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South Asia: Tensions Increasing Between India And Pakistan

  • Jeremy Bransten

Tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated sharply in the wake of the 13 December attack on the Indian parliament, which claimed 13 lives. New Delhi has pinned responsibility on militant groups it says are sponsored by Islamabad. Pakistan's military government denies the charge and is cautioning India against taking any military action, warning of "very serious repercussions." Will the war of words escalate into something more serious?

Prague, 19 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- No politicians were killed in the 13 December assault on the Indian parliament in New Delhi, which claimed the lives of 13 people, including the five armed attackers.

But the incident sent shockwaves through the Indian political establishment. Tension increased significantly yesterday after Home Minister L.K. Advani -- in a speech before parliament -- pointed the finger of blame squarely at Islamabad.

Advani alleged the five attackers were trying to kill India's top political leadership. He said investigators have determined that the attack was executed jointly by two Pakistan-based groups -- Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. He said both groups -- which are fighting Indian rule in the Himalayan region of Kashmir -- derive support from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.

Advani called the attack "the most audacious and alarming act" of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in nearly two decades and hinted that military retaliation might be in the cards: "The fight against terrorism has reached a decisive phase. The supreme sacrifice made by our security personnel, who lost their lives in this incident, will not be allowed to go in vain. Those behind the attack on Parliament House should know that the Indian people are united and determined to stamp out terrorism from the country."

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee termed the assault a "challenge to the nation's sovereignty" and said all options for retaliation are being left open, further upping the ante. Today, however, Vajpayee appeared to try to lower the level of rhetoric, saying everything should be done to avoid a war.

How should the statements emanating from New Delhi be interpreted?

Gautam Sen, a specialist on Indian and Pakistani politics at the London School of Economics, told RFE/RL the mixed signals are attempts at satisfying both domestic and international audiences: "There are two reasons for this apparent ambiguity. On the one hand, there is enormous domestic outrage and pressure for some kind of action, which might imply military action. On the other hand, quite clearly, the United States has put the Indian government under a great deal of pressure not to engage in anything precipitous, certainly not for the moment."

Washington needs regional stability and the support of both India and Pakistan as it pursues its campaign in Afghanistan. The last thing it would like to see is a new conflict developing between the two neighbors.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer spelled this out yesterday: "[President George W. Bush] has made it clear -- and Secretary [Colin] Powell has spoken with [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf -- that it's important for Pakistan to curb the extremists. And what's important, from the president's point of view, for both India and Pakistan, is to fight terrorism, and to fight the terrorists who are trying to destabilize the region. They have a common cause against terrorist enemies. This is not a reason for India and Pakistan to take action against each other. This is a time for India and Pakistan to take action against the terrorists."

Experts say that is unlikely to happen, particularly because India and Pakistan have opposing definitions of what constitutes terrorism -- especially when it comes to Kashmir, which remains split between them. Islamabad says separatists fighting Indian rule in the territory are freedom fighters, while New Delhi views them as criminals.

For now, the main question that needs to be answered is: Did the Pakistani authorities have a hand in this recent attack, as India claims?

India says it has intercepted radio communications and has identified markings on the weapons used by the attackers that prove their allegations.

Musharraf denied any involvement on the part of his government and offered his condolences. He said Islamabad is ready to conduct a joint investigation into the incident, but the offer was rejected by New Delhi.

Analyst Sen says that, despite Islamabad's strong denials, there is reason to believe Pakistan could have been involved: "This particular act was sufficiently well-orchestrated to suggest that even if he was not directly giving the go-ahead, it had the general approval of the government of Pakistan. It's very difficult for them to really cross the border and get this far, right to Delhi, without some degree of serious and substantive help."

Sen adds that domestic considerations in Pakistan could have been behind the timing of the attack: "Quite clearly from the Pakistani point of view, with the knowledge that India is extremely unlikely to strike back, because of all these reasons -- to be held responsible is, in fact, a plus in the domestic context, given that Musharraf is under so much pressure. The fact that he has not given up on Kashmir gives a little bit of leeway vis-a-vis the radicals, who are accusing him of wholesale betrayal. So I don't think they particularly mind that their involvement is known because this is precisely what is required domestically. The only problem for them is: How far can they go before the Americans become very upset?"

Sen believes that continuing American pressure will likely succeed in preventing an open conflict -- for now.

But he is pessimistic about the prospects for a long-term settlement. He says it is only a matter of time before Kashmir once again provokes both sides to take up arms: "There will come a moment -- if not immediately, in the not too distant future, and I mean months rather than more -- that there will be an engagement across the line of control and that they will indeed attack camps on the other side of the border. But this is going to be difficult because some of the camps on the Pakistan side of Kashmir have been emptied, and they've gone at least 200 kilometers into the interior. So, it would mean that you would also have an air war, and there would be a ground war. So it would mean quite a generalized encounter in Pakistan, and they are going to think very carefully about what this implies."

While India and Pakistan have fought three wars since their split at independence in 1947, the two rivals are for the first time declared nuclear powers -- making the prospect of a new war all the more alarming.