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The Rediff Special/ Gaurav Kampani

The escalating war in Kashmir

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Pakistan's Kargil intrusion and the subsequent escalation in Indian military operations in Kashmir with air power have come as a rude surprise. Indian military and intelligence agencies have suddenly encountered an entirely unexpected and entrenched militant presence in the north. The nuclearwallahs, who had earlier predicted confidently that India could relax under the shade of its nuclear umbrella, have had to reappraise the risks of military escalation. And the Indian home ministry's statements that the Kashmir insurgency was tottering on its last legs have been belied.

The militant presence is a massive intelligence failure. Infiltration per se is nothing new. Ever since the outbreak of the Kashmir insurgency in 1988-89, Pakistani-coordinated infiltration and exfiltration operations have become an annual springtime feature. However, earlier operations were limited to the Poonch, Rajouri, Baramulla, and Kupwara districts in Western Kashmir. Now, for the first time in the decade-long insurgency, Kashmiri militants have attempted to dominate the critical Zoji la pass and threatened to cut off India’s vital land communication links between Srinagar and Leh.

Clearly, the logistical support needed to sustain the holding operations along the high ridges of the Kargil-Dras region demonstrates Pakistan’s role in fomenting the insurgency in Kashmir. According to Indian military sources, the logistics, command, control, communications, training, and equipment that are vital to support operations of this intensity and scale are strong indications of the direct involvement of Pakistani army regulars. If true, it would be the first time since 1965 that Pakistan has deployed army regulars to take on the Indian armed forces in Kashmir.

Unlike 1965, however, when Pakistan hoped to foment a rebellion in Kashmir through the infiltration of 7,000 army regulars, this time its goals appear more modest. The attempt appears to be to threaten India’s military lines of communication, intensify the low-intensity war, and arouse global attention in an effort to internationalize the Kashmir conflict.

One theory making the rounds in New Delhi is that the Kargil intrusion is a rogue operation launched by the Pakistani army without approval of the Nawaz Sharief government in Islamabad. The notion is that this is the Pakistani army's way of communicating to Sharief that it, and not the civilian government determine Pakistan’s Kashmir policy. Infiltration is also the Pakistani army's means of demonstrating to India that despite the Lahore peace process, Kashmir remains a core concern for Pakistan.

There may be a kernel of truth in this viewpoint. Pakistan’s army and its dreaded Inter-Service Intelligence Agency are often described as a state within a state. In the past, both have directed and pursued relatively autonomous policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. However, as of yet, there is no direct evidence of differences of opinion between the civilian and military arms of the Pakistani government.

Indeed, there exist a slew of other reasons to doubt the rogue operations theory. First, a triumvirate comprising the prime minister, president, and army chief runs Pakistan. Within the triumvirate, power equations vary. After winning the 1996 elections with an overwhelming majority, Nawaz Sharief has steadily consolidated his position vis-ŕ-vis the president, judiciary, and after forcing Jehangir Karamat's resignation, against the army chief as well. It would not be mistaken to suggest that Sharief has emerged as the most powerful civilian premier in Pakistan since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Given Sharief's powerful position within Pakistan's ruling triumvirate, it is difficult to imagine how he could have been forced to accept a policy fait accompli.

Second, Pakistan has fought and lost three conventional wars against India. Pakistan's military is well aware of the dangers of military adventurism, which because of inadvertence or policy failure could slide into an uncontrolled war. Pakistan's conventional inferiority and economic fragility could make this a disastrous proposition. The perils of a large-scale conventional war are compounded by the overt nuclearization of the subcontinent. Hence, it is doubtful that Pakistan's army and intelligence agencies would have been allowed to hijack the country’s Kashmir policy with all the negative consequences that such a policy would produce.

More likely perhaps, Pakistan's political, military and foreign policy establishment regarded the Lahore peace process as part of a strategy of limited engagement, to explore before returning to the international community with demands for third party mediation. Agreement on a composite dialogue with India during the Lahore summit did not mean that Kashmir had been placed on a backburner. To the contrary, Sharief and his foreign policy establishment emphasized on several occasions that Indo-Pakistani relations could not be normalized without a deal on Kashmir.

