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U.S. Packs Carrots for South Asia

June 05, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Russians and Chinese haven't been able to do it. Neither have the other Asian nations meeting this week in Kazakhstan. So what can the United States bring to the crisis between India and Pakistan to ensure that the two nuclear powers don't go to war?

U.S. officials were facing that question after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin failed Tuesday during an Asian security summit in Kazakhstan to persuade Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to hold face-to-face talks to head off a possible war over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Top U.S. diplomatic and defense officials are heading for the South Asian region to take up where Putin left off. They will wield America's unparalleled influence as the world's sole superpower--and bank on the fact that neither side can refuse to listen. That clout will be backed up with hard intelligence about what's really happening among forces on the ground and alarming projections about what could lie ahead if war erupts, according to Bush administration officials.

But when Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld make stops on the volatile subcontinent over the next five days, they'll also be asking both countries to make tough choices--and holding out carrots if they cooperate.

Their strongest message will be for Pakistan, where both will begin their missions. Armitage, known for his blunt talk and intricate knowledge of South Asia, intends to lay it on the line Thursday with Musharraf, U.S. officials say. He'll call for an immediate end to infiltration by Muslim extremists across the cease-fire line in Kashmir and a clampdown on the staging areas they use for attacks on targets in the Indian-controlled portion of the region.

Promises of Gains

In exchange, the U.S. will tell Musharraf that he stands to make gains--not necessarily in Kashmir but on other fronts.

"He'll have a chance for a new position in the world, as leader of the moderate Muslim world, and for new economic assistance through continuing debt relief ... that we can offer him," said a senior State Department official who asked to remain anonymous.

"If we can work with him on ending support for violence, then that's the kind of country we can do business with. So this is a chance for Pakistan to achieve its own goals and in the process make itself a respected member of the international community," the official said.

U.S. officials saw a glimmer of hope Tuesday.

"We do have some indications that Pakistani actions go beyond words," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

But he added, "At this point, we are not prepared to say that we have seen the cessation [of extremist activity] that we are all looking for and that President Musharraf has promised."

On their second stops, Armitage and then Rumsfeld will urge India to show restraint while giving Pakistan a chance to rein in militants and cut their access to Kashmir. Once that process shows significant progress, India should reciprocate by de-escalating its military readiness in the area, the U.S. officials will advise.

The two countries have a total of about 1 million soldiers positioned along the 1,800-mile border.

Armitage and Rumsfeld will concentrate on these delicate initial steps while outlining possible follow-up measures if the two nations adhere to efforts to defuse hostilities, the senior State Department official said Tuesday.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has indicated that the U.S. will try to prod the two Asian nations into a face-to-face political dialogue on the future of Kashmir, a region over which they have already fought two wars. India does not want the United States or any other party to intervene in an attempt to mediate the issue, while Pakistan is anxious to have Washington play a direct role, as it has in the Middle East.

"There are various sensitivities. The Indians do not want us to be a mediator, but they want U.S. help to facilitate their discussions with Pakistan," said the senior State Department official. "We would like to see a dialogue with all issues on the table, and we might even be able to contribute some ideas."

For the U.S., the hardest task--and the key to ensuring that tensions don't quickly flare up again--will be getting Musharraf to hold the line against militants.

In a nationwide speech heralded by U.S. officials as courageous, Musharraf pledged in January to end extremist activities both at home and in neighboring regions. And Pakistan followed up with the arrest of at least 2,000 Islamic militants in what was its biggest crackdown in decades.

An Effort Not Sustained

But the effort was not sustained, many extremists were released, and raids on Indian territory in Kashmir began again this spring. The Muslim militants are seeking independence for the predominantly Islamic region or the union of the Indian-controlled section with Pakistan.

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