Kashmir talks delayed as Pakistan disowns militants

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The Independent Online
AS INDIA'S "near-war" in northern Kashmir entered its second week yesterday, with India launching air strikes against Pakistan-sponsored guerrillas for the eighth consecutive day, the feeling was hardening in Delhi that India is being militarily humiliated and politically toyed with.

A diplomatic initiative hangs fire: Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, offered to send his Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, to Delhi to discuss the crisis. Delhi dithered and then agreed, but now Islamabad seems in no hurry to name a date. The two sides might be intending to discuss flower arranging for all the urgency in the air - perhaps because no one expects the talks to lead anywhere anyway.

India insists that Pakistan Army regulars are fighting alongside mercenaries in the "intrusion" which India is so expensively trying to combat. But Pakistan flatly denies having any involvement in it. For Pakistan these are "Kashmiri freedom fighters" over whose activities Pakistan has no control. How could the Pakistan government command them to withdraw?

Already in India the ground is being prepared for the failure of the talks. The maverick Defence Minister, George Fernandes, said last Friday "the Pakistan Army has hatched a conspiracy to push in the infiltrators and the Nawaz Sharif government did not have a major role". Mr Fernandes was pounced on by the press and politicians for thus trying to exculpate Pakistan's government, but the same line was being pushed yesterday by the Foreign Ministry. The logic: if Mr Sharif is not to blame, we can more comfortably talk to him and his ministers; and if nothing results from the talks, it is because they are not to blame.

And so the realisation grows in Delhi that an intelligence failure officials privately admit was "massive", and which has enabled many hundreds of enemy guerrillas to construct fortified positions using cement on commanding heights well inside India, is humbling south Asia's nuclear giant.

The senior army officer at Drass, a mountain village that is one of the hot spots in the conflict, said yesterday: "It is not an intrusion, it is an invasion ... it may be a low-cost war for them, but it is a high- cost war for us." To eliminate one soldier in a bunker, he said, "we need 10 soldiers - they are well entrenched in their bunkers while we are fighting in the open. They are battle-hardened Afghans ready to sacrifice their lives. They have no employment in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's ISI [intelligence service] has promised to pay their families $18,000 [pounds 11,250] ... We have intercepted messages in which the Afghans ask the Pakistanis to pay the money to their families immediately." He also claimed that the guerrillas were far more numerous than officially acknowledged, with 400 to 500 in the Drass area alone. The army claims the number of guerrillas along the 200km stretch in dispute is less than 700.

India is in a double bind. Jane's Defence Weekly said last month: "India's military is facing a crisis of confidence, struggling against a shrinking defence budget and arbitrary equipping and personnel policies." But India is doubly hobbled because the government is a lame duck, a caretaker government marking time till the elections in September.

The political challenge now is to put the least bad complexion on what has so far been a grave military and intelligence embarrassment.