Kashmir crisis nearing endgame

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The Independent Online
INDIAN FIGHTERS flew missions around the clock over northern Kashmir yesterday, taking advantage of the full moon to attack Pakistani positions on mountain tops.

In Delhi a Western defence analyst told The Independent that he believes the small war in south Asia is approaching a watershed. "If India is going to do something to bring the war to a conclusion," he said, "they will have to do it in the next two to three weeks."

The first monsoon showers drenched the Indian capital yesterday, a reminder that the summer is advancing. A flurry of diplomatic activity to try to solve the conflict, the first in weeks, also communicated a new mood of urgency. A respected and dove-ish Pakistani who was formerly head of the Foreign Ministry, Niaz A Naik, flew secretly into Delhi and had talks with India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. No details have been released.

Simultaneously a junior US State Department official, Gibson Lanpher, arrived in the city from Islamabad to brief Indian officials on the recent mission to Pakistan of the commander in chief of US Central Command. In the past few weeks the Clinton administration has been putting pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its troops from the positions they have seized on Indian territory, sparking the war seven weeks ago. A senior official in the US administration told the Washington Post: "Pakistan is the instigator here. Pakistan has to figure out how to restore the status quo ante."

For its part Pakistan, which long insisted that the "intruders" (as India describes them) holding dozens of fortified positions on the tops of Ladakh's icy crags were "Kashmiri freedom fighters", has now come close to admitting that in fact most of them are regular Pakistani troops - which has been India's contention all along.

On Sunday, Pakistan army chief Parvez Musharraf, asked by journalists if Pakistan would withdraw its forces from the Kargil area of Kashmir (deep inside Indian territory) replied, "It is too early to say, it's a government decision. It is the Prime Minister's decision. We will not withdraw unilaterally."

Ever since India began attacking the Pakistanis with air strikes in mid May, the issue of whether or not India should send its forces across Kashmir's de facto border, the so-called Line of Control (LoC), has been debated.

The Pakistani troops are established along the ridges of the jagged moonscape of northern Ladakh. Taking these positions is harsh and bloody warfare. India admits to the loss of nearly 200 soldiers so far. Foreign analysts believe the true figure may be 300. And because the Pakistani supply lines across the LoC are intact, positions yielded to India can readily be re-taken by the Pakistanis.

Indian politicians are therefore under intense pressure from the military to allow them to take the fight to the enemy, and to cross the LoC. Only by doing this, the soldiers argue, can India win the war. And they must make up their minds to do it soon: winter closes in in September.

India's politicians have rebuffed the idea of crossing the LoC, a position which has won them plaudits from the US and the G8. But on Sunday the Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, refused to rule it out.

This war is not only a race against the weather, it is also a race against the electoral clock. India's general election falls in September or October. If body bags are still coming down from the mountains then, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party which dominates the ruling coalition can expect a hiding.

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