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MARCH 20, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 11

Into the Breach
In tense South Asia, U.S. President Bill Clinton may face one raw, ruptured relationship he cannot heal

When Air Force One touches down in New Delhi on March 19, Bill Clinton will set foot in a region he described last week as "the most dangerous place in the world today." In the words of his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, the Indian subcontinent is a "tinderbox." Clinton waited until the last moment to add a whistle-stop in Pakistan to his itinerary. A major consideration: with heavy-duty terrorists in nearby Afghanistan and plenty of anti-American sentiment in the air, would Clinton be safe?

Dangerous place, indeed. Think tanks around the world regularly warn that the greatest threat to global peace is from regional conflicts in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula and, most perilously, on the nuclear-armed subcontinent. As CIA director George J. Tenet said recently, "Nowhere has the regional threat been more dramatically played out than in South Asia." Clinton--the first U.S. President to visit since Jimmy Carter--wants to end America's estrangement with India, a holdover from the cold war. He views the world's largest democracy as a central participant in a range of issues, from trade to global warming. The question is whether Clinton, or anyone else, can concentrate on bilateral relations in a region bristling with its own conflicts, including the concrete possibility of nuclear war--while also managing to get away with his fuselage intact.

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The bad news is that Clinton has an itinerary but no real agenda. There's little hope he will nudge either India or Pakistan closer to signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a major U.S. aim even before both countries came out of the nuclear closet by testing atomic devices in 1998. That goal became only more important after last summer's mini-war in Kargil, a border region of Kashmir, the bucolic, strife-torn focus of the two nations' enmity for more than 50 years.

But there's good news, too, simply in the fact that Clinton is coming at a time when India-Pakistan relations, tense at the best of times, are unusually off-kilter. On the record, the White House insists that the trip is "about India." But when Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, appealed to Clinton to make a stop in Islamabad, she told the President: "You've applied your healing touch to so many parts of the world. Here's your chance to apply it to our region." Clinton's response was equivocal. ("I'm thinking about it.") But he ultimately decided to stop over in Islamabad, though only for a few hours--as against five days in India--and not on an official state trip but for a mere "working visit."

No U.S. president can bring peace to two countries that haven't asked for it or, as in this case, have resolutely avoided it for 52 years and fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir. But Clinton's "healing touch" may indeed be needed, if not next week then possibly in the near future.

Here's the situation. Despite a much-touted rapprochement between the two nations in late 1998, during which Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a conciliatory visit to Pakistan, relations are abysmal. A few months after Vajpayee's trip, India discovered that Pakistan's army had infiltrated a strategic stretch of mountains in Kargil and threatened to cut off a road connecting Kashmir with the rest of India. A two-month war ensued in inhospitable Himalayan terrain. It ended only after Pakistan's Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif made a hurried visit to Washington to ask Clinton for support. Clinton strongly advised him to stand down. Indian public opinion was already inflamed; so was Pakistan's after Sharif sounded the retreat.

Three months later, the Prime Minister was overthrown in a coup by his army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, the mastermind of the Kargil operation. Sharif, now being tried on a range of charges, told a court in Karachi last week that Musharraf's takeover was a direct result of the Kargil conflict and its resolution. (The general, now Pakistan's Chief Executive, says he assumed power because the civilian government was corrupt and inept.) Musharraf's move to end an 11-year experiment in democracy was Clinton's biggest stumbling block in deciding whether to stop or not. Having concluded that "engaging" Pakistan would be more productive than snubbing it, Clinton will meet Musharraf on his stopover in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to support the separatist insurgency in Kashmir, more than a decade old but with a recent spike in violence. In a magazine column, former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg wrote, "For Pakistan, the present situation is favorable as it is achieving good dividends in Kashmir at minimal costs. India is profusely bleeding both in terms of war casualties as well as a loss of its material resources."

India, less sanguinely, agrees with that assessment. "What is our option?" asks a senior official in New Delhi. "To lose five to 10 soldiers every day or to go to war? Pakistan is going to go on provoking until India retaliates. General Musharraf hasn't given up his game of brinkmanship." Says Amitabh Mattoo, strategic affairs expert at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University: "There's a growing feeling among India's strategic intelligentsia, as well as its armed forces, that Pakistan must be made to pay a price for what it's doing in Kashmir." A troubling sign of impending conflict came in India's new budget, announced this month, which included a whopping 28% increase in defense spending.

Pakistan hopes that a conflict will bring international attention--and mediation--to the Kashmir imbroglio, a goal it has pursued for nearly 50 years. India's abhorrence of outside peacemaking is just as longstanding. "There is no possibility of mediation, inter-mediation or facilitation when it comes to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir," insists Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh.

If there's a loophole in that statement, perhaps only Clinton could find it. "The President believes it is crucial that he carry a message of restraint and dialogue to both capitals on this trip," said Karl Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. A key reason Clinton decided on the Islamabad stop was the belief that the U.S. was instrumental last July in averting a major war by persuading Sharif to end the Kargil fight. Personal relations with Pakistan's leader are "indispensable," says a senior State Department official, "so that when they next get into a crisis, we'll have channels that we can activate."

At the same time, Washington wants to avoid characterizing the trip as an advance crisis-management exercise, particularly to avoid offending India. So a lot of emphasis will be on public ceremony: Clinton will visit Hyderabad, which is trying to become a high-tech capital, and Bombay, India's business center. He'll see a rural development project in Rajasthan and view the Taj Mahal by moonlight with daughter Chelsea. (Clinton will also spend a day in Bangladesh, the first U.S. President to do so, and will pay tribute to that country's successful micro-loan projects for impoverished citizens.) But what goes on behind the scenes is likely to be more important. "I don't want to downplay the climate of hostility between the two countries," says U.S. ambassador to India Richard Celeste, "but I don't think the visit is a time-out in the move down the road to a military engagement." Clinton won't step out of Air Force One wearing a referee's uniform--but he might want to bring one along.

Reported by Hannah Bloch/Islamabad, Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi and Jay Branegan/Washington

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