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By Michael Krepon
THE RISK of war and nuclear dangers feed on misperceptions. By this measure, South Asia remains a very dangerous place. One need look no further than the present, elongated crisis between India and Pakistan for confirmation of how poorly New Delhi and Islamabad appear to understand each other. To complicate matters further, Washington also has great difficulty "reading" the tea leaves in South Asia. New Delhi and Islamabad have maintained their armed forces on a war footing for over two months now, and Indian officials assert that their forces will remain in the fighting corridors for another few months, until they are able to gauge whether or not the Government of Pervez Musharraf has been faithful to its stated commitment to turn away from jehad.
How has this message been received in Pakistan and the United States? Does it mean that, if the level of infiltration is not sufficiently reduced, the Government of India would be obliged to teach the Pakistani military and Gen. Musharraf a lesson? Since previous lessons against the jehadis have been confined to India's side of the Line of Control and have not had the desired effect, does New Delhi's message also mean that new lessons would have to be meted out on the Pakistani side of the LoC? Many in Washington seem to think so, which is why the CIA chief, George Tenet, has declared that the possibility of another war in the subcontinent remains high. Other South Asia specialists in the U.S. argue that India's mobilisation constituted "play acting". In this view, the threat of war is nothing more than diplomatic coercion on Pakistan to rein in the jehadi groups, as well as an indirect means to pressure Washington to lean on Gen. Musharraf to take additional steps against terrorism. Both of these explanations could well be wrong. A resort to war might not happen in this case, but not for lack of adequate preparation. Indeed, the steps taken by India's armed forces hardly resemble playacting. There may be considerable truth, however, in New Delhi's supposition that preparing to fight a war would provide dual leverage on Islamabad and Washington. But this leverage waned greatly after Gen. Musharraf's speech on January 12 reaffirming the Quaid-e-Azam's vision, and after Pakistan's military mobilisation. Subsequent Indian threats completely missed their mark because New Delhi misread both capitals. The Bush administration lavishly praised Gen. Musharraf after January 12, not only for the markers he laid down, but also to give him added time and space to implement his initiatives. By publicly lauding Gen. Musharraf, Washington was affirming messages sent to New Delhi via diplomatic channels to avoid war.
Even after January 12, Washington took India's threats seriously; Pakistani military leaders did not. Instead, they do not think that a war with India is likely because they have called India's bluff by positioning their armed forces to counter Indian military strikes across the LoC dividing Kashmir and along the international border. Is Washington right? Or is Islamabad?
New Delhi and Washington do not have a monopoly on misperception. Pakistan's confidence might well be misplaced. After all, Gen. Musharraf publicly expressed the view that India mobilised troops primarily for reasons of domestic politics, and that demobilisation would follow quickly on the heels of the election in Uttar Pradesh. New Delhi has now disabused Gen. Musharraf of this idea. At the same time, those in India who might have hoped to reap electoral dividends from the mobilisation were certainly disappointed. No one has established an enviable record in this crisis for predicting the future. Everyone's crystal ball is clouded.
To muddy the waters further, Indian officials have not been consistent about their requirements for de-escalation. The avoidance of war, they say, would require either the complete cessation of infiltration across the LoC, or its dramatic reduction. In the northern reaches of the LoC, infiltration has stopped, due to seasonal conditions. In the southern sectors of the LoC, some infiltration apparently continues. It would be reasonable to expect that Gen. Musharraf would seek to reduce infiltration, especially by groups that he has banned. It is also reasonable to expect that infiltration will not cease. Pakistan's military leadership is not in the habit of giving everything in return for nothing. Thus, as long as the Government of India stipulates that a resumption of dialogue hinges on unlikely outcomes, the conditions for war would remain in place. Is this what New Delhi really wants? If not, the Government of India has placed itself in the awkward position of either de-escalating without acknowledging satisfaction, or punishing Pakistan for not gaining sufficient satisfaction.
The second oft-repeated demand of the Government of India for de-escalation is that Pakistan must extradite at least some of the 20 truly reprehensible individuals named on its "most wanted" list. Even had this demand been made privately, it is difficult to envision Pakistani compliance if, as India asserts, these individuals have many embarrassing tales to tell. By making this demand public, and central to the satisfactory resolution of the current crisis, the Government of India has greatly increased the likelihood that its bluff would be called. At issue here is not India's right to retaliate against provocation, but the utility of the retaliatory actions taken against terror. An attempt by India to punish Gen. Musharraf for not doing enough to combat terror might be understandable, but would it be wise? Here there is much room for misunderstanding between New Delhi and foreign capitals.
Washington and other capitals would have great difficulty understanding how an attempt by India to punish Gen. Musharraf would improve performance on matters that New Delhi has asserted are crucial indicators of good faith. It remains possible, of course, that a particularly egregious act of terrorism could provide the spark that generates warfare between two armies that are quite prepared to fight. The absence of this spark over the next few months might well suggest that Gen. Musharraf is serious about clamping down on the jehadi outfits. It might also suggest collusion between the Musharraf Government and those groups it has "blacklisted". Here, too, perceptions might vary greatly, since both scenarios support the very same outcome.
The current crisis is laden with the potential for tragic miscalculation. False assumptions and misperceptions abound. New Delhi, Islamabad, and Washington read current developments quite differently, and since these developments lend themselves to divergent explanations, greater clarity is likely to elude decision makers for the duration of the crisis.Worse still, the denouement of this crisis is likely to confirm views that are misleading, wrong, and mutually reinforcing. Just as the Kargil war contributed to the current crisis, this crisis can easily lead to the next confrontation.
The hard reality of a nuclearised South Asia is that crises are more likely, and that crises do not lend themselves to mutually satisfactory outcomes. Grievances as well as false certainties are therefore generated, which are then manifested in the next crisis.
Serious diplomacy is needed to break this vicious cycle not the diplomacy of empty rhetoric, not diplomacy that conceals collusion with acts of terror, and not coercive diplomacy that relies on the threat of war. One central purpose of serious diplomacy must be crisis avoidance. This cannot happen in the absence of a sustained and substantive dialogue centred on escalation control, nuclear risk reduction, and the Kashmir issue.
(The writer is founding president, Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington.)
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