A state of high alert: Emboldened by U.S. actions in Afghanistan, India considers military moves against Pakistan
Vancouver Sun
Wednesday, December 19, 2001
Page: A15
Section: Editorial
Byline: Jonathan Manthorpe
Column: Jonathan Manthorpe
Source: Vancouver Sun

An unintended consequence of the war on terrorism is that violent retribution has been legitimized for countries that might otherwise err toward restraint.

Nowhere is this more evident and dangerous than in the increasing hostility between the two nuclear-armed rivals, India and Pakistan. Both countries have put their formidable military machines on states of high alert in the last two days after a botched attack by five terrorists on the Indian parliament last week in which 13 people were killed.

New Delhi firmly believes the attempt to decimate its parliament and government was planned by two Pakistani-based Islamic groups fighting to separate the disputed territory of Kashmir from India. Moreover, India asserts the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba are backed and supported by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency.

Demands for retribution are running high in New Delhi, especially in the more militant factions of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

With the examples of the United States' action just over the horizon in Afghanistan and Israel's stern reprisals for Palestinian bombings in front of them, Vajpayee's BJP sees little reason to show restraint in what it sees as its own war on terrorism.

The political situation in India, the world's most populous democracy, is not helped by two factors.

Vajpayee is a cautious and sure-footed man, but he is very ill. And the BJP is worried about its showing in elections in key states next year.

India's home affairs minister, Lal Krishna Advani, has established a tone of shrill rhetoric which does not bode well.

He told parliament last week's attackers, who were all killed in a battle with police and soldiers, "and their supporters across the border [in Pakistan] tried to wipe out the entire political leadership of India."

Later, Advani flagged at least one Indian response when he told Star News television: "If one country attacks its neighbour or sends its people to indulge in sabotage and killings, hot pursuit is regarded as a legitimate response".

Pakistan denies any involvement in Thursday's attack and has offered to take part in a joint investigation with Indian authorities, a suggestion New Delhi has rejected.

Anwar Mahmood, Pakistan's information secretary, said on Monday his country would act on any "cedilla proof" that Jaish-e-Mohammed or Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved. "But the blame game must end. Pakistan expects India to look into the matter in a dispassionate manner."

Dispassion, however, is not the mood of the hour.

Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, is now in the nerve-wracking situation of having to defend both his western border with Afghanistan and his eastern border with India. Reports from Indian military intelligence sources say in recent days Pakistan has moved four divisions of more than 80,000 troops with armoured support to its border with India.At the same time, Musharraf's government is deploying thousands of troops along its highly porous frontier with Afghanistan to try to prevent or catch leaders of the defeated Taliban regime.

Many Talibs, including leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and perhaps even the author of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S., Osama bin Laden, are known to be trying to find refuge among their many supporters in the semi-autonomous Pakistan border states of Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Province.

A separate threat on two borders is always a highly volatile situation for any country. Musharraf's position could become even more difficult if Washington insists on pursuing fleeing Talibs into Pakistan where the U.S. is highly unpopular among the population.

Much depends on what India does.

India has about a third of its 1.2- million strong army permanently based in its segment of the divided territory of Kashmir. For a dozen years, Pakistani-based militants have fought Indian rule in a war which has killed tens of thousands of people.

A minimal military response from India to the attack on parliament would probably be action against camps in Pakistani Kashmir used to train separatist guerrillas whom the Islamabad government classifies as "freedom fighters."

To be successful, however, India would have to use the same kind of massive air and ground assault the U.S. has used in Afghanistan.

There is much concern among diplomats, observers and military analysts that such an action would easily escalate into an all-out war between India and Pakistan.

Senior military officers quoted in Indian newspapers in recent days admit that part of their planning involves anticipation of Pakistani retaliation along other stretches of the common border.

"Pakistan will retaliate and India will have to be prepared to deal with this escalation," one unidentified senior Indian officer was quoted as saying on Monday.

As both countries have nuclear weapons the potential of escalation is dark indeed.

Washington is clearly sensitive to the situation, though it is not so evident how much pressure for restraint it is putting on Islamabad and New Delhi.

In October, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell persuaded New Delhi not to react after a suicide bomber killed 40 people at the legislature in Indian Kashmir. Powell has called for calm again while adding the situation "has the potential of becoming very dangerous".

It will be much more difficult for Indian politicians to take his counsel this time.



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