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Pull India, Pakistan From the Brink

January 02, 2002|SHIREEN T. HUNTER | Shireen T. Hunter is the director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Even before the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been completed and that country has been stabilized, another conflict looms that could be even more destabilizing for the region. Preventing war between India and Pakistan, with their fledgling nuclear capabilities, has to be of the highest order for the international community. The world cannot afford to test whether the principle of deterrence can work in this case as it did during the Cold War.

How did we get to this point and how do we defuse it? The buildup to this crisis shows how states can be brought to the brink of conflict by the actions of groups that fall outside of government control, even if, at some point, they had seemed to be useful.

This certainly has been true regarding two extremist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which allegedly masterminded and carried out the Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament. Indeed, the two groups represent a larger phenomenon in Pakistan: the radicalization of a segment of Pakistani Muslims deriving from the Soviet-Afghan war and the belief by some segments of Pakistan's military and political establishment that such groups could help achieve the country's strategic and political goals.

It was a similar misguided perception that led Pakistan to nurture and support the Taliban in Afghanistan and to try to use similar groups in the Kashmir conflict.

Yet there was a downside. The activities of some Muslim extremist groups promoted sectarian tensions in Pakistan and the deepening of internal divisions. Thus even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Pervez Musharraf had begun to rein in these extremist groups. Because of intense domestic pressures, the crackdown was not extended to groups engaged in Kashmir. This has proved to be a cardinal mistake.

India's outrage over the attack on its Parliament--the symbol of its statehood and democracy--is understandable. Its demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice and that the Pakistani government dismantle these extremist groups is equally justified. But the vital question is whether threatening full-scale war can achieve these goals, or could it instead result in a war that, despite India's vast military superiority, would not leave the nation unscathed.

Meanwhile, a Pakistani government faced with the threat of major war and needing the support of all political groups will be less able to confront its extremist groups. Indeed, the more threatening and unyielding India's posture, the harder it will be for Musharraf to meet India's legitimate demands, lest he be viewed as buckling under Indian pressure.

Even if India were to score a decisive victory, a war--assuming that nuclear disaster were avoided--cannot solve India's problem of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. On the contrary, an unstable and fragmented Pakistan could become an even more dangerous haven for terrorists and extremists than Afghanistan. India must also consider the ramifications of its actions against Pakistan in the context of Islambad's ties with countries such as China.

Viewed in a sober light, India has an interest in a stable Pakistan, one able and willing to work diligently to rid itself of Islamic radicalization. Other nations, most notably the U.S., have a vital interest in Pakistan's stability, not only because of its crucial role in stabilizing Afghanistan and in the fight against terrorism but also because of its position on the Arabian Sea and astride main oil routes.

Both India and Pakistan have their hawks; the question is how the international community can help the two sides resist succumbing to their influence and instead retreat from the brink of war.

The U.S. has been active. Europe, especially Britain, with its Commonwealth ties, is becoming more active. Russia, which has played a constructive role in the Afghan crisis and has close relations with India, should use its influence.

If war can be averted, then the international community must help the two countries begin to address various problems, most notably the question of Kashmir, and work toward a more stable regional environment.

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