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Powell Faces Difficult Task in South Asia - 2002-07-26


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell begins a trip to India and Pakistan Saturday, his second this year, in the latest effort to push both countries toward a resumption of dialogue over the disputed region of Kashmir. The two South Asian nations are locked in a tense military standoff, with nearly a million troops stationed along their common border. Cross-border infiltration of Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir is at the heart of the dispute.

Secretary Powell's trip is part of an international diplomatic offensive, aimed at further reducing tensions between India and Pakistan, which came close to full military confrontation in May. Last week, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited the two countries. Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a trip to the region.

Secretary Powell says he will try to push the two countries toward dialogue over Kashmir. He says there has been a decrease in the infiltration of Muslim militants into Indian Kashmir, as demanded by India and promised by Pakistan, but he acknowledged before leaving Washington that violence continues.

Pakistan has long urged the United States to use its influence to push India to engage in a dialogue to resolve the Kashmir dispute. India says Pakistan must do more to stop Islamic militants in Indian Kashmir.

Professor Khalid Mahmood, of Islamabad's Institute of Regional Studies, says the United States must carefully weigh all the interests in the region, including its own. "The Americans need Pakistan's support and cooperation in fighting the remnants of al-Qaida and Taleban. And they have acknowledged that Pakistan is giving them a very important support and assistance in doing that. I think the Americans will not go to that extent in supporting the Indian position. And, secondly, I think, the Americans are in a better position to influence the Indian policy-making. [But] that depends on what sort of pressure they are willing to put [on India]."

India is expected to urge the United States to put renewed pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to keep his promise to reign in Islamic militants New Delhi blames for continuing violence in Indian Kashmir. Pakistan denies any link with the militants, and says it has stepped up efforts to prevent any movement across the line of control dividing Kashmir. But Islamabad admits giving moral, diplomatic and political support to what it calls a freedom struggle in Kashmir.

Professor Mahmood notes that Islamabad's close cooperation in the U.S.-led war against terrorism has improved its relations with the United States in the short term. But he adds Pakistan fears Washington is tending to side with India on Kashmir.

"The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is only a tactical relationship, while the Americans attach a strategic importance to their relationship with India," he said. "From the Pakistani standpoint, what has been the stumbling block is that, instead of highlighting, or instead of focusing on, the need for a dialogue between India and Pakistan, I think, of late, there has been a focusing on the Indian demand of an end to cross-border terrorism."

Even if Secretary Powell is successful in edging the two countries toward dialogue, Amanullah Khan, leader of a political group seeking total independence for Kashmir, the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front, doubts talks would produce results.

"India and Pakistan have failed to solve this issue through bilateral talks for the last 50 years," he said. "And they would not be able to do it in future, too. That has got to be kept in mind. Fortunately, or unfortunately, both India and Pakistan have made Kashmir issue a matter of their national ego. And, if there is a solution, which hurts their ego, they are not going to accept it."

Mr. Powell arrives in Islamabad Sunday, after talks in New Delhi with Indian leaders Saturday.

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