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Thursday, June 17, 1999 Published at 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK

World: South Asia

Analysis: Shift in US Kashmir stance?

The escalation of the conflict has alarmed western countries

By Zafar Abbas in Islamabad

President Clinton's move to ask Islamabad to withdraw hundreds of armed militants from Indian-administered Kashmir is being viewed by many in Pakistan as indicative of a clear shift in US policy.

The US administration in the past had been critical of both the militants and security forces in Kashmir, but had avoided directly accusing Pakistan.

What began as a campaign by Pakistan to try and internationalise the Kashmir dispute is turning out to be counter-productive.

Failed diplomatic campaign

Since the present conflict started in the Kargil-Drass sector on India's side of the Line of Control, Pakistan has tried to maintain a distance.

[ image: The US pressed for a diplomatic solution]
The US pressed for a diplomatic solution
At the same time, it endeavoured to highlight the dangers of escalation, in the absence of a permanent settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

However, from the outset, western diplomats in Islamabad were not prepared to believe that the militants, who were controlling and holding territory in the Kargil-Dras area, were operating independently.

With a marked escalation in the conflict, the diplomats started to urge Pakistan to show restraint.

For many of them it had little to do with the overall Kashmir dispute and was a misadventure which the two countries, both with nuclear weapons capability, could ill-afford.

Washington's directive

[ image: Bill Clinton's comments have raised concern in Pakistan]
Bill Clinton's comments have raised concern in Pakistan
Now President Clinton has gone a step further, by directly asking Prime Minister Sharif to withdraw the militants in order to de-escalate the situation.

Although the United States did not directly accuse Pakistan, a White House spokesman said Washington believed that Islamabad has the means to withdraw the militants.

Analysts in Washington and Islamabad say this was the US administration's way of saying - we know what you have been doing; now you should back-off.

Pakistan's covert support for the militant groups fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir has never been a well guarded secret.

Although Pakistan's official stance is that it only provides political and moral support to the Kashmiri muslims in their fight for self-determination, several of the militant groups have their offices on the Pakistani-side of the disputed region.

It is widely believed that most of the groups have training facilities either in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in Afghanistan.

Blacklist threat

[ image: Hardliners in Pakistan back the militants]
Hardliners in Pakistan back the militants
Since the start of the militant movement in Indian-administered Kashmir more than a decade ago, Pakistan has been treading a difficult path.

It supports militancy without doing anything for which it can be accused, by the west, of sponsoring terrorism.

When, in the early 1990s, the United States came close to declaring Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism, Islamabad decided to close down most of the militant camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

But even that threat did not stop Pakistan from supporting what it believes is a just struggle.

Analysts in Pakistan now believe the latest move by the United States may once again put Islamabad in a difficult position.

Even when it wants to maintain a close relationship with Washington, Pakistan cannot detach itself from what is going on in Kashmir.

Besides, it may result in a strong backlash from the hardline Islamic groups in the country, many of whom have already started to act independently, by sending their own trained cadres to fight the 'holy war' in Kashmir.

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