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Indian minister ties ISI to Kashmir

By Arnaud de Borchgrave

NEW DELHI, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Transcript of the hourlong interview with Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes by UPI Editor-at-Large Arnaud de Borchgrave:

De Borchgrave -- By transferring 4,000 officers from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency back to their units of origin, President Pervez Musharraf has apparently cut the controversial cloak-and-dagger branch of government by 40 percent, and broken its ties to extremist terrorist organizations. Has Musharraf finally convinced you that he is (1) in charge and (2) serious about recasting Pakistan as a progressive, modern, democratic society?
Fernandes -- Firstly, it was a U.S. media report and secondly it has been denied by an official Pakistani spokesman.

Q -- Surely the denial is a matter of survival for Musharraf.
A -- In any event, it is not my understanding of what happened. ISI is part of Pakistan's military establishment. In all the undercover activities and the training and equipping of terrorist organizations, ISI is the prime mover. On Feb. 12, General Musharraf made a statement that jihad remains a fact in Kashmir, and that it is not going away. We still have daily intercepts, which still talk of terrorist actions in Kashmir. And these terrorist operations can only be mobilized and guided by ISI. Let us assume that he is serious about a 40 percent reduction in ISI cadres, he knows that ISI will not be tolerated by the United States in Afghanistan, so he has simply closed down one theater of jihad operations, which was forced upon him by U.S. bombing. The other jihad theater continues. So if the report is correct, Musharraf is simply rightsizing ISI.

Q -- How many ISI personnel were in Afghanistan supporting Taliban when the U.S. bombing started Oct. 7?
A -- About 4,000 to 5,000 officers, regular army people specially trained for these tasks.

Q -- Were these the ISI operatives who were reported to have been evacuated in small planes back to Pakistan as Northern Alliance forces were on the verge of liberating Kabul?
A -- Yes, many were taken out in a small plane airlift. But we don't know how many got out that way as opposed to overland.

Q -- We now know ISI was deeply involved in bringing the Taliban regime to power in 1996 and in sustaining it for the next five years, but what about ISI's links to Osama Bin Laden and his al Qaida terrorist organization?
A -- Al Qaida is essentially Arab, Chechen and Pakistani. Much of the firepower came from Pakistan. No Arab government supported al Qaida. ISI ruled the roost.

Q -- Unlike Afghanistan where the United States bombed terrorist training camps, India refrained from bombing similar camps with similar terrorist cadres in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and in Pakistan. Was this restraint a result of U.S. pressure?
A -- Following the attack on our parliament Dec. 13, we were forced into a situation where we had to move our troops to the forward lines on our border with Pakistan and found ourselves eyeball to eyeball with Pakistani forces. We couldn't take any chances because in earlier wars Pakistan attacked us by surprise. The surprise attack at Kargil in Kashmir in 1999 was the brainchild of then army chief of staff Musharraf. It wasn't so much an act of war as an act of treachery as it was in an area that was lightly guarded by both sides.

Q -- I still don't understand why Pakistan's terrorist training camps were not targeted by India.
A -- Having made sure that Pakistan could not spring a surprise attack, we then focused on diplomatic efforts to get Pakistan to cease and desist its support for terrorism. And these efforts began to bear fruit as Musharraf began moving in the right direction by banning some of the more extreme organizations responsible for the attack on our parliament.

Pakistan dictator Gen Musharraf

Q -- Now that Musharraf has made a number of admissions and concessions, including the arrest of 2,000 extremist agitators, and is, as you say, moving in the right direction, isn't the time at hand to de-escalate and pull back from the confrontation deployment of 1 million troops?
A -- The distance Musharraf has moved may satisfy the United States, but he must now translate his principles into practice.

Q -- Isn't that what he's doing?
A -- We are not very certain about it.

Q -- What more would he have to do?
A -- Completely renounce any links Pakistan has with terrorism.

Q -- Doesn't the arrest of 2,000 extremists convey that renunciation?
A -- They go in one police station door and out the other. These are sham arrests. And those arrested are just numbers, vagrants, homeless, held for a few days and then released. The most important politico-religious extremist leaders who preach holy war against India and what they now call the U.S. occupiers of Islam, are free. And while Musharraf and his ministers talk about reforming the madrassas (religious schools) that produce future jihadis, nothing much has happened.

Q -- But aren't you making allowances for the fact that these reforms will take a long time to achieve results?
A -- Yes, we are, because we know that recycling brainwashed youth is a formidable task, and that it will meet determined resistance from the mullahs. That is General Musharraf's challenge and we are watching and monitoring.

Q -- Are you concerned about the solidity of Musharraf's hold on power?
A -- He's still skating on rather thin ice.

Q -- What are the benchmarks for de-escalating by thinning down the numbers of your troops on your 1,300-mile common border?
A -- We would like to do it as soon as possible, but there are two issues to be resolved. First, the trans-border terrorism that still continues. Second, we have given Pakistani authorities 20 names of people who have committed heinous acts of terrorism in our country, 14 of them Indian citizens, and six Pakistanis. We have demanded that Pakistan send these terrorists back to India to stand trial. If they have problems with their own six citizens, we can discuss that separately. But the 14 Indians, who continue to mastermind by remote control, from a safe distance, sitting on Pakistani soil, terrorism in India, is an irreducible Indian demand.

Q -- So your troops will remain at action stations on the border until these two issues have been resolved?
A -- Unlike Pakistan, our troops' normal stations are deep inside India and to deploy them takes a lot of time and a lot of money. So we will keep them along the border until we have convinced General Musharraf that blowing hot and cold, airing principles without concrete implementation, is unacceptable.

