IHT - America ought to side with India in combating terrorism

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Paris, Wednesday, December 29, 1999

CALCUTTA - Whatever the outcome of the hijacking of the Indian Airlines jet and the fate of its 161 passengers and crew, India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to come under increasing pressure to beef up military capability and adopt tough measures on a range of issues connected with security and foreign policy.

The Christmas Eve hijacking of the Airbus A300 on a routine flight from Katmandu to New Delhi shows, in the words of an official Indian spokesman, that the government ''cannot be seen as soft towards terrorists.'' Nor can Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee afford to preside over a soft state in which saboteurs, agents provocateurs and terrorists are free to work their mischief.

Many Indians fear that this has become possible largely because the genial Mr. Vajpayee still subscribes to the liberal secular values and notions of a benign and enlightened state bequeathed by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Their growing feeling is that only a strong government acting in concert with like-minded countries can save India now that the center of Islamic fundamentalist activity has shifted from the Middle East to the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.

The renegade Saudi Arabian tycoon Osama bin Laden, whom the United States accuses of masterminding terrorist attacks against American targets in various parts of the world, is based in this region.

Reflecting this intense public concern, India might well seek an explanation from the United States. Washington is accused of turning a blind eye to Pakistani support for terrorist groups in spite of its opposition to global terrorism.

Many Indians would also like Nepal to be forced to close its borders to India's enemies. Several recent bomb outrages in India were masterminded in the Himalayan kingdom.

Other Indians suggest technical and operational cooperation with Israel, which has shown that it can stand up to fundamentalist militancy.

In South Asian diplomacy, the millennium's first casualty will be whatever survives of the confidence-building process that Mr. Vajpayee and Pakistan's ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, started.

That process was dealt a severe blow when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Mr. Sharif in October. Pakistan and India have been locked in a struggle to control Kashmir for the last 50 years, and the general is said by Indian officials to have close links with militant Kashmiri separatists, such as the five men who hijacked the Indian Airlines plane.

The Indian government has been caught napping twice in less than six months. In the case of the recent conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, it took several months before India's military intelligence discovered the incursion of soldiers in Kargil, on the Indian side of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir. According to New Delhi, the infiltrators had been armed, trained and financed in Pakistan.

They were evicted, but only after an intense, expensive and long military campaign, and President Bill Clinton's personal intervention.

This time, Indians want to know why their commandos could not overpower the hijackers in Amritsar, the Indian city where the hijacked Airbus stopped briefly before going to Kandahar in Afghanistan, via Lahore and Abu Dhabi.

Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh says that his government's ''topmost priority is the earliest release of the passengers and the crew,'' but anguished relatives of the hostages who stormed his New Delhi press conference on Sunday do not believe that the government acted quickly enough, or with the right measures.

India has to walk a delicate path between capitulation to the hijackers and appearing callous about the hostages. Even if it had Israel's capability to mount an Entebbe-style commando rescue, a bristly Pakistan would refuse overflight permission. The Taleban government in Afghanistan, which India does not recognize, would also oppose any such Indian operation.

The politics that underlie the hijack crisis are as disturbing for India as the ordeal of the hostages. The United Arab Emirates refused to allow the Indian ambassador access to the hijackers when the aircraft landed there on its way to Kandahar. This confirmed that the Islamic community stands united when it comes to largely Hindu India.

Pakistan's dismissal of the crisis as ''stage-managed'' has strengthened Indian suspicions of where the plot may have originated. But it is the position of the Afghan Taleban that is most intriguing. It insisted on United Nations intervention and demanded that India negotiate with the hijackers, while itself refusing to intercede with them. This suggests that the aim was to drag the Kashmir dispute back onto the world's agenda.

Such a move, coupled with the denial of asylum to the hijackers, might be expected to win favor in Washington. It could also imply collusion with Pakistan and explain Mr. Singh's uncharacteristically blunt statement that the hijacking was one in a series of ''repeated attempts by the Pakistan government and terrorist organizations there'' to secure the release of 31-year-old Maulana Masood Azhar.

He is the Pakistani leader of the Harkat-ul-Mujahidin organization, one of the most ruthless of the Kashmir separatist groups, who has been in an Indian jail since 1994.

Mr. Masood's group called itself Harkat-ul-Ansar until the United States declared it a ''foreign terrorist organization'' after the New York World Trade Center bombing. Rivalry between it and the better known Lashkar-e-Toiba, which is also based in Pakistan, could be an added complication, with the former now hoping to recapture supremacy in the terrorist hierarchy of Kashmir.

The larger challenge, bigger even than the Kashmir dispute between nuclear-armed neighbors, is to global stability. Terrorism will have won a signal victory if America remains inactive in this crisis, either because Pakistan might be involved or because the terrorists invoke a cause that seems just.

If America is serious about combating Osama bin Laden, it should cooperate to combat his ideas and followers wherever they sprout. The case for Mr. Clinton's famous ''facilitation'' is as strong now as ever it was during the Kargil crisis.

This time it might save innocent lives, warn the Pakistanis and the Taleban of the danger of international brigandage, and persuade India that its security is also a U.S. concern.

The writer, a former editor of The Statesman in India, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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