India’s chief of army staff, General Ved Malik, also cautioned that Vajpayee's bus trip to Lahore had not translated into tangible benefits on the ground in Kashmir. Between February and April 1999, Pakistan's moral and material support to the militants in Kashmir continued unabated. In this regard, the recent intrusion in Kargil seems part of Pakistan’s policy of supporting and intensifying the insurgency operations against the Indian military in Kashmir.

Thus far, the United States and its Western allies have refused to be drawn into the Kashmir imbroglio. Earlier in 1998, the US state department rebuffed Pakistani entreaties for third party mediation in Kashmir. Now, the US embassy in Islamabad has advised the Pakistani government to de-escalate tensions in the region.

There are many reasons for the tepid US response. First, the United States is politically distracted by operations in Kosovo and Iraq. The last thing it would want is to intervene in another crisis on the subcontinent. Second, there is a growing awareness in the United States of Pakistan's involvement in the insurgency operations in Kashmir, which to an extent mirror the policy that the Pakistani army and ISI have been pursuing in Afghanistan. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism directly undermines US interests in South Asia. Furthermore, US intervention to help defuse the crisis would only further encourage Pakistan to act more recklessly.

On the positive side, India, although having escalated the conflict, has sought to allay international concerns by localising its military operations. Prime Minister Vajpayee has ruled out attacks across the international line of control. Both prime ministers, Vajpayee and Sharief, as well as their respective director generals of military operations have opened channels of communication. This is important to prevent misunderstandings, allay misapprehensions, and prevent the conflict from spinning out of control. In accordance with the series of confidence building measures negotiated earlier, India’s defense ministry has also notified its Pakistani counterpart of the nature of India’s air operations.

On the negative side, however, the Lahore peace process has been nearly derailed. India is now in the process of reevaluating its engagement strategy with Pakistan. Worse, the use of air power will most likely intensify the low intensity conflict in Kashmir. This is the first time that India has used military air assets against Pakistan since the 1971 war. Pakistan has reserved the right to respond, and shot down Indian aircraft. In the future, it could escalate the war further by arming militants with heavier weaponry and anti-aircraft systems such as the Stinger missile, which brought much grief to Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Intensification of the war is likely to have two consequences. First, it could lead to a widening of the war with the resultant danger of escalation to a large-scale conventional level. The potential danger of further escalation to a nuclear level could then internationalise Kashmir and bring great power intervention in the region. Second, the dangers of a nuclear exchange would serve to heighten international pressures on India and Pakistan to cap their respective nuclear deterrents. Avoiding this kind of pressure was one of the fundamental goals of Jaswant Singh’s Lahore peace process. The idea was to present India and Pakistan as two responsible nuclear weapon powers. Sadly, those objectives are likely to be defeated.

Finally, the Kargil crisis has highlighted the irrelevance of nuclear weapons in meeting India's real security threats; it has also forced India to confront the potential counterproductive political consequences of its nuclear status. In the coming decade, India will most likely face two kinds of security threats.

The first will be internal security threats emerging from the collapse of the Indian State with resultant militarisation of conflict within civil society. Examples of this can already be seen in parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where private Senas have already displaced the exclusive right of the Indian state to bear arms and adjudicate conflicts.

The second kind of security threat will come from insurgency operations and limited conventional wars along the border of the kind now being waged in Kashmir and the North-East.

For the first, the Indian State will have to restore the process and institutions of governance and invest in efficient, well-trained, and highly motivated paramilitary forces. The second will require extensive modernisation of India’s conventional military machine, which is now on the edge of an obsolescence overhang.

The Kargil incursion appears to be a canny Pakistani gambit that effectively exploits the nuclear card to emasculate India's superior conventional capability. In 1965, when faced with military infiltration in Kashmir, India did the unpredictable; it escalated the emerging low-intensity war into a full-fledged conventional attack on Pakistan.

Today, thanks to nuclear weapons, India stands helpless in the face of Pakistani provocation. The dangers of escalation and the potential for internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute out of concern for nuclear crisis instability have forced India's political and military establishment to wage a limited and defensive operation. The consequences of this policy are likely to be continuing political unrest in Kashmir, the entrapment of the Indian military in intensified military operations, and the expenditure of much blood and treasure without any clear success.

Gaurav Kampani is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the CNS or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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