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Howard's End: Sub-Continental Time Bomb Ticking

Thank God our cricketer's are home safe after the Karachi suicide bombing of their hotel, but Scoop's Maree Howard raises questions about whether they should have gone in the first place, and whether they were placed in danger by inadequate intelligence evaluation before the tour.

The Karachi suicide bombing on Wednesday, which claimed 14 lives and ended the Black Cap's cricket tour, is being linked by Pakistan's investigators to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network.

Hundreds of people are reported to have been arrested in a nationwide crackdown since the bombing but there is no significant clues about who masterminded or executed it.

But that's not the whole story.

A senior U.S. State Department official has described the dangerous and on-going conflict between India and Pakistan as "the other crisis" which most in the West have ignored and concentrated on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with its grisly daily death toll.

But if the India-Pakistan crisis gets out of hand, which could happen as early as next week, the death toll could run, not into hundreds, but to tens of millions.

How?

This month the Indian Intelligence service known as RAW - the Research and Analysis Wing - will complete its report on whether Pakistan has complied with an Indian ultimatum that it halt terrorist infiltration into Kashmir and hand over alleged terrorists.

The Indians will doubtless report the truth, which is that President Musharraf of Pakistan, for all his good intentions, has so far failed to meet the two demands the Indian Government made last December, after pro-Pakistani terrorists bombed the Indian Parliament.

The on-going crisis boiled over at that time - December 2001. The whole world knew about that and the potential for further retaliatory bombings in both countries, so why were our cricketer's launched into such a known volatile fire-zone?

That question must be answered by the Foreign Affairs Department and NZ cricketing authorities because vital intelligence information was readily available to anyone who cared to look for it, and to evaluate it.

Indian still maintains 500,000 troops poised along the 2,900 kilometre border with Pakistan in what is the highest state of mobilisation in 30 years.

With a three-to-one superiority in conventional forces, the Indians could well burst across the border and, in a matter of days or even hours, effectively cut Pakistan in half.

Many hawkish Indians will demand military action when RAW and other security agencies issue their reports, likely next week.

What would Pakistan, a nation with nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles to deliver them, do in response to an Indian military move?

Pakistan is vague about its nuclear doctrine but I fear Pakistan's missiles are targeted against Indian cities and, facing an Indian conventional onslaught, would launch a retaliatory attack on, say, New Delhi, which would leave millions dead. India would probably retaliate with nukes dropped from aircraft - killing millions more.

This is not some wild scenario.

The U.S. State Department is alarmed enough that it is hurriedly sending a senior official to India and Pakistan this week and Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is expected to call top officials in the two countries to caution against miscalculation. Europe is also very worried.

Why? Because Musharraf doesn't have the political clout to comply with India's demands and he doesn't have full control of the Pakistani intelligence service - the Inter-Services Intelligence agency - even after dismissing its chief, General Mahmoud Ahmad, last October.

The Indians believe that agency is deeply involved in the long-running terrorist campaign to free Kashmir from Indian control and that it also holds the names of the 20 alleged terrorists India gave to Pakistan for extradition who are reputedly close to the agency.

Musharraf cannot meet the other Indian demand either - an end to Pakistani infiltration of Kashmir. He ordered a halt on 12 January but the flow of potential terrorists into Kashmir has continued. In fact, intelligence reports say that the number has increased in recent weeks as the Himalayan snows have begun to melt and transit routes have re-opened.

In that scenario it's inevitable that pro-Pakistani terrorists will strike again inside India and vice-versa - triggering demands for retaliation by the already fully mobilised Indian forces or the Pakistani inter-services intelligence agency.

Another worrying factor is the political weakness of India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has restrained militants in the past, but is in poor health.

The dominant Indian political figure now is Home Minister, L. Advani, a hard-liner who has shown no real interest in making a deal with Musharraf for outside intervention which could defuse the Kashmir time-bomb.

Indian has maintained its costly mobilisation since January and it has scheduled its rotation of troops and equipment to keep its forces at peak operational effectiveness starting next month.

Since last year, the Indian sub-continent is a place where nuclear war is a serious possibility. European and U.S. officials remain worried about what could happen there in the next few weeks. They warn that all the ingredients are in place for a disasterous chain of miscalculation in the order of August 1914 when over-armed European nations blundered into World War I.

So how come we sent our NZ Black Cap's into that dangerous situation and when were the intelligence reports evaluated, and by whom, before the tour? The cricketer's, their families and the public have a right to know because we don't want to repeat it.

We live in a safe and non-threatening environment but before we send a national team overseas to volatile areas or we deal with people in the international community, such as the International Rugby Board - we must do our homework.

Our cricketer's were lucky and they can truly say that tomorrow is the first day of the rest of their lives - and thank God that they can! But let's not have a repeat of it.

ENDS

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