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The World & Nation | NEWS ANALYSIS

India, Pakistan Play Brinkmanship Game

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

Last Thursday, Vajpayee ordered half of Pakistan's embassy staff in New Delhi to leave the country--a move then duplicated by Pakistan--and banned Pakistani International Airlines from its airspace starting Jan. 1. New Delhi has also halted all bus and rail service between the two countries.

Vajpayee's one apparent conciliatory move came Friday when he said he would allow Musharraf to fly over India to attend the gathering in Nepal.

Approval of Musharraf's handling of the crisis has come from sources ranging from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the military publication Jane's Defense Weekly to Bush--although in their conversation Saturday, the president urged him to do even more to eliminate extremism. Public praise for Vajpayee has been hard to find outside India.

However, the risks of a dispute between India and Pakistan escalating to nuclear war, and the danger of Pakistan's ally China getting involved in a more limited, conventional conflict, are so frightening that many analysts doubt New Delhi will launch attacks.

They see the massive deployment of India's air, land and sea forces as political posturing intended, in large part, to draw more support from Washington at Pakistan's expense.

Chellaney disagrees. "I think it's a mistake to read it that way [and conclude] that India is huffing and bluffing as a political ploy to mount U.S. pressure on Pakistan," he said. "The Indians would like the U.S. to use its tremendous leverage over Islamabad to make Musharraf disband these terror bands, and to sever the military's links with terrorism.

"But this kind of intense [military] buildup, right from the north to the south along the international border, from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea, cannot be just political posturing. The preparations are clearly for exercising the military option if other nonmilitary measures fail to yield results."

Some diplomatic and military experts believe Vajpayee is in fact seizing the political day, taking advantage of a long-awaited chance to focus attention on--and smash--anti-India terrorist groups based in Pakistan once and for all, even if it costs him a bit of international support.

"This is their opportunity to act," one former ranking Pakistani diplomat said. "They've been bogged down [with Kashmir-related violence] for years. They've been waiting for this chance."

On Saturday, Pakistani troops near the Afghan border were seen packing up antiaircraft guns and heading east, while camouflaged Indian army tractor-trailers were seen heading west with portable steel bridges that could be used by advancing troops.

Indian troops are also laying land mines along the border with Pakistan, where 19 Indian soldiers were killed in the state of Rajasthan on Friday when an explosion occurred as they were laying antipersonnel and antitank mines.

Next month, the Indian army plans to hold its biggest military maneuvers in 15 years along the border, and troops are expected to practice reacting to a nuclear attack.

*

Slater reported from Islamabad and Watson from New Delhi.

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