War clouds over South Asia

December 24, 2008

There is a strange dichotomy in Delhi at the moment. If you read the headlines or watch the news on television, India and Pakistan appear headed for confrontation – what form, what shape is obviously hard to tell but the rhetoric is getting more and more menacing each day.

Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani promised a matching response ‘within minutes” were the Indians to carry out precision strikes against camps of militants inside Pakistan, whom it blames for the Mumbai attacks.

And as if they were doing a dress rehearsal, Pakistan Air Force jets have been flying over Islamabad and Lahore for the past two days, prompting one blogger  to report that some people had called up media outlets asking if the Indian Air Force was on its way.

Indian army chief General Deepak Kapoor meanwhile went up to the freezing heights of Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield, to test operational preparedness.

And yet off the front pages, and on the street and in living rooms, it doesn’t seem like a nation preparing for war. Instead Delhi is in the full swing of the marriage season when the astrological stars are right and thousands upon thousands of young couples trailed by a veritable army of friends, families and neighbours get betrothed.

There are also the Christmas/New Year festivities where the conversation is not about the possibility of war but the economic meltdown that has spoiled everyone’s party, including India’s. To be sure, there is rage each time Mumbai is mentioned, and there are many who say “they will have to pay for this”. But war? No, that isn’t at the top of people’s minds yet.

So what’s really going on? Is the threat of a fourth India-Pakistan war real, not counting 1999 when India and Pakistan fought over the heights above Kargil on the Line of Control? Are the two countries inexorably moving toward conflict without their people realising it?

Or is this the Cold Start  doctrine  that strategists speak of, in which you don’t really mobilise troops and armour for weeks on a vast scale and then go to war like in ancient times, but instead go quickly into action from forward bases both in the air and on the ground for a short and sharp thrust ?  

Your guess is as good as mine, but in another two days it will be a month since the Mumbai attackers struck.  As far as India is concerned, that is time enough for Pakistan to have acted against the men and groups that it says are involved in attacks on India. Is there a clock ticking somewhere?

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