In the wake of last week's attacks in Mumbai that killed 195 people, India and Pakistan are carefully formulating their responses as tensions rise between the arch-rivals.
Paradoxically, Pakistan's response in the event of any possible Indian military build-up on its eastern borders in the wake of the attacks could wind up giving Islamist militants in Pakistan's tribal areas greater freedom to operate.
If New Delhi responds by massing troops along its Kashmiri border with Pakistan -- the same step it took after the terror attacks on its parliament in December 2001 -- Islamabad is likely to redeploy tens of thousands of troops battling militants in the western tribal areas to its eastern front with India.
Signs increasingly point to Lashkar-e Taiba, an Islamist militant group in Pakistani Kashmir, as having orchestrated the Mumbai attacks. As a result, tensions are soaring between India and Pakistan, which banned Lashkar-e Taiba following the 2001 attacks on India’s parliament.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has warned that outlawed militant groups could precipitate a regional war.
But Kanchan Laxman, a research fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, says that in his opinion, Zardari is seeking to deflect the focus from Pakistan's alleged role in the attacks through Lashkar-e Taiba, which has fought Indian security forces in disputed Kashmir over the past two decades.
"Lashkar-e Taiba has had close links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda," Laxman says. "So that much is anyway a given. But...President Zardari's beliefs that they are out to create a regional war [are] deviating from the basic point -- that investigations are focused on Pakistan."
Return To Old Rivalries
Since their independence from the British Indian Empire in 1947, the two countries have fought three wars over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. The issue still continues to sour their bilateral relations.
India views Kashmir as an integral part of its country. Pakistan views the Muslim-majority region as the unfinished part of the partition agenda, and supports armed Kashmiri separatists. Initially secular nationalists, the separatists gradually were overtaken by Pakistan-based Islamists who replicated the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in Indian-administered Kashmir.
According to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, one of Islamabad's primary motives in joining the U.S.-led global war on terror in 2001 was to prevent a U.S.-India military nexus.
Following the December 13, 2001, attacks on the Indian parliament, tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries flared as India deployed 1 million troops along its western borders with Pakistan, which also sent more than 120,000 troops to its eastern borders. Analysts maintain that the move indirectly helped the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to recuperate in tribal regions along the western Afghan border, even though Pakistan claims 100,000 forces remain in the tribal areas.
In response to Indian demands, Pakistan banned extremist groups, including Lashkar-e Taiba. Though successful Western diplomacy and confidence-building measures between the two neighbors gradually reduced tensions, the standoff highlighted how armed factions apparently operating outside state control could trigger a potential nuclear conflict in South Asia.
Pakistan is urging Indians to view the Mumbai attack in the same light.
Former Brigadier General Mahmood Shah, now a Peshawar-based security analyst, was a central figure in Pakistan's first military operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the tribal areas in 2003 and 2004. Shah says that Pakistan views the Mumbai attacks as an indiscriminate act of terrorism. But growing anti-Pakistan sentiment in Indian media has forced Pakistan to reconsider its initial offers of cooperation in investigating the Mumbai attacks.
Shah maintains that as in 2002, an Indian military build-up on its eastern border is likely to force Pakistan to redeploy thousands of troops there.
"If India thinks this issue through seriously, they will figure out that if the Pakistani government is undermined then the extremist forces will gain in Pakistan," Shah says. "This will also be counterproductive for India. And if an Indian military build-up diverts its attention to its eastern borders and undermines its campaign against extremists, it will again be harmful to India because [of terrorism and militancy] gradually spreading within Pakistan -- the same will happen in India."
Any such scenario could seriously undermine the war on terrorism and Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, says Nasrullah Stankazai, a Kabul-based analyst.
"If India and Pakistan go to war, or in one way or another, the regional cooperation against terrorism is undermined, then I think it will be a good opportunity for terrorism to grow in the region," Stankazai says. "The terrorists can exploit the weakness of the regional states and use this opportunity to establish new sanctuaries in the region." This would be particularly troubling, he adds, because "we have a weak government in Afghanistan and Iran already supports all anti-American movements in this region."
With Pakistan and India supporting rival Afghan factions, Afghanistan has been the site where the India-Pakistan rivalry has played out over the past three decades. This rivalry intensified after the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001. India is now a major donor to Afghanistan, and funds various reconstruction projects.
Some in Pakistan, however, view India as taking advantage of the tactical losses suffered by Pakistan after its Taliban proxies lost power in Kabul. Many Western analysts now argue that without regional cooperation, particularly between India and Pakistan, it will be strategically difficult to defeat extremist groups in the region.
So far, Laxman says, war is still not on the mind of Indian policymakers.
"I think the peace process would come under severe strain," Laxman says. "And I see some sort of a downgrading of diplomatic relations with Pakistan, and that will be a gradual thing.... We are in an election year at the moment [and] there is immense domestic pressure in India to act tough against Pakistan."
That means continued tough rhetoric from New Delhi, and little likelihood of cooperation between the rivals in the war on terror.