U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's weekend trip overseas wraps up with stops in India and Pakistan, where tensions over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir could damage the U.S.-led antiterror campaign in Afghanistan.
"This is not a surface visit by any stretch of the imagination," said Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American financier who proposed a framework for a Kashmir cease-fire in 2000.
Both India and Pakistan claim the predominantly Muslim territory. In recent days, there have been harsh exchanges of rhetoric from Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and reports of increased troop movements on both sides.
"Secretary Rumsfeld has to persuade both India and Pakistan that the war on terrorism does not have room for a war between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control," said Ijaz, who has consulted with the U.S. government on counterterrorism and nonproliferation issues.
"Given the fact that this is wintertime now along the heights of the Himalayas, this is the right time for them to de-escalate rather than bring things to a point where something stupid could really happen," he said.
A major flare-up between the two nuclear-armed neighbors would be a grave setback for U.S. efforts to maintain its coalition against the Taliban militia and Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
India has battled Islamic militants in the majority-Muslim territory for a decade and blames Pakistan for supporting them. Pakistan says it offers only moral support for the separatists. Aziz Ahmed Khan, a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, called the militants' cause "a just struggle."
Indian officials have said they will not strike at the guerrillas across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. But at least 20 Islamic militants were killed in a gun battle Friday with Indian security forces along the border, senior Indian police officials said.
They said the fighting broke out Friday afternoon as a group of militants sought to slip out of Indian-controlled territory to the Pakistani side of the dividing line.
"More than 40,000 people, innocent people, have been killed by those terrorists. We are going to deal with them very strongly," Najma Heptulla, deputy chairwoman of the upper house of India's parliament, told CNN on Saturday.
Ijaz said the militants battling India have secured funding from Gulf Arab states and are now largely beyond Pakistan's control.
"We have to shut the money pipeline off so they can't buy these guns and ammunition and bombs," he said.
'Key distraction' for U.S. campaign
The prospect of a low-level conflict in Kashmir becoming a full-scale war is one of the "nightmare scenarios" for U.S. policymakers, said John Pike, director of the defense policy research firm Globalsecurity.org. "That's obviously one of the powder kegs bin Laden was hoping to ignite," Pike said.
The issue "certainly represents a key distraction to Pakistan when we need Pakistan's help," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a CNN military analyst. "It represents another point of friction when we're trying to direct all attention toward our own concerns."
A conflict between India and Pakistan would not by itself prevent the United States from using Pakistan as an ally in its anti-terror campaign. In fact, Clark said, "Pakistan might be more eager than ever" to assist the U.S. effort: "They're outnumbered and outgunned. They need allies."
India has about 1.3 million troops in its armed forces and much greater numbers of armor and aircraft than Pakistan. Pakistan has about 600,000 troops, but its air force is considered better trained and equipped than India's, which relies largely on aging Soviet-era jets.
In addition, both countries conducted nuclear tests in 1998. Western intelligence estimates suggest Pakistan has about 15 nuclear weapons in its arsenal; India, between 25 and 40.
If the conflict in Kashmir were to turn into a regional war between India and Pakistan, the needs of the Afghan campaign could put the United States in the position of aiding a military dictatorship against the world's largest democracy -- "one of the many contradictions" of the U.S. anti-terror campaign, Clark said.
That reliance on Pakistan for bases and airspace in fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda has irritated Indian officials, who see little difference between the Taliban supporting al Qaeda and Pakistan backing the Kashmiri militants.
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is mostly disassembled and tightly under Musharraf's control, Ijaz said. He said Rumsfeld needs to get a clear understanding of what Pakistan's nuclear safeguards are "and how to go about offering additional safeguards -- things like vaults and sensors and alarms and tags, things that would track a nuclear device if it got into the wrong hands."
India does not face the same concerns about the security of its nuclear arsenal. However, Rumsfeld "needs to bring India into the war on terrorism in a way that does not affect the Pakistani frontline role but embeds India in the equation," Ijaz said.
Overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan objected to India and Israel being part of the anti-terror coalition, but Ijaz said India can aid the effort by providing intelligence that can help protect Musharraf's government from being undermined by Islamic radicals.
"They have a lot of intelligence about what is going on in Kashmir and what these radical groups are all about and where certain of the key leaders are," he said. "They represent a real danger to the stability of Pakistan, and Pakistan's stability at this moment in time is vital to the ground campaign that is coming in Afghanistan."
Published in CNN