India: should it take a gamble on Pakistan?

May 29, 2009

Some people in India are calling upon the new coalition government to make a series of bold moves towards Pakistan that will compel the neighbour to put its money where  the mouth is.

If Pakistan keeps saying that it cannot fully and single-mindedly go after militants on its northwest frontier and indeed increasingly within the heartland because of the threat it faces from India, then New Delhi must call its bluff, argued authors Nitin Pai and Sushant K. Singh in a recent piece for India’s Mint newspaper.

How about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, back for a second term, giving a categorical public declaration that Pakistan need not fear an Indian military attack so long as the Pakistan army is engaged in fighting with Taliban militants?  While a verbal commitment may not convince the military brass in Rawalpindi, it will likely play well in Washington as it rathchets up pressure on the Pakistan army to take the battle to the militants.

Second and to back up its assurance, India could move some of the army strike formations from the international border with Pakistan in Punjab and Rajasthan. “Such a bold, strategic move will not only make India’s verbal assurances credible, but it will also immediately result in irresistible pressure on the Pakistani army to commit more of its troops to the western border,” the authors wrote in the Mint piece.

Clearly, the aim of such a peace gamble is to expose the contradiction within the Pakistani position, force them to either go full throttle after militant groups, some of whom are suspected to be tied to its intelligence agencies, or  face America’s wrath.

Moving Indian troops back will compel the Pakistan army to act against the Taliban, and because it is incapable of doing so, will cause the United States to realise that there is no alternative to dismantling the military-jihadi complex, Pai and Singh argue.

Taking out Pakistan’s military-jihadi establishment is really what the battle in Pakistan is all about – that is the refrain you hear incessantly in the strategic establishment in New Delhi  as I did during a visit over the past few weeks, and one you can be sure it will be telling U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expected to visit sometime in July.

But in the immediate future, is such a bold gamble as troop pullback really going to work?
Two issues. One, what about Kashmir ? No pullback is proposed on Kashmir where tens of thousands of troops are massed on both sides of the Line of Control, and according to some Pakistani experts this really is where is there should be a re-deployment of forces.

Ejaz Haider in a piece for Pakistan’s Daily Times, says the bulk of India’s military deployment  iscentred on Pakistan, with 7 of the army’s 13 corps “specific to Pakistan.”  In any case, given that the Pakistan army’s numerical strength is half that of India, the deployment of the Pakistan army along the eastern frontier is much thinner than India’s.

And if Pakistan does not face the threat of a hot war from India as everyone keeps telling it, Haider says, then India too does not face that prospect.

“If Pakistan is asked by the US and other western capitals on the basis of this argument to pull out troops from the eastern border and deploy them to the west, then perhaps India should also be called upon to thin its much-heavier Pakistan-specific deployment along the international border, the Line of Control, the working boundary and the actual ground position line,” he says.

But can the Indian army really thin out of Kashmir? At this point when the threat of infiltration of militants from Pakistan is again being talked about?

And finally does Singh, even with a stronger parliamentary support after a general election, really have the people’s endorsement of cutting back troops from the Pakistan frontier. The wounds from the 26/11 attack on Mumbai for which the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba has been held responsible, remain fresh for a large number of Indians.  They are not in a mood to forgive or forget.

[Photos of Indian and Pakistani troops at a border checkpoint and the site of a car bombing in Lahore on May 27)

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