Assessing U.S. intervention in India-Pakistan: enough for now?

December 7, 2008

In the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, India’s response has been to look to the United States to lean on Pakistan, which it blames for spawning Islamist militancy across the region, rather than launching any military retaliation of its own. So after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s trip to India and Pakistan last week, have the Americans done enough for now?

According to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Rice told Pakistan there was “irrefutable evidence” that elements within the country were involved in the Mumbai attacks. And it quotes unnamed sources as saying that behind-the-scenes she “pushed the Pakistani leaders to take care of the perpetrators, otherwise the U.S. will act”.

India’s Business Standard said the Indian government was pleased with the U.S. warning. “This is exactly what India wanted,” the newspaper said.

The Times of India, however, fretted the U.S. action against Pakistan appeared to be “turning tepid”, in public at least. It attributed the U.S. approach to the perceived need to avoid backing the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari into a corner. (India has specifically not accused the Pakistan government of involvement in the Mumbai attacks, pointing instead to militant groups supported by Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.) It also said the United States was wary of destabilising a partner on which it depends crucially as a transit route for supplies to Afghanistan, while also being hobbled by the change of administration in Washington.

So which way is the pendulum swinging — towards firm U.S. action that will allow Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to say he was right to put his faith in American diplomacy, or a lukewarm response that will either force India to act alone or leave its Congress-led government looking on in helpless frustration as it heads into a general election due by next May?

U.S. pressure has succeeded in pulling India and Pakistan back from the brink in the past.  When fighting erupted between the two newly declared nuclear-armed powers in the Kargil war in 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton persuaded then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pull Pakistani troops back. (Sharif paid a high price. Later in the year he was overthrown by then General Pervez Musharraf, a lesson unlikely to be lost on the current civilian government which is seen as wary of making too many concessions to India for fear of alienating the powerful Pakistan Army.)

Then after an attack on India’s parliament in December 2001 triggered the mobilisation of close to a million men along the two countries’ borders, the United States dived into another round of frantic diplomacy to persuade Pakistan to crack down on Kashmiri militant groups and the Indians to stand down.  Much of that diplomacy went on behind-the-scenes, though for an interesting Pakistani view of how close the two countries came to war in 2002, here is a link to an article written in January that year by the current Pakistan High Commissioner to Britain.

So what are the prospects in the current crisis?

Unlike in previous years, the Americans have become much more forthright about the extent to which they are willing to support Indian assertions that the roots of Islamist militancy lie in Pakistan.  When the Indians blamed the ISI for bombing its embassy in Kabul in July — a charge Pakistan denied — the Americans delivered by leaking reports of ISI involvement to U.S. newspapers, as I discussed in an earlier post.

After the Mumbai attacks, the New York Times has brushed off Pakistani denials of involvement with an op-ed boldly headlined The Pakistan Connection.

Bruce Riedel at the Brookings Institution has argued that “the most dangerous terrorist menace (to India) comes from groups with intimate connections to the global jihadist network centered around Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and its allies in the Pakistani jihadist culture.”  Exploring links between the ISI and militant groups he says it nurtured to fight India in Kashmir, he says that Zardari’s ability to get control of the ISI “is still very much in doubt.”

At the other side of the world, The Australian has challenged what it calls “The dangerous illusion of independent terrorists” — the misconceived notion, it says, that perpetrators of attacks are non-state actors operating beyond the control of governments. ”The radical increase in the lethality, range, political consequence and strategic influence of terrorists comes not from their being non-state actors at all. Instead it comes from their being sponsored by states,” it says.  Then in language that could have come straight from the Indian government, it says: “Pakistan has for many years been a significant state sponsor of terrorism.”

All that sounds like the kind of response the Indian prime minister was looking for when he said that “We expect the world community to recognise that the territory of the neighbouring country has been used for perpetrating this crime.”

But how will it play inside Pakistan, where a weak civilian government is delicately balanced against a powerful army that has run the country for much of its life, and which in turn is battling militants on its border with Afghanistan? And what too will it mean for the ordinary people of Pakistan, caught in the middle?

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