New Delhi: Though tensions have risen in the past few days, neither India’s governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, led by the Congress Party, nor its habitually hawkish political opposition is advocating a military confrontation with Pakistan, the country’s neighbour and arch-rival.
Pakistan’s redeployment of troops late last week to its border with India, from its tribal areas in the north-west, raised fears of a conflict. The troop movement came a month after the attacks in Mumbai, which India says were orchestrated by Pakistan-based militants.
Such a fear in South Asia is unlikely to pass quickly, as Pakistan has resisted a broad crackdown on the militants India says were behind the Mumbai assault.
On the alert: A 25 December picture of the Border Security Force soldiers patrolling the India-Pakistan International Border Post near Bikaner. Pakistan has redeployed troops to its border with India. Vinay Joshi / Reuters
But for India, many here say, the cost is too high, not just because both sides have nuclear arms. As an Indian official put it, “Almost anything against Pakistan would be messy.”
The Mumbai attacks prompted bellicose outbursts from the Indian media and led officials to state that their “restraint” should not be mistaken for “weakness”. Yet even a surgical strike on terrorists’ training camps in Pakistan, one of the options floated in the immediate aftermath of the attack, would bring unwanted risks, according to policymakers and analysts. They say it could damage India’s economic prospects at a time when the country is vulnerable to the global downturn.
Moreover, military engagements with Pakistan in the past strengthened the political influence of Pakistan’s army and weakened its civilian government. Many in India say they are reluctant to do anything to undermine civilian rule there.
“The Pakistan military is itching for a fight,” said Lalit Mansingh, former Indian ambassador to the US. “That will give them the excuse not to carry on the fight on Afghanistan.”
This time, he said, the Indian government is left with no choice but to mount a diplomatic offensive against Pakistan, in part by appealing to some of its most stalwart allies, such as Saudi Arabia, China and the US. “People realize war would be more costly in its impact,” Mansingh said.
In that sense, stakes for the US President-elect, Barack Obama, are potentially as high as they are for India. A new spike in tension would give the Pakistani army the rationale it needs to refocus its energy on the eastern flank. The US has strongly urged Pakistan to concentrate instead on fighting Islamic militants along its western border with Afghanistan.
The calculus is complicated by India’s need to project itself as a world power that cannot be seen as doing nothing in the face of the terrorist attack that killed at least 183 people, including nearly two dozen foreigners, in Mumbai a month ago.
The Indian government insists that the gunmen, including the sole survivor (Mohammed Ajmal Kasab), were Pakistani nationals. It has sent Pakistan a letter that India says Kasab wrote requesting assistance from his home country. The government in Islamabad says it cannot confirm that the man is a Pakistani.
Nor has Islamabad agreed to India’s chief demand to date— to turn over suspects implicated in this and prior attacks.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari said on Saturday his government would rein in extremist groups, but “not on your demarche”, a clear reference to India. Pakistani officials have also gone on record as saying they do not want war.
The troops Pakistan moved towards India, believed to number several thousand, represent only a small fraction of its military presence in the north-west. But a Taliban suicide bombing at a polling place in Pakistan on Sunday served as a reminder of the risks of taking too many troops away from battling the insurgents inside the country.
One of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, Dawn, editorialized on Sunday that the army “just cannot afford to redeploy any large number of its troops” and thus leave “the ‘wild’ west in a free fall”.
India points out that their most recent effort to mobilize troops on the border with Pakistan did not end terror attacks. That occurred after a suicide attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. It ended in early 2004 with a peace deal, which has been effectively suspended since the Mumbai strike.
“You can’t fire the same bullet twice,” said Arun Shourie, a member of Parliament from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which was in power at the time. In a speech in Parliament last week, Shourie said neither a punitive airstrike nor a conventional troop mobilization was viable now.
The only safeguard against a future attack, he offered, would be to “do a Kashmir on Pakistan”—to provide aid to insurgents against the Pakistani state inside its restive provinces, including Baluchistan in the west.
The Indian official who warned that almost any action would be messy, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss strategic matters with the media, said the 2001 standoff had accomplished little and resulted in “hundreds” of casualties among Indian troops.
“It didn’t achieve anything last time,” he said. “It didn’t scare off the Pakistanis.”
But whether the US can or will lean hard enough on the Pakistani army is hotly debated. Kanwal Sibal, India’s former foreign secretary, said he doubted that the Obama administration would impose conditions on future aid to Pakistan, which Islamabad needs to supplement its strained budget and finance military operations.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, a BJP leader writing in The Indian Express on Sunday, said it was pointless to expect the US to “fight our battle”.
Yet the real crisis, argued Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is Pakistan’s inability to control what happens inside its territory. For India, a military strike seems unlikely to change that situation, he said. “It’s hard to find a military way of responding,” Cohen said.
Richard A. Oppel Jr from Islamabad, contributed to this story.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES