Pakistani president general Perwez Musharraf walked a fine line in his televised address to the nation on May 27, defiantly asserting Pakistan’s willingness to defend itself against India for popular consumption while also asserting his commitment to prevent ‘terrorists’ from operating out of Pakistan and denying that Kashmiri mujahideen were ‘infiltrating’ Indian-occupied Kashmir from Pakistan. Pakistan had earlier tested a number of short to medium range missiles, in a move apparently designed to show that the country is ready and able to defend itself in case of war.
However, behind the scenes Musharraf’s tone is rather less defiant; Kashmiri and other Islamic activists operating in Pakistan have faced increasing problems since the American occupation of the country post-September 11, and these problems are likely to increase as Musharraf tries to appease India at a time when the Hindu fundamentalist government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee is being particularly belligerent.
There are indeed plenty of reasons for Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf to be feeling nervous these days. More than a million heavily armed troops are amassed along Pakistan’s eastern border; India’s rulers are threatening a “decisive fight”; and the spectre of nuclear conflict looms large, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the one billion people of the subcontinent.
A not-so-friendly regime is in power in Afghanistan, dominated by the Panjshiris, who are dead against Pakistan, and even UN secretary general Kofi Annan waded in with advice on May 23 that Pakistan should do more to curb terrorism. While addressing troops in Kupwara (Srinagar) in Kashmir, Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said on May 22: “Let’s work for victory. Be prepared for sacrifices. But our aim should be victory. Because it’s now time for a decisive fight.”
To show that he was serious, Vajpayee ordered five warships to move from India’s eastern fleet to the western front on May 22, and also placed all border security forces under the direct command of the military. If war breaks out, the Indian fleet will attempt to blockade Pakistan’s main port at Karachi.
On May 2, on the eve of his visit to the subcontinent, British foreign secretary Jack Straw also expressed fears of a nuclear conflict. A day earlier, two British dailies – the Times and the Daily Telegraph – had expressed similar concerns in bold headlines. Straw said that the international community must do more to avert a nuclear war. As if to underscore the point, he ordered a reduction of British diplomatic staff in Pakistan to a minimum, clearly signalling that he feared the outbreak of war between the two rivals might be imminent. It also reflected a lack of confidence in the Pakistani military regime’s ability to provide security to foreigners, including diplomats, since the attack on May 8 in Karachi that killed 11 French naval technicians and engineers, who had been working on the Agosta class submarine in Pakistan.
Musharraf himself described the situation on Pakistan’s eastern borders as “grim,” during talks with editors and senior journalists in Islamabad on May 22. He said that Pakistan and India were closer to war than they had been at any time since the attack on the Indian parliament on December 13 last year. He cited aggressive Indian rhetoric and the complete mobilisation of its armed forces, but added that the Pakistani armed forces were prepared to meet any threat and were capable of matching all forms of Indian aggression. This seemed more to reassure his people than reflect the realities on the ground. Pakistani diplomats are urging the international community to ask India to agree to a dialogue to resolve “all outstanding issues”.
There is great gloom among the ruling circles in Islamabad these days, especially concerning American attitudes to the India-Pakistan stand-off. In supporting the US’s “war on terrorism” Musharraf abandoned a 25-year-old policy on Afghanistan, hoping that it would pay dividends in his confrontation with India; instead Uncle Sam has shown next to no gratitude. The Americans, instead of reining in the militarist India, are exerting pressure on Musharraf to do more to curb “cross-border” terrorism. This is an expression used by India to refer to Kashmiri activists infiltrating from across the Line of Control into Kashmir. Pakistan, of course, denies the allegation and, to show its good faith, has invited international observers to be stationed on both sides of the border. But India adamantly refuses to accept an ‘internationalisation’ of the conflict.
Instead, India has gathered more than 700,000 troops on the border, with two additional mountain divisions also recently deployed in Kashmir. Similar aggressive moves have been taken on the diplomatic front. India recalled its high commissioner from Islamabad last December, but Pakistan did not follow suit. Now India has ordered Ashraf Jahangir Kazi, Pakistan’s high commissioner, to leave Delhi since an attack on May 14 on a military compound in Jammu, in which 34 people were killed. This attack coincided with the visit of Christina Rocca, US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, raising suspicions that it may have been the work of India. A similar attack in March 2000 in Kashmir was blamed on Pakistan when then-US-president Bill Clinton was visiting India. It was later discovered that Indian agents had been responsible for the massacre of Sikh villagers, hoping to have Pakistan branded a “terrorist” state by the US.
Despite Pakistan’s help in the US’s war effort in Afghanistan, Christina Rocca, during her visit to Islamabad on May 15, demanded that Pakistan do more in the fight against terrorism. She made this demand even as US troops were using Pakistani territory to conduct operations in the tribal area, creating great resentment among the people. The US was at the same time holding its first-ever joint military exercises with India in Agra. Yet it would be naive to expect gratitude from Uncle Sam; America sees India as a much bigger prize. In any case, Pakistani rulers are seen as pushovers. Those who sell themselves cheap should not hope to be respected.
In Kashmir, meanwhile, there has been intense artillery shelling since May 17 along the Line of Control. According to Pakistani military spokesmen, in the five-day period up to May 22 more than 16,000 light and medium artillery shells were fired in a two-kilometre strip, causing 20 deaths and 29 injuries; Pakistani military casualties were five dead and 30 injured. Military personnel also said that India was likely to carry out air strikes in Azad (‘free’, ie. not occupied) Jammu and Kashmir, possibly backed by a limited ground offensive. However, Musharraf warned, even in the case of a limited offensive, the situation could quickly get out of control. In view of the deteriorating situation on the Kashmir front, Pakistani officials have said that forces may be pulled back from the western front (on the Afghanistan border), and those in Sierra Leone will be recalled.
If the situation on the external front is bad, it is not comfortable on the domestic front either. Musharraf had invited the two major political blocs – the Alliance for [the] Restoration of Democracy (ARD) and the Muttahida Majlis-i Amal (MMA) – to attend the all-parties meeting, but nobody showed up. Expressing dismay at their failure to attend, he said that he was anxious to shed the powers of chief executive and hand over to an elected prime minister.
The political parties would have none of this. Although they too do not enjoy much support among the masses, the political parties nonetheless feel that after the referendum on April 30, Musharraf is ruling by fraud. Despite official claims of between 55 and 60 percent turnout, most observers believe that it was less than 10 percent; in most polling-stations ballot-boxes were stuffed with bogus votes by polling officers. There was no restriction on how often people could cast their vote. Many journalists went several times to vote, to test the reactions of polling officers; they were welcomed with open arms. Since the referendum Musharraf’s popularity, already low, has collapsed.
With the US effectively occupying the country, unlikely to permit the effective use of the countries defenses against India, and its domestic affairs in turmoil, Pakistan is in a particularly bad situation. The first victims as Musharraf tries desperately to control affairs are likely to the the people of Kashmir, dependent on support and assistance from mujahideen groups based in Pakistan, whose position is likely to become increasingly difficult.