Q -- In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won't make allowances for Yasser Arafat's inability to control all acts of terrorism by Palestinian groups. Aren't you saying the same thing to Musharraf -- no withdrawal until all acts of terrorism stop?
A -- No, we are not saying that. We don't expect all acts of terrorism to suddenly stop. But a sharp decrease in the level of these activities after the snows melt in the usual infiltration routes toward May and June, will be the criterion for judging Musharraf's intentions.

Q -- On Kashmir, what is the objection to consulting all the people under the principle of self-determination to find out whether they want an agreed international border where the Line of Control is now, or independence? Isn't that a logical way out of an explosive impasse between two rival nuclear powers?
A -- We will have elections in October.

Q -- In India-controlled Kashmir, that is. I was thinking more in terms of the plebiscite Nehru agreed to -- and then regretted -- half a century ago. What is the objection to consulting all Kashmiris under international supervision?
A -- International consultations for this problem can become counter-productive. When Pakistan said Kashmir is the core issue between our two countries, the message being conveyed is that Kashmir has a large Muslim population. And after the ethnic cleansing done through Pakistani-sponsored terrorism, a large numbers of Hindus have been killed, and other large numbers of surviving Hindus had to migrate to other parts of India. India has a larger Muslim population than Pakistan. In fact, we are the second largest in the world after Indonesia. So the idea that a particular pocket of our country that has a Muslim majority gives Pakistan the right of sovereignty over it, does not fit into any concept of nationhood. Moreover, India is a secular state where Hindus, the largest community, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and other groups, all belong to the same secular polity, which, for us, is the core issue.

Q -- Then why not make the LOC a recognized international border?
A -- This idea has been bandied about here and there. Well-intentioned people, both from within and without India, talk about it, but no serious discussion at any responsible level has taken place.

Q -- The cynics say in both Pakistan and India that Kashmir is the principal raison d'Ítre of both armies.
A -- India's international borders are with China, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and sea frontiers with many others. So India's armed forces have a much broader raison d'Ítre and to compare ours with Pakistan's would be doing an injustice to India.

Q -- When you deployed your army after Dec. 13, were you convinced about the degree of control Musharraf has over Pakistan's nuclear weapons -- or are you satisfied that their safeguards are as fail-safe as your own?
A -- Pakistan's scientists and leaders who have the keys to their nuclear arsenal cannot but be responsible people who know the implications of using a nuclear weapon. I trust in their sense of responsibility and don't see anything, which makes me feel they could act irresponsibly.

Q -- Is the control system for nuclear weapons in India similar to the American system?
A -- Yes, absolutely. The prime minister has the ultimate say, as does the American president.

Q -- And if the prime minister is incapacitated?
A -- We have provided for that.

Q -- Would that then be a Cabinet decision?
A -- No, it would be in the hands of the next in line of authority.

Q -- Who is?
A -- The defense minister.

Q -- You.
A -- Yes, me.

Q -- Are you now convinced that Ahmed Omar Sheikh, the suspect in the kidnapping and subsequent execution of Daniel Pearl, was also behind the Dec. 13 attack on your Parliament, the Kashmir Assembly bombing last October, and the American Center attack in Calcutta earlier this month?
A -- It is still under investigation, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Q -- Is there a nexus between criminal gangs, Islamist terrorists and ISI?
A -- It has always been there. It was this nexus that was behind the church bombings in two southern states -- Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The government police of Karnataka, a state ruled by the opposition Congress party, investigated and concluded it was the work of an Islamist outfit based in Pakistan and that ISI had a hand in it.

Q -- Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Asia's senior statesman, told UPI last May that the biggest threats to global stability were Islamist extremism, and beyond that, over the next generation, a challenge to the global status quo by India and China. Do you see India emerging as a superpower by then?
A -- India has been seeking a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, not to flex our muscles, but to speak for peace and development and 1 billion plus people, or one-sixth of humanity. India's history is not of going to war outside our borders, but is replete with innumerable invasions from across the Himalayas and across the oceans. Our only ambition is to improve the standard of living and quality of life of our people. Our economy will be global in scope in the next two decades, and if the present rate of growth keeps up, we will over take China five decades hence.

Q -- Fifty years from now is a long way off.
A -- Not if you consider the last 50 years. I am now 72 and look where we were when I was 22.

Q -- But you are spending billions of dollars on defense over the next 10 years.
A -- Because our defense hardware is, for the most part, antiquated, and we must now modernize at a very fast pace.

Q -- America's European allies have been stunned by the ever widening gap in military technology with the United States as first evidenced in the Gulf War and then in Kosovo and now in Afghanistan. So much so that Italy and the United Kingdom are now rethinking the need for a separate European defense identity, concluding that it might be wiser to hang on to America's coat tails. Don't you get the feeling that keeping up with the military Joneses is a no-win race that drains your resources?
A -- I concede that America is several generations ahead of us but frequently it's more a matter of perception. We now have a joint venture with Russia to develop a supersonic sea-to-land cruise missile.

Q -- But India was harnessed to Russia for military equipment throughout the Cold War. So no real change there.
A -- After the Cold War, we were associated with the United States for a light combat aircraft. Then the United States withdrew following our nuclear tests. But we went ahead anyway and the flight tests are now a year old. We now have a supersonic light combat aircraft that outmatches anything in our region, including the latest Russian fighter-bombers in the Chinese air force.

Q -- But a new strategic partnership between India and the United States is taking shape again.
A -- Yes, but strategic partnership means sharing. Otherwise, the seeds of suspicion begin sprouting.

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