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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek

MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

When Words Hurt
No limits on a "limited war"
By ANTHONY DAVIS New Delhi and Islamabad

 
  ALSO IN ASIAWEEK

COVER: Seismic Changes
Can president-elect Chen Shui-bian meet the historic challenges posed by a changing Taiwan - and by China?
The Challenge: Now comes the hard part
Reality Check: Beijing will have to deal with the new Taiwan
Profile: Chen's split personality

Editorial: Taiwan and China have reason aplenty to make peace
Editorial: Asia needs new policies to combat prostitution

THE NATIONS
South Asia: Clinton to India and Pakistan - Start Talking
'Limited War': Don't let the term fool you
Philippines: Sister Christine vs. Estrada - yet another scandal
Extended Interview: Salamat Hashim calls for independence
Myanmar: Behind the secret "Chilston" meetings
Inside Story: Asia's "Insiders" - four people who have blown the whistle on wrongdoing
Viewpoint: A Malaysian race for Islamization?

ARTS & SCIENCES
People: Sumo's big brother calls it quits
Heritage: The struggle to save Penang's old George Town
Art: Digital works blur the line between tech and expression
Books: Why healthcare was so bad in Suharto's Indonesia
Health: Noni - The craze over a smelly green fruit
Newsmakers: Thai "List of Shame" riles the privileged

TECHNOLOGY
Games: Microsoft's X-factor
Computing: IBM's Deep Blue man is now into e-commerce
Cutting Edge: An e-book horror story

BUSINESS
Bankruptcy: The court-ordered restructuring of TPI suggests Thailand is coming to grips with deadbeat borrowers
Room to Improve: Inadequate laws in Indonesia and Korea
No Hype: Can Singapore's Pacific Internet regain investor favor?
Renong: The Malaysian conglomerate sells off key assets
Business Buzz: A deal to lift Singapore's spirits

Investing: How rising U.S. interest rates will affect Asia

It's called "limited war" - the idea that two nuclear armed powers can fight a conventional war, keep it neat and tidy, and avoid reaching for the nuclear button. In the subcontinent lately, it's a theory finding high-placed proponents, gaining its own doctrinal respectability and even being advertised with historical precedents. It happened in 1969 when Chinese and Soviet forces clashed on the Ussuri River border, runs the argument, and it happened last year when Pakistan and India slogged it out on the heights of Kargil in divided Kashmir. In short, relax.

"Limited wars contained to a geographical area such as we witnessed in Kargil are inevitable with a hostile neighbor," Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes noted calmly to Asiaweek last month. He added: "The idea that a limited war can escalate into something more serious is not on our mind." It may not be on Fernandes's mind but as the spring thaw comes to Kashmir, it's certainly occupying the thoughts of many others. When U.S. President Bill Clinton describes Kashmir's Line of Control (LOC) as "the most dangerous place in the world," he isn't talking about stray rifle fire.

As Clinton is well aware, nine months after the Kargil mini-war subsided, sober minds in both New Delhi and Islamabad are again mulling over the theory and practice of limited war. Only this time around, emotions and risks are both far higher. In Indian army ranks, anger and resentment over Pakistan's Kargil adventure runs dangerously deep. The humiliatingly successful terrorist hijack of Indian Airlines Flight 814 further inflamed wounds. And since Kargil, Pakistan-based militants have been ratcheting up the pressure in Kashmir, striking boldly at military targets in a manner that has never occurred before. "This is not terrorism anymore," says a senior official in New Delhi. "These are commando operations." Indian casualties have risen markedly, with the sense that New Delhi is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. (An earlier ratio of five militants killed for every Indian trooper has now dropped to 2:1.) "The army is feeling frustrated," notes Tara Kartha of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses. "And for the first time it itself is being attacked."

The upshot has been ominous. In recent weeks attacks by Indian forces along the LOC have increased - aimed apparently at provoking the Pakistanis. The bloodiest foray was on Feb. 24 when Indian Sikh troops sneaked over the line, under artillery cover, and butchered 14 civilians, including women and children in Kotli district's Lanjot village. Two exercises at divisional level also took place near the line in March, either attempts to intimidate Pakistan or to stage rehearsals for things to come. "The army is looking for any excuse to get their own back against the Pakistanis and at the same time solve their basic problem - the militants," notes a Western military official closely monitoring the situation. "They're staging deliberate provocations, and tensions are rising."

Pakistani forces have been issued strict orders to avoid being drawn into larger fights and providing the Indians with a pretext for a major strike. "The Pakistanis are trying to keep cool at least until Clinton has gone," notes one foreign military official. At the same time, Islamabad has ordered a general alert, canceling all leave and reinforcing positions along the LOC.

If in the coming days and weeks India concludes that limited war is the only solution for its troubles inside Kashmir, then the thrust will likely come on the southern sector of the LOC, rather than across the international frontier, which would amount to a declaration of all-out war. The most likely battleground will be the rugged sector between Jammu and Punch (see map), with New Delhi probably throwing at least a division-sized force across the line. "They'll aim first to teach the Pakistanis a lesson and second to hit militant training camps and close off some very well-known routes of infiltration," reflects the Western military official.

Dangerously, both sides appear to be basing their thinking about a limited war on the Kargil episode. But any operation at the southern end of the LOC will be no repeat of last year's mini-war. That was fought inch by inch on Himalayan heights and was not likely to spread. In the Jammu-Punch sector, however, topography would not help contain the fighting - and the Pakistani centers of Jhelum, Muzaffarabad and even Islamabad and Rawalpindi are not far away.

Last year the Pakistan air force stayed clear of the fight. But in the south, Pakistani jets would almost certainly challenge Indian jets providing air cover for their ground forces. Moreover, as Indian units battled their way toward training camps well inside the Pakistani-run part of Kashmir, divisions of Pakistan's 10th Corps would be counter-attacking in strength. The upshot is that second-echelon Indian forces would probably be pulled in. "The real danger is that it escalates outside the [intended] geographical bowl," says a Western military analyst. "It's nave to assume you can contain it."

Escalation would almost certainly mean a spread of hostilities across the international border - and full-scale conventional war. After Indian shortcomings were highlighted at Kargil, some analysts believe the Pakistan army to be better trained and better led than their foes. But unless international pressure could impose a swift ceasefire, the sheer weight of Indian numbers and equipment would soon begin to tell against the Pakistanis, who geographically have no strategic depth to speak of.

At that point, fear war-gamers, Pakistani planners would seriously consider a nuclear response. According to a doctrine honed over the past two years, that might involve a battlefield tactical weapon, or conceivably, a direct escalation to a strategic strike against a city or army base deep in India. Collective suicide? Possibly, but by that stage the existence of Pakistan would anyway be on a knife edge. As one source puts it grimly: "A final fling ending with a big bang is not to be ruled out." "Limited war?" Don't let the jargon fool you.

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