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Wednesday, Jun 05, 2002

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US must crack whip on Pakistan now

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

FRIENDS in Singapore and London keep sending e-mails asking me to get out before the war. As it happens, I am going to both places — to Singapore as Senior Fellow in the School of Communication and Information and to London for my son's graduation.

But this has nothing to do with the mounting hysteria that owes even more to American propaganda than to Pakistani rhetoric.

As the Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes, reminded BBC listeners this week, even Gen Pervez Musharraf has announced that neither side is `irresponsible' enough to push the confrontation to the limit. Mr Fernandes also rightly said that the US could have defused tension, instead of aggravating it by addressing the Pakistani leader direct.

Instead, Washington has adopted a three-point programme that is unlikely to achieve anything positive in the subcontinent though it might suit wider American strategic aims.

First, it is building up the psychology of war by encouraging foreigners to flee. The message of this alarmist diplomacy is that only the Big Five are responsible enough to possess nuclear weapons which are a menace to the safety of the world in the hands of adventurist governments like those of India and Pakistan. Second, by constantly exhorting India to exercise restraint, the US President, Mr George W. Bush, blurs the distinction between offence and defence and suggests that the two countries are equally guilty. That was Jawaharlal Nehru's complaint in 1948, but when Bertrand Russell pleaded for concessions during the Cuban missile crisis, John Fitzgerald Kennedy at once retorted, "I think your attention might well be directed to the burglars rather than to those who have caught the burglars." Third, by urging Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee to meet Gen Musharraf, whether in Agra or Almaty, the impression is created that this is a trifling problem that can be solved by a handshake and a platitudinous communiqué.

The Americans should have known better after Camp David and the Northern Ireland peace process. Historians might recall that when the English Richard the Lion Heart sought a meeting with Saladin, the Turkish commander, during the Crusades, the latter replied that great kings should meet only when agreement had already been reached. Having said that, it is true that matters can get out of hand. The Western media reports that India is planning hit-and-run raids against terrorist bases across the Line of Control. If so, Pakistani retaliation could escalate the conflict. Another possibility is that in spite of what he says, Gen Musharraf might be planning a pre-emptive strike.

There is also the chilling warning or boast or whatever by the Army chief, Gen S. Padmanabhan, that India has the capacity for a second strike. But, as Mr Fernandes also says, India's nuclear doctrine includes the commitment not to strike first and to treat nuclear weapons only as a deterrent. In contrast, a leading Pakistani general was once quoted as saying that the strength of Pakistan's strategy lay in transposing the first two letters of the word nuclear. But Gen Musharraf cannot have forgotten that the leader's head was the political price of Pakistan's reverses in 1965 and 1971 and ignominious retreat from Kargil in 1999.

Gen Musharraf did not become America's favourite only because of September 11. The Republican platform promised to strengthen America's "longstanding relationship with Pakistan which remains crucial to the peace of the region" before Afghanistan became a live issue, and Mr Bush famously called the general the `guy' who was "going to bring stability to the country" which was "good news for the subcontinent".

A day before the Kaluchak massacre, Mr Douglas J. Feith, US Undersecretary of Defence for Policy, told a US-India defence industry seminar in Washington that Gen Musharraf was "a man who is trying to accomplish something strategic and historic for Pakistan".

He was "trying to remake his country — to point it in a new direction that can increase its openness, its prosperity and its opportunities for better relations with the US and India.

On this difficult experiment in statecraft hinge large national interests of Pakistan, India and the US.

Islamist extremism and terrorism are a threat not only to India and the US but also to President Musharraf and the success of his grand political project. America has "a stake in his success".

I wonder how his Indian luminaries of the Confederation of Indian Industry and US-India Business Council responded to that panegyric.

But Mr Feith's message confirmed that however much the US might condemn murderous outrages by organisations that claim to speak in the name of Kashmiri self-determination, and brand as terrorists those who were previously called freedom-fighters, it fears that Gen Musharraf will be toppled if he is pressured.

The US dare not — will not — force him to stamp out cross-border terrorism. Mr Bush needs to reconsider this indulgence and the extent of Gen Musharraf's usefulness.

He did not stop Pakistani `volunteers' from joining the Taliban. He has not withdrawn support from the jehad in Kashmir. He has allowed Taliban and al Qaeda survivors to find refuge in Pakistan.

His public pledges on terrorism are not backed by action. He regularly subjects the American forces in his country to indirect blackmail.

But Gen Musharraf is no Mr Ariel Sharon whose constituency reaches deep into America's financial establishment. He would buckle under if Mr Bush cracked the whip. By refusing to do so, the US President only prolongs the agony of the subcontinent, and the world.

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