United States Secretary of State Colin Powell flies to South Asia on Friday, and among his chief concerns will be to stop a sibling spat between India and Pakistan billowing into an unwelcome second front in the War on Terrorism.
On 1 October a suicide attack by so-called "fidayeen" militants on the State Legislature in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, left 38 dead and at least 70 injured. It was the first terrorist spectacular anywhere since 11 September, and the Indian authorities claimed it was the work of a militant group called Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of the Prophet Mohammed). Immediately after the attack, people who said they were from that group phoned media offices in India and claimed responsibility.
An unnamed senior official in the Indian government who spoke to The New York Times, said there remained a real danger that, if there were to be another big attack on Indian soil, India would respond by striking at militant training camps across the so-called Line of Control, the de facto border between Indian and Pakistan-ruled Kashmir.
The senior official quoted in The New York Times said America and Britain "have been told very clearly that there is a limit to our patience and that if another incident like the Srinagar one happens, public opinion would not tolerate it, and the government would be forced to act." Among the first collateral casualties of the events that followed from 11 September has been Indo-Pakistani relations. Rescued from a historic low by an ultimately fruitless but mostly warm-spirited summit meeting between Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf and the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in July, they have now plummeted to a danger point not seen since Pakistan's invasion of Indian territory in the mountainous region of Kargil in the spring of 1999.
The 1999 mountain conflict brought the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours, which have fought three wars since independence in 1947, to the brink of a fourth. But skillful Indian diplomacy persuaded the world and more particularly the United States that India was the wronged party, and ever since India's star has risen while Pakistan's has sunk. The climax of the Indo-American honeymoon came with President Clinton's visit to India in February last year, in which the intoxication seemed mutual. His tacked-on, half day visit to Pakistan by contrast had all the lustre of a trip to the divorce court.
September 11 changed all that, as it has changed so much else. Pakistan, a military dictatorship, was no more enticing than before, but as the most volatile front-line state, its support in any American conflict with Afghanistan's Taliban was vital. General Musharraf, the former commando whose strongest quality is decisiveness, wasted no time in giving it. Domestic trouble ensued, but suddenly the world was beating a path to his door. Sanctions were lifted, debt rescheduled, new aid promised, warm praise flowed from President Bush, Tony Blair came to town.
And India, its rapid offer of help to the US spurned or at least ignored, stood glowering on the sidelines.
India's angry position is clear: Pakistan, embraced as a key part of the solution to the terrorist menace, is actually a key part of the problem.
"Pakistan," intoned Jaswant Singh, Indian's gravel-voiced Foreign Minister on BBC TV, "is the epicentre of terrorism." The bloody mayhem at Srinagar was almost certainly caused by a militant group with roots, recruits and training camps in Pakistan. If it was indeed caused by Jaish-e-Mohammed – the group issued denials to the media in Pakistan – it was particularly galling to India, because the founder of the group, Maulana Masood Azhar, was a prisoner in an Indian jail until sprung by the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi in December 1999. Azhar has been at large in Pakistan since then. Some have seen this slick hijacking as a dry run for the American attacks of 11 September.
India regards America's pursuit of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden as myopic, because it ignores the whole dimension of the long terror campaign in Kashmir – when several of the organisations involved in it span both regions. From America's perspective, this is the worst possible moment to raise the Kashmir question, when General Musharraf has gone out of his way to be so helpful. For India, the war on terror can never succeed until the groups active in Kashmir are terminated, too.
Both the US and Pakistan have hurried to pacify India this week. President Musharraf has reshuffled his cabinet to remove three of the toughest anti-India ideologues – one of them said to have personal connections to Jaish-e-Mohammad – from proximity to power. He also, supposedly at Colin Powell's behest, telephoned Mr Vajpayee and pressed him to visit Pakistan for further talks, or at least to send Jaswant Singh.
India has so far been non-committal.
Now Mr Powell will try to repair the damage further. But India has got itself into a bind. Strident in its demand that terrorism be banished from Kashmir, it still refuses to allow outside involvement in resolving the dispute, or even to allow outside investigation of the appalling human rights abuses in the state of which it is often accused. Until India shows a bare modicum of flexibility over the issue, sympathy is likely to remain in short supply.Reuse content