Hopes dim that Sharif’s election will ease Pakistan-India tension

A diplomatic initiative by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to kick-start peace talks with regional foe India, stalled since a murderous November 2008 rampage across Mumbai by Pakistani militants, has failed because of opposition from his powerful military, officials in Islamabad indicate.

The failure comes amid mounting evidence that the Pakistani military has resumed covert support to the Lashkar-i-Taiba group believed to be responsible for the assault on Mumbai, which killed 166 people, and other groups with a history of terrorist attacks against India.

Following the victory of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party in May general elections, Sharif had reached out to Manmohan Singh, India’s premier, saying his “heart’s desire” was for Singh to attend his June investiture as prime minister.

Singh declined Sharif’s invitation because, as India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, subsequently explained, the Indian government would wait to see whether Sharif’s new civilian government would assume the ultimate decision-making role in Pakistani foreign policy from the military, which has staged four coups since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and remains the country’s most powerful political force.

Then any hope for a resumption of diplomatic negotiations were knocked back on July 9 when Pakistani and Indian troops opened fire on each other along the countries’ disputed border in the Himalayan state of Kashmir, ending a decade-long ceasefire.

Five Indian soldiers were killed in what New Delhi said was a joint operation by the Pakistani military and Pakistani militant groups opposed to India, including Lashkar-i-Taiba. Sharif denied there had been any infiltrations by Pakistani militants into Indian Kashmir but promised to take action to prevent any.

But when McClatchy visited the Rawalakot area of Pakistan-administered Kashmir in August, it found the Jaish-i-Mohammed and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen militant groups were openly whipping up paranoia of a supposedly impending Indian invasion. It was the first time those groups had been active since 2002, when they were constrained by the junta of Gen. Pervez Musharraf under U.S. pressure.

Veteran commanders of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen group based in Kashmir said they were in the process of re-recruiting fighters who had led peaceful civilian lives since the Musharraf regime disbanded them.

Commanders of the same group based in the southern city of Karachi, visited there in late September by McClatchy, said they had recalled militants who were fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and were redeploying them to Kashmir.

Islamabad-based political activists of a Pakistan-backed trans-Kashmir alliance of political parties, the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, also confirmed ex-militants were being contacted by the militant groups and browbeaten into rejoining.

The commanders and activists spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing violent reprisals for talking to a reporter without authorization.

By October, the Lashkar-i-Taiba’s front organization, Jama’at-ud-Dawah, was raising funds across Pakistan on the pretext of Eid al-Adha, the annual Muslim festival of sacrifice.

Exchanges of fire along the so-called “line of control” in disputed Kashmir spread to the northernmost point of the countries’ international border, near the eastern Pakistani city of Sialkot, and continued well into October, despite an agreement Sharif and Singh struck on Sept. 29 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York to end the fighting.

But by the time the two prime ministers met, their diplomatic positions had hardened to the point of inflexibility. Singh ruled out the resumption of bilateral dialogue until Pakistan prosecutes seven Jama’at-ud-Dawah activists arrested after the Mumbai attacks. Sharif responded by reintroducing, for the first time in a decade, the Kashmir dispute as the cornerstone of Pakistan’s policy toward India.

In New York, the prime ministers agreed on measures to prevent further escalation, notably a face-to-face meeting between the military operations’ chiefs of the Indian and Pakistani armies.

Instead, the fighting continued into early November, in part because the Pakistani army has stonewalled its government by not providing a date on which its director-general of military operations, Gen. Amir Riaz, would be available to meet his Indian counterpart, Gen. Vinod Bhatia.

Spokesmen for the Pakistani military declined to comment, passing on inquiries to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said it still hopes the meeting will go ahead but can’t say when.

The generals otherwise speak by telephone every Tuesday to exchange details of troop movements so that they are not construed as preparations for military aggression.

Diplomatic tension between India and Pakistan peaked in December, following the Dec. 3 release of a written statement by the government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir that quoted Sharif as telling officials there that “Kashmir is a flashpoint and can trigger a fourth war between the two nuclear powers at any time.”

His office later backtracked, saying the apparently threatening nature of his statement was the handiwork of overzealous Kashmir government officials, who have since been suspended.

Nonetheless, India’s Singh’s Dec. 5 response was bellicose, saying there was no possibility “of Pakistan winning any such war in my lifetime.”

Sharif’s foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz, joined the fray on Dec. 6, calling on India to withdraw troops from the Siachen glacier in Kashmir, the world’s highest battleground, saying their presence was causing the glacier to prematurely melt and threatened Pakistan’s water supplies, which are almost wholly dependent on precipitation stored in Himalayan glaciers.