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India, Pakistan Play Brinkmanship Game

The World & Nation | NEWS ANALYSIS

Military: As tens of thousands of soldiers face off at the border, the South Asian rivals find themselves on an unfamiliar world stage.

December 31, 2001|ERIC SLATER and PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As India and Pakistan continued shelling each other Sunday in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and world leaders pleaded with the two nuclear powers to halt their military buildup, both nations found themselves in unfamiliar positions on the world stage.

Pakistan, whose nuclear arsenal, military dictatorship and history of Islamic extremism have long worried many nations, is suddenly being viewed favorably by much of the international community for its nascent efforts to quash home-grown terrorism.

India--also a sometimes unstable nuclear power but in addition the world's largest democracy and, after the Cold War ended, a close friend of the West--is increasingly being seen as the provocateur in a potentially disastrous game of brinkmanship.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee each held meetings Sunday to shore up support from various political parties in case war breaks out. A day earlier, President Bush called both men to urge calm for the first time since tensions began rising in mid-December.

India's government, and its leading editorial writers, insist the country's continuing military buildup is a legitimate response to an act of war: the Dec. 13 suicide attack on its Parliament, which Indian authorities blame on two Kashmiri separatist groups that are based in Pakistan and, India's government claims, secretly supported by Islamabad.

Following a standard of culpability set by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., most Indians hold Pakistan responsible for the Dec. 13 assault.

Indian investigators say five suicide attackers were trying to kill Vajpayee and key members of his Cabinet. A gun battle with police and troops left 14 people dead, including the attackers.

Since then, however, each threatening move has appeared to come from India. At the same time, Musharraf has taken what many consider unexpectedly tough and politically precarious steps in an effort to rein in anti-India terrorism.

"The Pakistan government has done everything it can to demonstrate that it does not want war, that it wants a solution to this . . . without coming to blows," a U.S. official in Pakistan said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The hope now is that India will understand Pakistan is doing the best it can do."

"India's having a hard time dealing with Pakistan's new Kashmir policy, which relies more on diplomacy and politics than on the use of military force," said Rifaat Hussain, head of the defense and strategic studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. India, he said, is "running against the grain of world opinion on this one."

Still, U.S. pressure on India to pull back from the brink of war with Pakistan only reinforces a widespread resentment in the country based on a sense that Washington is applying a double standard in its war on terror.

The U.S. launched massive airstrikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan after Sept. 11. And it has supported Israel's tough stance against the Palestinians.

India's government believes it has the same right to launch attacks on alleged terrorist bases in the part of Kashmir--roughly half--controlled by Pakistan, or even inside Pakistan itself, where Kashmiri guerrillas have widespread public support as "freedom fighters."

Vajpayee has said repeatedly in televised addresses in the last few days that if war on terrorism is fair for the West, it is also fair for the East.

"The Indian public definitely is seeing an American double standard, because when Sept. 11 happened, nobody from India urged restraint on the part of the United States," said Brahma Chellaney, a defense analyst at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

For his part, Musharraf swiftly earned praise by publicly condemning the Parliament attack. Last week, he placed the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, one of the groups accused of being behind the attack, under house arrest. As of Sunday, he had also rounded up at least 50 other militants, Pakistani military sources said. And today, the country arrested the recently resigned leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the other accused group.

Also following Washington's lead, Musharraf has frozen the bank accounts of several militant Kashmiri groups.

Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has made these moves even though India has declined to turn over evidence that the Pakistani groups were indeed involved in the attack--though even here few deny that Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatists are the likely culprits.

Almost immediately after the attack, India rushed fresh troops to the 1,100-mile-long border, triggering a buildup that was continuing early today, with tens of thousands of soldiers facing off, many just hundreds of yards apart.

Vajpayee has recalled India's ambassador to Pakistan and declined to hold talks with Musharraf at a South Asian Assn. for Regional Cooperation gathering set to open in Katmandu, Nepal, on Friday.

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