

These visits indicate the level of international concern about the tension between India and Pakistan.

American with some of its own soldiers stationed in Pakistan is particularly concerned.

It is to be hoped that the senior British and American visitors have some more concessions and commitments they can persuade Musharraf to offer and Vajpayee to accept.

There is no sign of those concessions and commitments yet.




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