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Before His Visit, Clinton Rethinking U.S.-India Relations

March 05, 2000|Selig S. Harrison | Selig S. Harrison, a senior fellow of the Century Foundation and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of "India: The Most Dangerous Decades."

WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton has announced he will seek to defuse the increasingly explosive Kashmir conflict during his visit to South Asia later this month. This is a quixotic, last-minute attempt to impose a quick fix in a critical region that Clinton has alternately neglected and mishandled. If he wants peacemaking in Kashmir to be part of his legacy, he should first prepare the ground by using his visit to reverse the current disastrous course of U.S. policy toward New Delhi and Islamabad.

No effective U.S. mediation in South Asia will be possible until the United States removes the tensions and distrust that trouble its relations with India, an emerging power eight times bigger than Pakistan. These tensions, rooted in Washington's Cold War tilt toward Islamabad, have been exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed against New Delhi following its 1998 nuclear test. Clinton should use his visit to India to phase out sanctions; signal U.S. acceptance of Indian membership in the nuclear club; and convey a long-overdue U.S. recognition that India's growing economic and military strength make it a major factor in the emerging Asian balance of power.

No effective U.S. mediation will be possible until an elected civilian government replaces the current military regime in Pakistan. Dominated by Islamic fundamentalist elements, the Islamabad junta is committed to keeping the Kashmir pot boiling. Instead of continuing to coddle the military regime, the United States should make clear it will oppose further multilateral aid until a timetable for an early return to civilian rule is announced.

As long as the armed forces retain absolute control, Islamic extremists will have far greater power than they have ever had before in Pakistan and will be free to act with impunity--as they did in the recent hijacking of an Indian airliner. For the ruling military triumvirate is controlled by two powerful generals with long-standing ties to fundamentalist groups: Lt. Gen. Mohammed Aziz, chief of the general staff, and Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, director of interservices intelligence.

Aziz was the architect of the Pakistani invasion of Kashmir at Kargil in May 1999. India blames him not only for Kargil and the hijacking but also for a continuing increase in Pakistani support for the Kashmir insurgency. Not surprisingly, India believes that indefinite military rule will lead to multiplying Pakistani provocations. In both New Delhi and Islamabad, a war psychology is growing, and the danger of a fourth Indo-Pakistan war is greater now than at any time since the last one in 1971.

When the generals took over last October, the United States made no effort to pin them down to a timetable for a return to civilian rule because it hoped they would impose bold reforms to forestall an economic collapse. In December, Washington agreed to reschedule $950 million in Pakistani debts to the U.S. But on key reforms, such as tax collection, the triumvirate has dithered. The economic situation continues to deteriorate, and the regime is silencing potential critics.

It would be a grave mistake for Clinton to legitimize the junta by visiting Islamabad. Whatever he might say there, the generals would depict such a visit as acceptance of their rule and a vindication of Islamic extremism.

Past military regimes in Islamabad have not only become just as corrupt as civilian governments but have invariably fanned tensions with India to hold onto power. The few limited breakthroughs made in Indo-Pakistan relations came under civilian rule. Though the ousted civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was clearly corrupt, he did seek to improve relations with India at the Lahore summit of February 1999. Seeking to derail the nascent peace process, Army hard-liners, led by Aziz, staged the Kargil invasion three months later. Sharif's decision to call off that invasion outraged the hard-liners, prompting the power struggle that culminated in the October coup.

Even under civilian rule, the road back to Lahore would be rocky, but the outlines of a possible Kashmir settlement are becoming visible. The cornerstone of such a settlement would be mutual Indian and Pakistani recognition of the existing cease-fire line in Kashmir as the permanent international boundary. This would be accompanied by the termination of Pakistani support for the insurgency in the Indian-held Kashmir Valley and the gradual reduction of forces both sides now deploy in Kashmir. But such a settlement would not be possible until India and Pakistan negotiate autonomy agreements with the Kashmiris under their control.

India, in particular, would have to show a new sensitivity to Kashmiri aspirations to soften the bitterness left by its brutal repression of the insurgency. As the war drags on, sentiment appears to be growing for a loose link to India as the only realistic way to end the bloodshed, but only if New Delhi will grant enough autonomy.

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