Washington / Chicago: As evidence mounts that last week’s attacks in Mumbai may have originated on Pakistani soil, US officials’ aggressive campaign to strike at militants in Pakistan may complicate efforts to prevent an Indian military response, which could lead to a conflict between the bitter enemies.
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 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.
Tough choices: Rapid Action Force personnel outside the Taj hotel. Any hint of a military mobilization by India will give Pakistan the excuse it wants to shift forces away from its western border areas to the east. Jayanta Shaw / Reuters
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 suspected 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 to justify those attacks: if a country cannot deal with a terrorism problem on its own, the US 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 the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and 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 20 January. While they said they understand 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 former 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.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author whose work has been studied by the Obama team, said that any hint of a military mobilization by the Indians will give the Pakistani military the excuse it wants to shift forces away from its western border areas and back to its eastern border.
If that happens, he said, it could cause a repeat of 2002, when a stand-off between the nations forced the US to turn at least some of its attention away from fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda to work to avoid war between Pakistan and India.
That time, the impetus was an assault on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 that India said was the work of Kashmiri militants.
So far, Obama has tried to walk a careful line during the latest crisis, expressing support and concern without appearing to get in the way of President George W. Bush. Even as Obama was preparing to host several dozen guests for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, a foreign policy adviser, Mark Lippert, and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official arrived at his house in Chicago to brief him on the latest from Mumbai, according to an aide. Obama ushered them into a side room as the rest of the house buzzed with dinner preparations.
Obama also called secretary of state Condoleezza Rice three times over the last few days seeking information. But he waited until after Bush called Singh to place his own call to the Indian Prime Minister late on Friday night. (The call was patched through the state department operations centre.)
Advisers to the President-elect said that while they were not aware of everything the Bush administration has done during the crisis, they knew of nothing that Obama would have necessarily done differently.
Given the disastrous implications of any armed conflict between India and Pakistan, it is not hard to envision the Obama administration following a similar playbook to the one the Bush administration followed during the two countries’ occasional flare-ups.
As some experts see it, though, there is a danger in the US’ continuing to intervene directly when tensions between India and Pakistan escalate.
“If both sides think they can afford to go closer to the edge because the US is always going to keep them from going over,” said Kapur, “then they are more likely to edge up to the precipice.”
© 2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES