by Eric s. Margolis
Last week, as peace talks in embattled Kashmir collapsed and the killing resumed, `The New York Times' broke a front-page story in which it revealed that US intelligence had concluded `that the likelihood of a war between India and Pakistan that could erupt into a nuclear conflict had increased significantly.'
This alarming National Intelligence Estimate, the combined product of all US intelligence agencies, was made last summer soon after Pakistani regulars and Kashmiri rebels occupied towering heights above Kargil in the Indian portion of the Himalayan mountain state of Kashmir, which is divided between India, Pakistan, and China.
Readers of this column may recall I reported last July that Pakistan and India were heading towards a possible nuclear war - the same finding as US intelligence. Military sources on the subcontinent had also told me India was three days away from launching a full-scale offensive against Pakistan. Given India's 2:1 superiority in men and 3:1 in artillery, armor, and warplanes, Pakistan may have been forced to use tactical nuclear weapons to stop a massive Indian onslaught.
My new book on Kashmir and the Indo-Pakistani conflict, `War at the Top of the World,' which appeared last fall, fully detailed the dangers of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, a conflict that could kill millions and pollute the globe with radioactive dust. At the time, few people seemed aware of the explosive, 53-year old struggle for `far-away' Kashmir - even after President Clinton and CIA called it `the world's most dangerous border.'
Last month, Hezbul Mujihadin, the largest group of Islamic insurgents fighting for independence of the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir, called a cease-fire in the bitter conflict that has killed up to 70,000 people since it erupted in 1989, and asked for talks with India. Other Kashmiri rebels groups bitterly opposed the talks.
The surprise offer clearly wrong-footed India's PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who first spoke of `unconditional' talks, but then rejected Hezbul's demands that Pakistan be included, and backtracked to India's usual position: Kashmir is and will remain an integral, non-negotiable part of India and entirely a domestic matter. India would negotiate only on the basis that Kashmir must be part of India.
Other Islamic insurgent groups sought to undermine the tentative talks, in one case by attacking Hindu pilgrims, an act of pure terrorism. Over 100 civilians died in this attack and ensuing cross-fire between rebels and poorly disciplined Indian paramilitary police. Rebel attacks against Indian security forces surged, with at least ten more people dying in a bombing last Thursday, and a score more this week. Hezbul ended its cease-fire and resumed combat.
India claims all Kashmiri insurgents are `Islamic terrorists' and `Afghan mercenaries,' agents of Pakistani `cross-border terrorism.' Delhi's simplistic view has been adopted by the Clinton Administration, which has tilted strongly towards India under urging from American partisans of Israel. India and Israel are currently forging a `strategic and nuclear alliance.' Israeli military advisors are aiding Indian counter-insurgency forces in Kashmir while Israeli scientists are providing India's fast-expanding nuclear program with materials, technical expertise, and electronics.
Russia, which is waging its own war against Islamic freedom fighters in Chechnya, recently joined India and China in a new alliance to oppose Islamic independence movements in Kashmir, Afghanistan, western China (formerly Eastern Turkestan), and Central Asia. The Clinton Administration and Russia are quietly cooperating to fight religious and democratic Islamic movements seeking to overthrow Central Asia's Moscow-backed, post-Soviet dictatorships.
Contrary to Indian claims, the insurgents are mostly Kashmiri Muslims, not outsiders, as I have found on my visits to the region. Contrary to Pakistan's denials, its crack intelligence service, ISI, does discreetly aid some rebel groups with arms and bases. Pakistanis regard Kashmiri guerillas as freedom fighters. India's intelligence agency, RAW, abets bombings inside Pakistan aimed at destabilizing that shaky, near-bankrupt nation.
What is clear amidst all this intrigue is that a majority of Indian-ruled Kashmir's people, who are over 80% Muslim, want to be rid of brutal, corrupt Indian rule, and seek either independence or union with Pakistan. India's 600,000 troops in Kashmir have failed to crush the `intifada' in spite of wide-scale use of torture, gang rapes, and mass reprisals. Numerous human rights organizations - including Indian ones - have condemned Delhi for its brutality in Kashmir and, as well, against Sikh insurgents in Punjab. It should also be noted that when Pakistan controlled East Pakistan, today Bangladesh, it's garrison troops behaved with similar brutality to Bengali independence-seekers.
The collapse of peace talks in Kashmir means India and Pakistan are again locked in their exceptionally dangerous confrontation over Kashmir, along whose cease-fire line their forces battle almost daily. This is the first time two nuclear powers have directly clashed since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Both Pakistan and India are playing a dangerous game of nuclear chicken over Kashmir that would lead to war through design or accident.
It's up to the outside world to press India and Pakistan - and China - into settling the explosive Kashmir issue. In 1947-49, the United Nations resolved that Kashmiris be allowed to vote on their future. This was never been done. India, Pakistan and China annexed strategic parts of Kashmir without ever consulting the inhabitants of this once-independent state.
Tragically, Kashmir has become the Jerusalem of South Asia, a focus of competing religious, nationalist, and historical passions that arouses fierce emotions, thwarts compromise, and poisons relations between brother-nations, India and Pakistan. Kashmir may also become the trigger that detonates a nuclear war.