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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 15:57 GMT
Analysis: Blair's delicate task
Soldiers on border
Tension is rising between India and Pakistan
Nyta Mann

Tony Blair arrived in Bangladesh treading carefully on the first leg of his shuttle diplomacy across South Asia.

The chief priority in his talks with the Bangladeshi President is securing the use of the country's forces as part of the stability force in Afghanistan.

I am not going to start telling each country how to run their own affairs. That is not my objective

Tony Blair
But the sudden escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir have to a large degree overtaken a tour whose initial planning began last October.

Plenty of British ministers before Mr Blair have learnt to their cost that what to them may seem the most anodyne remark on Kashmir can easily earn them the ire of one side or the other in the conflict that has seen both nuclear powers move to the brink of military hostilities over these last few weeks.

As he arrived in Dhaka Mr Blair insisted, when asked if he believed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had done enough to meet India's concerns following the terrorist attack on its parliament last week, that "I am not going to start telling each country how to run their own affairs. That is not my objective."

He added: "Of course what we want is for Pakistan to take action against terrorism and on the Indian side, to de-escalate tension as much as possible."

Complicated dispute

A safe enough statement unlikely to inflame either side.

The more Downing Street has studied the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the more it has come to see the situation as at the root of the hostility and animosity that has destabilised the entire region for more than 50 years.

But the US-led war against terrorism, and where that war goes following the fall of the Taleban in Afghanistan, has further complicated an already highly charged dispute.

It has also put both Mr Blair and President George Bush in a very difficult position at the same time.

However belligerent they may or may not feel some of the noises coming from India have been, neither man can argue, given the arguments they have deployed themselves since 11 September, that India has no right to act against terrorism across its borders.

Political risks

At the same time General Musharraf, despite heading a regime that saw the Taleban as friendly and the Northern Alliance as hostile, played a crucial role in the US-led coalition against terrorism.

That came in the face of intense popular hostility from the Pakistani people and some in his own military regime towards the war in Afghanistan.

Given the undoubted political risks that Musharraf took, the US and UK find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to responding to accusations against Pakistan of a similar nature, if not scale, to those the UK levelled against the now fallen Taleban regime in Kabul.

Though not a central player in the Kashmir dispute itself, the participation of Bangladesh in a future peace-keeping force is an important part of Mr Blair's medium and long-term aim of reducing the involvement of British troops there as other countries step in with their own.

The explosion of the Kashmir issue threatens to now undermine that aim.

The last whistle-stop tour Mr Blair went on before this one was to the Middle East with the aim of shoring up the coalition to prosecute the war against terrorism.

This latest tour sees him attempting to deal with some of the diplomatic consequences of that war.

Pakistani High Commissioner Abdel Kader Jaffer
"We can find a solution if we talk"
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