Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can U.S. prevent an Indian military response to Mumbai attacks?

As evidence mounts that the Mumbai attacks may have originated on Pakistani soil, American officials' aggressive campaign to strike at militants in Pakistan may complicate their efforts to prevent an Indian military response, which could lead to all-out war between the nuclear-armed enemies.

Pakistan insisted Saturday that it had not been involved in the attacks and pledged to take action against militants based in Pakistan if they were found to be implicated.

"Our hands are clean," the Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said at a news conference. "We have nothing to be ashamed of. Any entity or group involved in the ghastly act, the Pakistan government will proceed against it."

The government called an emergency cabinet meeting Saturday, a day after Indian officials suggested that a militant group with Pakistani ties, Lashkar-e-Taiba, was responsible for the attacks.

But while the civilian leaders, including President Asif Ali Zardari, called for calm Saturday, Pakistani security officials warned that the Pakistani Army might still send troops to the Indian border in short order.

In December 2001, when Pakistani militants attacked the Indian Parliament, and again this summer, when militants aided by Pakistani spies bombed the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan, the Bush administration used aggressive diplomacy to dampen anger in New Delhi.

This time, however, the Indian government might not be so receptive to the American message - and that could derail the coming Obama administration's hopes of creating a broader, regional response to the threat posed by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already faced months of criticism from political rivals in India about his government's decision not to respond forcefully to past acts of terrorism, and domestic anger over the carnage in Mumbai has increased the pressure on his government to strike back.

Officials in New Delhi might also feel less compelled to follow calls for a controlled response from the Bush administration, which has steadily escalated a campaign of airstrikes on Pakistani soil using remotely piloted aircraft. The Pentagon has even sent Special Operations forces into Pakistan to attack what it believed were militant targets, partly in an attempt to stop the militants from crossing the border into Afghanistan, where they are helping fuel an increasingly robust Taliban insurgency.

The White House has adopted a clear position as it seeks to justify those attacks: if a country cannot deal with a terrorism problem on its own, the United States reserves the right to act unilaterally.

Should it become clear that the men who rampaged through Mumbai trained in Pakistan, even if the Pakistani government had no hand in the operation, what will stop the Indians from adopting the same position?

"In some ways, it doesn't even matter whether this attack was hatched in some office in Islamabad," said Paul Kapur, a South Asia expert at Stanford University. "The provocation in this case is orders of magnitude more than anything that's happened before."

Even if the Bush administration can keep the situation from escalating, President-elect Barack Obama will find his administration trying to broker cooperation between two aroused and suspicious regional powers.

An important element of Obama's plan to reduce militancy in Pakistan and turn around the war in Afghanistan has been to push for a reconciliation between India and Pakistan, so that the Pakistani government could focus its energy on the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan that are controlled by Islamic extremists.

Obama's advisers have spent the past few days watching the unfolding crisis for hints about how the situation might look after Jan. 20. While they said they understood that the tensions unleashed by the Mumbai attacks might hobble the new president's aspirations, they held out hope that the attacks might, instead, open the door to increased cooperation between Pakistan and India to weed out militants intent on more attacks.

Some in the Bush administration, as well as outside experts, agree that an Indian military response is not a foregone conclusion. Singh's government has long believed that the instability caused by a conflict with Pakistan would act as a brake on the rapid economic growth India has enjoyed. Singh has also seen Pakistan's new civilian government as a hopeful departure from the militarism of President Pervez Musharraf's government.

Washington could use Singh's past hopes for better relations to try to shape a modulated Indian response.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said one possibility was that the Indian government could decide to strike Kashmiri militant training facilities in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, rather than facilities in the heart of the disputed territory of Kashmir, where Pakistan's government has a greater presence.

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Can US prevent an Indian military response to Mumbai attacks?
International Herald Tribune, France