Clinton Visit to Subcontinent Highlights Deteriorating India-Pakistan Relations

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Clinton Visit to Subcontinent Highlights Deteriorating India-Pakistan Relations

A leading Washington foreign affairs columnist suggested on Feb. 13 that President Clinton should not go to Pakistan during his coming visit to South Asia. That seems to this writer to be singularly bad advice.

Pakistan, with a population of 140 million, is a major member of the Islamic bloc of countries, and the only one possessing nuclear weapons. In addition, it has been a faithful ally of the United States for over half a century.

Presidential visits are used to build and strengthen bridges, not to destroy them. If any U.S. president visits the subcontinent and does not go to Pakistan, it will send a wrong message, and is likely to increase insecurities in an area where relations between India and Pakistan are always notoriously volatile and peace is especially fragile at this time. Therefore a visit to both countries might help set in motion a meaningful dialogue between the two nuclear-capable rivals that could remove at least some of the points of friction between them. Perhaps this is the time for the United States again to consider playing an active role in reducing the tensions in an area that has correctly been described by U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright as "a tinderbox" and "a most dangerous place."

In a similar assessment, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, in a report to the U.S. Congress, observed: "While the U.S. cannot impose solutions on regional disputes, its unique military and political position demands that it play an active role in promoting regional stability and advancing the cause of peace."

For his part, speaking about South Asia, President Clinton stated in February that he was "profoundly concerned...about that troubled part of the world [which] has enormous implications for people in the United States and throughout the world -- more, I suspect, than most people know." Clinton expressed his hope to ease the situation in the subcontinent before he leaves office, and his desire to help remove "the awful specter of nuclear war" which he described as a "more clear and present danger than we have seen in many years." Therefore, not going to Pakistan for at least a brief visit will certainly not serve the cause of peace in any way.

KASHMIR -- A TINDERBOX

India has ambitions to play a major role in world diplomacy, befitting its status as the second most populous country, after China, in the world. It requests a permanent seat, like China, on the U.N. Security Council, and asks to be recognized as a nuclear power, like China. But instead of being equated with its rival, China, in world opinion, India invariably ends up confronting little Pakistan. India nevertheless rejects outright any suggestion that a third party might be helpful in resolving its 53-year-old dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan and the people of Kashmir themselves. By contrast, Pakistan welcomes the idea.

India insists on bilateral talks with Pakistan, a route that has led to a dead end several times. Pakistan, on the other hand, has invited the United States to mediate on the Kashmir dispute.

Now the Clinton administration has departed from the lofty detachment of previous U.S. administrations to acknowledge publicly that the Kashmir dispute is a flash point that can trigger a major conflagration between two nuclear countries. India and Pakistan already have fought three inconclusive conventional wars, two of them over Kashmir. Last summer they had come close to another major military conflict in the Kargil sector of Kashmir when President Clinton personally intervened and defused it.

The imposition of a military government has created some understandable discomfiture for the United States in dealing with Pakistan. However, this will not be the first time that Washington has done business with military regimes. An objective analysis of the circumstances under which the army seized the reins of government in Pakistan should enable the United States to appreciate the reasoning behind Gen. …