by Austin Bay
The anti-Taliban assault on Al Qaeda's Tora-Bora cave complex temporarily dimmed international coverage of the most de-stabilizing terrorist outrage since September 11th: the December 13th terrorist attack on India's parliament in New Delhi.
That attack, conducted by members of two Pakistan-based rebel groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba ("Army of the Pure")and Jaish-e-Muhammad ("Army of Mohammed"), left fourteen dead, nine Indians and five members of the Islamist suicide team. These two militant cohorts are fighting to "liberate" the heavily Muslim-populated Indian state of "Jammu and Kashmir" (India's name for the two-thirds of pre-1947 Kashmir it controls).
India argues both groups directly connect to Al Qaeda, and, despite the apparent reluctance of the US State Department to publicly accept it, Delhi's evidence is damning. Since 1987, Lashkar and its political wing, Markaz Dawa Al Irshad (which I'm told translates as "Center for Preaching"), have been clamoring for jihad against India to create "Muslim homelands." India asserts that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has supplied training and arms to these terrorists.
Moreover, India claims the ISI, or at least rogue ISI agents, aided the terror assault. Gen. Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan government insists ISI has nothing to do with the groups, though other Pakistani sources acknowledge the militants maintain camps inside Pakistan. That means the rebels enjoy tacit support somewhere within Pakistan's byzantine administration.
India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since 1948, with the big one in 1971 when India turned the Bengal tiger of East Pakistan into toothless Bangladesh. Their common border is a high tension wire, with the biggest sparks along the Line of Control in divided Kashmir. Even Kashmir's Siachen Glacier area, perched at a Himalayan 20,000 feet, serves as a permanent sniper's alley for mountain infantry concealed in ice caves.
But this new spate of hostility is more than old fires rekindled. Recall the ISI helped arm the Taliban. Pakistanis tied to Al Qaeda are not pleased with its drubbing. In the malarial brains of fanatics, igniting an Indo-Pakstani war could topple the "US co-opted" Musharraf regime, induce the "global Muslim rebellion" the 9-11 attacks failed to produce, and pull an anarchic Al Qaeda "victory" out of real defeat.
Thus the movement of substantial Indian and Pakistani combat forces to their contested border isn't parade ground maneuvers or diplomatic kabuki theater with scripted military bluster but minimal bloodshed.
The handful slain December 13th may pale compared to the thousands lost September 11th, but with nuclear weapons in both Pakistani and Indian arsenals, that handful could well be a terrorist's down payment on several hundred thousand dead and a radioactive Hindu-Muslim conflagration that will seriously damage Asian and global political relationships.
Here are a few reasons Indo-Pakistani War IV could become a disastrous Phase 2 of the Millennial War against terror:
- The Indians see this as an attack on their democratic institutions, an "icon" attack equivalent to attacking Capitol Hill.
- The Indians perceive a rare opportunity. As terror victims they have the "moral high ground." An offensive to drive Pakistan out of Kashmir? No, call this a counter-attack.
- Radicals in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Baharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are beating the war drums. (And the BJP's "Hindu nativist" strands are showing.)
- The military movements are very large. A reinforced Indian armored corps is moving into eastern Kashmir. On Christmas Day Pakistan said an "uncontrolled" situation could lead to nuclear war.
What argues against a major regional war?
- India has a stronger military. While under "normal circumstances" Pakistan could frustrate India in a "short war" (blunt an offensive long enough to get a UN ceasefire), post-Afghan chaos further weakens Pakistan, and makes Pakistani concessions more likely.
- Don't forget China. While China's intervention options are limited, China does not want Pakistan dismantled. India recently protested Chinese border activities in the Himalayas.
- In November Pakistan and India were pursuing a new peace initiative. The Delhi attack scuttled it. But enough cool heads in India and Pakistan see a common need to crush terrorism.
- Which leads to the real cool head --America. The US and India are de facto allies. Musharraf's regime is committed to working with the US. With swift victory in Afghanistan, US leverage has increased. Washington is positioned to press Islamabad to fight an intra-Pakistani war on terror.
Still, with tanks corps maneuvering along the frontier, a WWI scenario, where military mobilization spirals into full-scale combat, isn't far-fetched. That means Washington must act quickly to thwart that fatal momentum.