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Kashmir Leads to U.S. Plan for Airlift
Published on Thursday, May 30, 2002 by USAToday
Kashmir Leads to U.S. Plan for Airlift
by Jonathan Weisman

As border tensions heighten between nuclear powers Pakistan and India, a U.S. government team is in India to plan the possible evacuation of 1,100 U.S. troops and up to 63,000 U.S. citizens from both countries.

India's foreign minister urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday to honor pledges to halt terrorism in contested Kashmir and warned of "the urgency of the situation."

The Pentagon needs no such warning.

About 1,000 U.S. troops are on three military bases in Pakistan, and an undisclosed number of special operations forces are hunting al-Qaeda leaders in the country's western provinces. In addition, about 100 commandos are completing a military training exercise, code-named Balance Iroquois, with Indian forces in Agra, site of the Taj Mahal.

Officials from the State Department and the military's Pacific Command have begun drawing up evacuation plans for 50,000 to 60,000 U.S. civilians, virtually all of them in India, a Pentagon official with access to the plans said Wednesday.

An airlift of that magnitude would dwarf the evacuations of Americans from Vietnam, which Washington and U.S. forces abandoned in early 1975, said a military official familiar with U.S. airlift capabilities.

State Department officials lack specific numbers of Americans in Pakistan and India. The most recent tally comes from 1999, when the department reported that 4,231 citizens registered with the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan and 15,369 with the embassy in India.

Few tourists or business travelers bother to contact the embassies, and government employees are not included in the count.

On Friday, the State Department warned U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Pakistan and India and said Americans in the countries should consider leaving.

A senior Pentagon official close to war planners said the presence of U.S. troops in Pakistan and India might be deterring war. But Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh warned Tuesday that the presence of U.S. troops "is not an inhibiting factor" as his government considers going to war.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, including two over the Kashmir province that each claims. Both have nuclear weapons.

The latest flare-up has stalled the hunt for al-Qaeda members, Pentagon officials say. Asked what Pakistan was doing to find al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, the senior Pentagon official replied, "Not much. We're very concerned."

Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman, said India "is trying to take an unfair advantage by massing troops knowing Pakistan is fully involved in fighting terrorists."

He said "a lot" of troops were shifted to the Indian border.

Withdrawing U.S. forces from Pakistan would damage the continuing hunt for al-Qaeda, Pentagon officials say. There are 7,200 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but virtually all the al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

Contributing: Dave Moniz, Bill Nichols and Chris Woodyard

© Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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