U.S. diplomats on South Asia peace mission
NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- Two senior American diplomats are being sent to South Asia in what may be a last ditch attempt by the international community to prevent war breaking out between India and Pakistan.
The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage arrives in Islamabad Wednesday at the start of a visit to South Asia aimed at reducing the dangerous tension between Pakistan and India.
Armitage's visit is to be followed by the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The armies of the two nuclear nations are eyeball to eyeball along the international border and the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Their visits follow an attempt by President Vladimir Putin of Russia to broker an agreement between the two countries at a regional summit in Kazakhstan, an effort which does not appear to have achieved much.
Western diplomats have made it clear that the American visitors' one purpose in coming to India and Pakistan is to prevent a war.
Their visits may well be the last card the international community has to play, and it is by no means a trump card.
America believes that President Pervez Musharraf is making concessions, and has taken some steps to follow up his recent television address to the nation.
In that speech he said that Pakistan would not export terrorism to any part of the world and was not doing anything across the Line of Control dividing Pakistan-administered Kashmir from the Kashmir administered by India.
Although the United States believes Musharraf has issued instructions to stop incursions by militants across the Line of Control in Kashmir, it has not yet been able to persuade India this is so.
At least India has not ruled out this possibility.
Before he left for Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said "in recent days we have seen some statements by General Musharraf. If we see the result on the ground we shall certainly give it our serious consideration."
When Armitage and Rumsfeld arrive in South Asia they will want to get irrefutable evidence from Pakistan that the government has taken steps to prevent what India calls "cross-border terrorism."
But that will only be the beginning of their task.
India, believing as it does that the diplomatic battle is going its way, may well try to press home that advantage and demand that the international community secure more concessions from Pakistan -- perhaps evidence that Musharraf has closed what India believes are terrorist camps, and maybe the handing over of twenty people living in Pakistan who India claims are terrorists.
Musharraf, however, was in a belligerent mood when he spoke to the nation, saying "the enemy is trying to intimidate us by hurling threats of war. We will not be intimidated."
He was belligerent because while saying he had surrendered the option of giving military support to the militants in Kashmir he had to avoid giving the impression that he was surrendering to India's demands. He will certainly not be willing to tick off the items on India's shopping list.
Musharraf's task of persuading Pakistanis to make more concessions to India would be made easier if the American visitors could persuade Vajpayee to accept the General's demand for talks. But that is very unlikely at this stage.
Vajpayee feels that he has been humiliated both times he took the initiative to open a dialogue with Pakistan and is very unlikely to risk another public relations disaster at a time when he will already be having difficulty selling a withdrawal from the brink of war to his people.
After marching his men up to the border and keeping them there in the hot summer months he can't simply march them back with nothing to show for the exercise.
He also has to contend with his hawks who believe that he should act on his words to Indian soldiers in Kashmir last month. He warned them that the time had come for a decisive battle, and said "our goal should be victory. Be prepared for sacrifice."
The hawks include his home minister Lal Krishan Advani, number two in the government and hero of the Hindu hard-core of Vajpayee's own Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. He cannot be ignored.
The best that can be hoped for at this stage is that India accepts that Musharraf is trying to reign in the militants, India cools the rhetoric and withdraws some of the sanctions it has imposed on Pakistan.
India might for instance restore normal diplomatic relations and resume flights, rail and road links between the two countries.
Withdrawing troops from their eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the Pakistani army will need more time.
But can Musharraf wait?
He may have no option because the odds are very much against him if there is a war.
America is telling India that for it too, war would be a disaster. It would lose the diplomatic advantage, create a dangerously unstable neighbor, and make the situation on the ground in Kashmir worse not better.
Although some Indian defense experts are ridiculing the concern about the possibility of a nuclear war, Vajpayee will also be warned by his American visitors that it's not possible to guarantee a war will be limited, and that they at least are very alarmed about the potential for a nuclear conflict.
Concessions have to be wrung from both sides, and at best the American Defense Secretary and the Assistant Secretary of State can only start to bring down the tension in South Asia.
If they do, another major terrorist attack in India could derail the process they start. That is something Musharraf, even with the best of intentions, cannot guarantee to prevent.
Terrorism cannot be turned off like water from a tap.
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