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At the nuclear brink

International | In the duel for Kashmir, India and Pakistan now keep in mind missile options and the bin Laden connection

Issue: "Is McCain able?," Aug. 21, 1999

In June, at the height of the latest war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the Indian Navy seized a boat in the Arabian Sea. The boat was carrying missile components from North Korea to Pakistan. Press reports said the components were intended for Pakistani forces. But many believed they were bound for militants fighting in Kashmir and paid for by Osama bin Laden, the billionaire recluse who has backed Islamic terrorists and is believed to be the mastermind behind the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year.

Mr. bin Laden is increasingly seen as a key figure in the eruption of tensions between India and Pakistan earlier this summer. Last week the daily Times of India reported that both Pakistan and India, and especially Kashmir, have become targets of Mr. bin Laden's "terrorist network"-India, because Mr. bin Laden supports the demand of Islamic fundamentalists for a separate state; Pakistan, because he wants eventually to turn it into a Taliban-style state. Kashmir, a seedbed of conflict between India and Pakistan for 50 years, is seen as ground zero for launching an Islamic revolution in the Asian subcontinent. The militant and fundamentalist Taliban, whom Mr. bin Laden has supported, now control Afghanistan, Pakistan's other neighbor. They have given refuge to Mr. bin Laden, who is under U.S. indictment.

Fighting in May to July killed hundreds on both sides, and marked the first time since 1965 that Pakistan captured and held onto positions in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan's forces-an uncertain combination of army regulars and guerrillas-even threatened a cut-off in supplies to India's border troops. The Islamic militants, before they were driven back into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, lived in style in Indian bunkers with satellite TVs and cellular phones. Reports in India claimed the luxuries were one part Indian army corruption to several parts Islamic militant backing, i.e., bin Laden. The boat seizure fueled speculation about what such "resourceful" freedom fighters could deliver on a missile-chemical, nuclear, or biological means of mass destruction.

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The conflict ended in a Washington-brokered agreement, but neither side believes that peace is truly at hand. Tensions reignited last week after India shot down a Pakistani reconnaissance plane. The plane veered six miles into Indian airspace and ignored warnings, according to Indian officials. Pakistan said the attack killed 16 of its servicemen. It disputed the Indian account and promised retaliation.

In the midst of the uneasy truce, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that both sides were making preparations during the 11 weeks of fighting for an invasion-and one that could have gone nuclear. Since both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons last year, concern has grown that the devices could be called forth in an escalating conflict.

There is also concern about leadership in the region. Pakistan's prime minister, Nawiz Sharif, has faced street demonstrations ever since he agreed to the July pull-back in Kashmir, and he is deadlocked with India over peace talks.

India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his Hindu nationalist party, BJP, lost a vote of confidence in April. Elections have been called for next month. So far, opposition parties have been unable to form a coalition against BJP.

Meanwhile, rumors of Afghan/Pakistani collusion over Kashmir have juiced opposition forces in Afghanistan, who continue to hold pockets of resistance against the Taliban. Last week, the opposition forces said they believed 3,000-5,000 Pakistani militants, many of whom recently fought in Kashmir, have arrived in Kabul, the capital, to reinforce the Taliban.

India is no stranger to such collusion. In 1971, the Indian army sent its troops as freedom fighters (under the guise of Mukti Bahini) into what was then East Pakistan, to help create Bangladesh. A decade later, the Indian government trained and financed Tamil "freedom fighters" (or, terrorists) in Sri Lanka. In both cases, India justified its intervention on the premise that one internal faction was oppressing another.

"India is harvesting in the north and west what it had sown in the south and east," says Vishal Mangalwadi, a commentator for The International Indian and author of books on evangelism and politics.

The conflicts at its borders have obscured India's responsibility to be a good neighbor, according to Mr. Mangalwadi. "Has India treated its part of Kashmir well enough to earn the loyalty and good will of the local population?" he asks. He contrasts Indian control of Kashmir to the American occupation of Japan after World War II. In a span of seven years, Mr. Mangalwadi notes, the United States kept its promises and opened the door to development that has led to a 50-year friendship.

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