Did India Cry Wolf to Secure US Intervention?

Did America’s newly discovered ally, India, cry wolf (that is, deliberately exaggerate tentative indications of the presence of Al-Qaeda in Kashmir) to get the United States to intervene sympathetically on its behalf and secure a commitment from Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to end “cross-border infiltration” of militants?

Although there is no irrefutable proof of this, many pointers suggest that this happened in the last week of May. It paved the way for the visit to Pakistan and India of US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage in the first week of June, and later of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The alacrity with which the US acted in late May is more easily explained by the “Al-Qaeda scare” hypothesis than by any other circumstance in the six-months-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and Pakistan, involving more than one million troops.

If the hypothesis is valid, then there is a special obligation on New Delhi to abide by its part of the deal that the US and the UK helped broker: it should quickly de-escalate the military mobilisation, normalise diplomatic relations with Pakistan, and begin a dialogue with it on the vexed issue of Kashmir. There is an equally onerous obligation on Pakistan to abide by its commitment to put a permanent and verifiable end to “cross-border infiltration”.

Here is a recounting of the relevant sequence of events, based on briefings by diplomatic sources, and on the public statements of some of the officials involved. When India threatened to punish Pakistan militarily following a “terrorist” attack on its Parliament building on December 13 last, it fully kept the United States in the picture. It persuaded America that it was only acting in “self-defence” and against “terrorism” – just as America had done vis-à-vis Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Pakistan too mobilised its forces in reply to India’s 700,000 troops at the border. By early January, a million troops were in position across the 740-kilometre Line of Control and the 2,300 km-long-international border. This was, potentially, an extremely dangerous confrontation, with possible escalation to the nuclear plane.

Earlier this year, the US sent emissaries, including secretary of state Colin Powell and deputy secretary Richard Armitage, to South Asia, to counsel restraint on both India and Pakistan. But it did not apply pressure upon either state to lower the level of alert or demobilise/reduce troops – right until the end of May. Nor did it ask Pakistan to take action on a list of 20 “terrorists” living in that country, which India handed over to it. The US was in constant touch with high officials in both countries through their foreign ministers, Gen Pervez Musharraf, less frequently Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, his national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, as well as its ambassadors in their capitals.

What impelled the US to shift gear to energetic intervention was partly heightened tension between India and Pakistan after a terrorist attack on May 14 at Kaluchak near Jammu, in which 34 people were killed. But a large part was also played by an event exactly one week later: the assassination of Abdul Gani Lone, a moderate member of the executive of the 23-party All-Party Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir, which demands autonomy/ separation from India, but does not practise violence.

Shortly after Lone’s killing – for which no group has so far claimed responsibility, unlike in most such cases – Mishra rang US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to say there were indications that Al-Qaeda elements were responsible, and that India’s patience was “running out”; a war would be not weeks or days away, but only hours away. This set the alarm bells ringing in Washington; a series of telephone calls followed, including calls to Musharraf and Vajpayee.

After all, Al-Qaeda is not some Kashmiri militant group, however fanatical. It is America’s main direct enemy.

At this point, India not only put its forces on the highest alert, but also ordered heavy shelling of Pakistani posts across the border, nine of which were reportedly destroyed. It also made a series of demands upon Pakistan as conditions for staying its hand.

These included commitments to end cross-border infiltration permanently, to close down terrorist training camps in what India calls Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), to cease hostile propaganda and threats to Indian Kashmiri leaders from within PoK, and stop fomenting trouble through clandestine agencies within Kashmir. The earlier “list” of 20 terrorists was effectively dropped, although not officially withdrawn.

The US duly communicated these demands to Musharraf and secured his acceptance of the first two conditions – probably with some tough talking, threats and more. In the last week of May, it also made it plain to him that the cessation of support for cross-border activity would be forever – a part of its commitment to fight against the menace of “terrorism”, by whatever name called. (Pakistan made a similar declaration at the Almaty summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia which binds all member-states “not to support on the territory of another Member-State any separatist movements and entities”, not to “establish political, economic and other relations with them”, nor “to render them any kind of economic, financial and other assistance…”)

Armitage visited Pakistan on June 6 on condition that Islamabad would have already (prior to his visit) put in place measures to stop cross-border movement of militants. The Washington Post reported on the “Armitage-Musharraf agreement”, quoting officials: “Once Musharraf agreed to the term ‘permanent’, Armitage reconfirmed several times over the two-hour conversation that Musharraf was comfortable with it, and that he could relay this commitment to India.”

Rumsfeld visited India on June 12. At his press conference that day he said: “I have seen indications that Al-Qaeda is in fact operating in areas near the LoC.” “(But) I don’t have any hard evidence of who, how many or where, ” he replied when asked whether Osama bin Laden’s outfit was influencing events in Jammu and Kashmir. Indian officials confirmed that India had provided information on this issue to Rumsfeld.

But the following day, in Islamabad, he modified his statement: “…the United States does not have evidence of Al-Qaida in Kashmir. We do have a good deal of scraps of intelligence that come in from people saying that they believe Al-Qaida are in Kashmir or in various locations. It tends to be speculative; it is not actionable; it is not verifiable…”

Pakistan registered a strong protest against the suggestion, saying it was “absolutely incorrect”, and without substance.

On June 14, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer further “clarified” that Rumsfeld had spoken only in a “generalised and vague sense” about Al-Qaeda in Kashmir. “I don’t think it was a declaration of anything. I think what he said was that – no hard evidence that they’re there, they may be there, we can’t rule it out; but he said that he didn’t have any actionable evidence, any intelligence information of a hard type …”

Meanwhile, The Times of India had reported that “officials in Washington and Delhi have concluded that it is only the war on Al-Qaeda that can provide a politically safe rationale for the Vajpayee government to allow American troops in, given India’s traditional aversion to outside mediation in Kashmir”.

It added: “It is possible that recent official Indian claims of Al-Qaeda being active in the Valley and of ‘Arab-looking terrorists’ being shot dead by the security forces in J&K are part of the government’s efforts to prepare the ground for ‘joint Indo-US military action'”, probably with US Special Operations troops. This, the paper speculated, was part of a larger proposal for expanding the ambit of Indo-US military cooperation.

However, reliable administrative sources in Jammu and Kashmir say that there was no evidence of Al-Qaeda presence or activity in Kashmir. India’s Border Security Force too denies there is any solid proof or even indications of this.

The Army too has discounted such reports to maintain that, operationally, it makes little difference if Al-Qaeda elements are present or not.

Thus, Indian and US officials appear to have exaggerated the Al-Qaeda involvement in Kashmir. They must not use any speculation about this as an argument for intrusive US surveillance, leave alone special military operations. Such speculation might fructify in the future as Al-Qaeda elements trickle into PoK – and then into Indian Kashmir. This distinct possibility has little to do with the events of May which led to the India-Pakistan half-thaw.

India owes it to the world to come clean on the Al-Qaeda issue. It must reduce its troops at the border, reciprocate Pakistan’s gestures and normalise relations. Above all, it must agree to a dialogue on Kashmir with Pakistan. It has promised such a bilateral dialogue for 30 years, but never once held talks. If the Kashmir dispute is allowed to fester, it will fuel extreme discontent and resentment in Pakistan – to the detriment of the security of the whole subcontinent, including Kashmir.

The Vajpayee government has shown no inclination to take reconciliatory steps towards Pakistan. In his interview with Newsweek, Musharraf has tried to wriggle out of the commitment and said he cannot give “an assurance that for years nothing will happen” across the Line of Control.

This only highlights the role that the international community in general, and the peace movement in particular, can play in nudging the South Asian rivals towards mutual reconciliation.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.