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Old May 23rd, 2002, 03:15 PM
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Post India Weighs Military Response

As tensions rise along the India-Pakistan border, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has said there is no chance he will engage in talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Artillery exchanges have increased, and India has diverted at least five ships from its East fleet to the Arabian Sea -- a move similar to actions during the 1999 Kargil conflict. Meanwhile, Pakistan is pulling troops off the Afghan border and redeploying them to the border with India.

Tensions between the South Asian rivals have been high since a December 2001 attack on the Parliament building in New Delhi, which India said was carried out by Pakistani-backed militants. Washington's continued intervention through coercion, pressure and promises has kept tensions from boiling over into full-scale war.

New Delhi's patience, however, is reaching a limit, and the government is sending signals that it is serious about launching retaliatory attacks against Pakistan -- whether that means strikes against militant camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir or full war against its nuclear neighbor. This is triggering another crisis, this one in Washington -- which is precisely what India wants.

New Delhi has been dissatisfied with Washington's apparently lax attitude in dealing with Islamabad, citing Musharraf's inability -- or unwillingness -- to crack down on militants operating through Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Washington, however, has understood that Musharraf must maintain a balance between his assistance to the United States and his need to refocus the energy and attention of Islamic militants away from Kabul and Islamabad.

The current situation is very different from the 1999 Kargil conflict, which ended after then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recalled the militants from the border after a visit to Washington. In 1999, Pakistan's military, the Inter Service Intelligence agency and Kashmiri militants were all operating on a relatively similar wavelength; when Sharif called for a withdrawal, all three factions obeyed. Musharraf, however, has only limited control over the ISI and even less influence with the militants.

New Delhi is quite aware of the problems Musharraf faces, but it sees this time as the near-perfect opportunity to finally strike out at Kashmiri militants and teach its unruly neighbor a lesson. Washington needs Pakistan's cooperation to continue the hunt for al Qaeda and, more importantly, to keep al Qaeda from finding a sympathetic area in which to regroup and plan new operations. New Delhi can use the threat of a major conflict -- perhaps even of nuclear war -- to leave Washington no room to assuage Musharraf's sensitivities. India reasons that if Musharraf cannot handle the militants, than Washington must.

Yet the United States, despite its influence, cannot give Musharraf the strength to crack down without risking a serious backlash from within Pakistan. The result would be chaos in Islamabad, with competing factions of the military, ISI and Islamic militants trying to seize control of the country. Under normal circumstances, a chaotic Pakistan run by Islamic militants is worse for India than one run by a military secularist like Musharraf, no matter what his domestic political problems.

But these are hardly normal circumstances. Washington cannot allow Pakistan to degrade into another Afghanistan -- but if it is incapable of stemming the descent, it will have few options but to carry out military action against Pakistan. The U.S. government is desperate to avoid such a course of action, since it could undermine all of Washington's currently tenuous relations with Islamic nations. But for India, there will rarely be a better opportunity to ensure that the United States will take its side in a conflict against Pakistan.

All India needs is a good enough reason to justify an attack on Pakistan. Given Islamabad's limited ability to control Kashmiri militants, that may not be far off.
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