India and Pakistan: remember Kaluchak?

December 18, 2008

History never repeats itself exactly, but it does leave signposts. So with India and Pakistan settling into a familiar pattern of accusation and counter-claim following the Mumbai attacks, it’s worth remembering what happened after the December 2001 assault on India’s parliament brought the two countries to the brink of war. Or more to the point — thinking about the less remembered follow-up attack on an Indian army camp in Kaluchak in Jammu and Kashmir in May 2002 that nearly propelled India over the edge.

Following the attack on parliament that India blamed on the Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, both Pakistan-based militant groups, India mobilised its troops all along the border, prompting a similar mobilisation on the Pakistani side. Then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf went on national television in January to promise to crack down on Islamist groups; the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were curbed, and tensions abated somewhat.

These tensions exploded again in May when gunmen launched a “fedayeen” attack on a camp for army families in Kaluchak, killing 34 people.  (For an Indian version of the Kaluchak attack written at the time, this piece by B. Raman is worth reading.) The Kaluchak attack so outraged India, and particularly the Indian Army, that it came perilously close to war with Pakistan.  The crisis was averted after intensive American diplomacy. 

So where does that leave us now in the current uneasy no-war, no-peace environment? Or in other words, is there a risk of another attack, another Kaluchak? 

If, as some analysts believe, the objective of the Mumbai attacks was to trigger a new military stand-off between India and Pakistan to draw Pakistani troops away from the border with Afghanistan and reduce pressure on al Qaeda and the Taliban, then they failed.  Does that mean more gunmen will be assigned to launch a new attack and complete the task? Or will the governments of India and Pakistan, remembering what happened last time around, find a way to insulate themselves from such a risk?

Three weeks after the Mumbai attacks, the signs are not looking promising. Pakistan’s new civilian government, which in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, was ready to send the head of its powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to India to cooperate in the investigation, has been retreating steadily from that position ever since. President Asif Ali Zardari told the BBC this week that there was still no evidence to support Indian claims that the attacks originated in training camps in Pakistan. 

Pakistan has cracked down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and outlawed the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity linked to the LeT. But India remains sceptical about how effective this will be. (Pakistan journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad has an interesting take on the history of the LeT in the Asia Times, in which he says the group might be banned but not bowed.) In the meantime, Pakistan has backed away from earlier reports that the head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Maulana Masood Azhar, had been detained, with  Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi now saying that Pakistan does not know where he is.

Pakistan in turn has accused Indian jets of violating its airspace and summoned a senior Indian diplomat in Islamabad to protest. India has denied the accusations of airspace violations, which depending on which side of the border you sit on, could either be seen as a deliberate attempt by India to put pressure on Pakistan, or an attempt by Pakistan to paint itself as the victim of Indian aggression.

So what happens now? India has said it does not want to go to war over the Mumbai attacks, but nor does it want to pursue a peace process that would make the Congress-led government look weak ahead of a national election due by May next year. That potentially leaves the region sitting on a tinderbox for months. And very vulnerable to any fresh attempt to stir trouble between India and Pakistan.

(Reuters photo: Pakistan Rangers close the gate on a crossing point at the Line of Control in Kashmir after it was opened briefly for trade/Amit Gupta)


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