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SOUTH ASIA: Concern for Zardari's Civilian Gov't Stays India

Analysis by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Dec 6 2008 (IPS) - After United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to New Delhi and Islamabad, in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, India has added a new rationale for stepping up pressure on Pakistan for taking decisive action against jehadi extremists operating from its soil.

However, India has still not determined what approach to adopt to achieve its objective, and is wary of using means which might escalate hostility with Pakistan in ways which would "play into the hands" of those responsible for acts of terrorism against its citizens.

In a special background briefing for the media, a senior Indian official only identifiable under briefing rules as "authoritative source" said India has proof of the involvement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the Mumbai attacks, which left nearly 200 people dead.

But India will not make this accusation publicly for fear that that would escalate tensions and weaken the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari, which it regards as favourably disposed towards the peace process with India.

This is the first time since last week's attacks that India has named the ISI for its role in them. By implication, the unnamed official also suggested that the Pakistan army was aware of the ISI's links with the attackers, because "it would be surprising" if the agency were able to operate independently and without the military leadership's knowledge.

The official did not share specific details of the evidence that Indian investigators claim to have found of the ISI's role in the attacks, but said they had "the names of the handlers and trainers [of the attackers], the locations where the training was held, and some of their communication[s]".

The messages he referred to were sent using Voice-over-Internet-Protocol to "addresses that have been used by known ISI people before’’.

The attackers are believed to belong to an extremist group called Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the military wing of a fundamentalist organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, headed by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. LeT is formally banned, but continues to be active under a different guise.

U.S. intelligence agencies too claim to have intercepts of the attackers' conversations on satellite and mobile telephones during the 60 hour-long operation launched by Indian security and police agencies to overpower them. But it is not known if they have compared this information with the details gathered by Indian agencies.

A U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation team is currently in India, as are British and Israeli agencies. They are sharing intelligence and coordinating their investigations with Indian agencies.

As New Delhi formulates its strategy amidst domestic public and political pressure to show that it "means business", it makes a sharp distinction between Pakistan's elected civilian government and the army.

Indian officials believe the Pakistan army would want a military crisis on its eastern border, so that it could have a reason for redeploying the 100,000 thousand troops that are currently on the western border with Afghanistan, where they are engaged in a highly unpopular war supporting U.S.-led troops of the International Security Assistance Force.

But India does not want to "play their game" and wants the Pakistan army "to continue being engaged in the fight against terrorism" along the Afghan border, "because that's also our war’’.

This is the closest that India has come to in endorsing and associating itself with the ISAF operation in Afghanistan and along its extremely volatile areas bordering Pakistan.

"In some ways, this is a subtle departure from India's earlier position, which did not vocally declare the U.S.-led anti-al-Qaeda Taleban operation as 'our war'," says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University.

"This shift seems to be related both to Indian leaders' discussions with Rice, and their desire to keep open the option of persuading U.S.-led forces to undertake military operations against the strongholds of jehadi militants operating against India from within Pakistan,’’ Vanaik said.

In her talks here during what may be one of her last forays into South Asia before she demits office, Condoleezza Rice promised all "cooperation, support and solidarity" to India in its fight against terrorists originating in Pakistan, but said it was primarily Pakistan's responsibility to act against them.

Reacting to President Zardari's statement that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack were "non-state actors", Rice also said: "Non-state actors sometimes act in the confines of the state and there has to be strong action against them… it's a matter of responsibility."

However, Rice made it clear that U.S. support for India is premised upon the assumption that India will not escalate tensions with Pakistan and offer it an excuse to divert its troops from the Afghanistan border. Their deployment at that border, and their cooperation with ISAF, are top priorities for the U.S. in a war that it is not winning.

Rice emphasised this in response to Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee's statement and their joint press conference. Mukherjee said New Delhi is determined to take whatever action is necessary "to protect India's territorial integrity". She responded: "Any response [by India] has to be judged in terms of prevention and not by creating unintended consequences or difficulties."

In Islamabad, Rice extracted from Zardari a promise of "strong action" against any Pakistani elements found involved in the Mumbai attacks. She underlined the "urgency" of such action and emphasised the American nationals were killed in Mumbai.

The unnamed Indian official's briefing made clear that India's response to the Mumbai attacks would not replicate the strategy it adopted in December 2001 after India's Parliament House was attacked, allegedly by Pakistani terrorists.

India broke off or downgraded diplomatic and transportation links with Pakistan, and mobilised 700,000 troops at the border in an attempt to compel Pakistan to surrender "20 wanted fugitives" living on its soil, including the chief of the terrorist group Jaish-i-Mohammed, Massod Azhar, who had been exchanged for hostages in a 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane.

Pakistan responded by mobilising 300,000 troops. The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation continued for 10 long months, during which India and Pakistan at least twice came close to actual combat with a real potential for escalation to the nuclear level.

At his briefing, the anonymous Indian official said today's situation in Pakistan, with a divided or fragmented power structure, is not comparable to 2001: "Then, we were dealing with one Pakistan. There was Musharraf (the former president and army chief), and that was it. Today, the situation is different."

Some Indian officials are worried at the possible consequences of coercive diplomacy and any strategy of ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan to act against groups like LeT.

A senior diplomat who insisted on anonymity said: "We are acutely aware that the Pakistan situation is extremely fragile, and the state could disintegrate or unravel. The army could stage a coup citing a national crisis."

Vanaik argues that "excessive pressure from India, and especially any move towards deploying the military option, would impel the pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the border areas near Afghanistan to offer to join hands with the Pakistan army to unitedly fight India, which they now regard as a major ally of the U.S. and part of what they describe as the Christian-Zionist-Hindu global axis".

Former Pakistan foreign minister Gauhar Ayub Khan confirmed this assessment during a television debate on an Indian channel. He said: "These elements are strongly anti-India and joined wars against India in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971. They will do it again if India exercises the military option."

Some of these groups have already offered a ceasefire if Pakistan allows them to fight India on the eastern border.

As they try to fashion a coherent strategy to deal with the fallout of the Mumbai attacks, Indian officials are balancing different factors, including pressure from the domestic rightwing for tough action, their concern to keep the Western powers, especially the U.S., on board, and their anxiety not to further weaken the Zardari government.

As the unnamed "authoritative source" says: "The perpetrators have to be fixed", but we face a "dilemma".

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