- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

Escalating tensions between India and Pakistan recall the period in 1999 when the two countries averted a potential nuclear cataclysm with a decisive assist from President Clinton.
During an anxiety-ridden White House meeting on July 4 that year, Mr. Clinton persuaded Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw his forces from the Kargil region in the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir. The two countries dodged war then, but now again they are at the brink.
According to a first-person account by a top national security aide, Bruce Riedel, Mr. Sharif in 1999 wanted no part of a conflict with India. But he was opposed by his military chief at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, "a man some feared was determined to humble India once and for all."
Precisely 100 days after that fateful White House meeting, Gen. Musharraf deposed Mr. Sharif in a military coup. Now president, Gen. Musharraf is at the center of the latest flare-up over Kashmir between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
The Bush administration is worried that the conflict could so distract Pakistan that it will cease cooperating with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. On Pakistan's list of priorities, helping capture al Qaeda fighters pales alongside the stakes in Kashmir. Or so some U.S. officials believe.
The humanitarian considerations of a nuclear blowup are mind-numbing: a potential death toll of 8 million to 12 million, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency estimate.
India accuses Pakistan of engaging in cross-border terrorism into Kashmir and rejects Pakistan's suggestion of dialogue. Pakistan has carried out three test launches the latest last Tuesday of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead into Indian territory.
Gen. Musharraf has won broad U.S. support because of his stand against Afghan-based terrorism, but Mr. Riedel paints an unflattering portrait of the Pakistani leader in an essay published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.
While Mr. Sharif was eager in 1999 for an accommodation with India, Mr. Riedel wrote, Gen. Musharraf "seemed to be in a different mold. Musharraf was a refugee from New Delhi, one of the millions sent into exile in the 1947 catastrophe that split British India and the Subcontinent. He was said to be a hard-liner on Kashmir."
The border region Kashmir, which has an overwhelmingly Muslim population, had a Hindu maharajah when British India was partitioned in 1947. He opted for India, and the South Asian neighbors have been in states of war or nearly so ever since. Kashmir is claimed by both governments. Three-fifths of the fertile Himalayan region is in Indian hands, the rest held by Pakistan.
During the tense summer of 1999, it was clear that "the civil-military dynamic between Sharif in Islamabad and Musharraf in Rawalpindi was confused and tense," according to Mr. Riedel.
As he described it, Mr. Clinton firmly supported India during the Kargil crisis and made that point clear during his July 4 meeting with Mr. Sharif.
Mr. Sharif, Mr. Riedel wrote, "seemed a man possessed with fear of war.
"The prime minister told Clinton that he wanted desperately to find a solution that would allow Pakistan to withdraw with some cover. Without something to point to, Sharif warned ominously, the fundamentalists in Pakistan would move against him, and this meeting would be his last with Clinton."
Mr. Clinton held firm. He reasoned that any concessions to Mr. Sharif's position would only reward Pakistani aggression in Kashmir.
Finally, Mr. Sharif backed down and agreed to accept a joint statement, in which the key clause read: "The prime minister has agreed to take concrete and immediate steps for the restoration of the LOC," the line of control dividing Kashmir.
That meant that Pakistan would observe the informal border, or line of control, that runs through Kashmir. It is the point over which the two sides are not supposed to cross.
Today, a million troops are deployed on both sides of the line. Gideon Rose, of the Council on Foreign Relations, is not so sure catastrophe can be avoided, as it was in 1999, despite urgent appeals from diplomatic peacemakers to Gen. Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
"If they don't get the message, then things could blow up," Mr. Rose said.

George Gedda is a foreign affairs correspondent for the Associated Press.

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