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Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2002

India set to keep full press on Pakistan

NEW DELHI -- The biggest question now is whether war will break out between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. Although no right-minded citizen in either country wants war, many forget that Pakistan has thrust an undeclared war on India for years, bleeding India noticeably. Thus the aim is not continued peace but a return to peace.

This undeclared war involves terrorism operations against India in the name of jihad on the pretext of the Kashmir issue. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is on record as saying his country's low-intensity conflict with India would continue even if the Kashmir issue were settled. Now, under India's threat of war, Musharraf is vowing to stamp out terrorism from his country and crush "wicked, bigoted extremists."

The current crisis will be diffused if the Musharraf regime is willing to go beyond symbolic steps against the terror groups that Pakistan's military and intelligence have nurtured and directed for years. These terror groups -- instruments of what Pakistan calls its war of "a thousand cuts" against India -- have been established at religious schools.

Islamabad has exported terror as a cost-effective instrument of state policy to take on the militarily stronger India. Nuclear weapons serve to shield against Indian military retaliation, making India look like an angry but paralyzed elephant. The Pakistani military's Kashmir jihad began in 1989 after its intelligence agency failed to trigger an uprising in India's Punjab state despite having arming Sikh dissidents since the early 1980s.

For India, the cumulative economic and human costs of Pakistan's undeclared war have been far greater than all the open wars it has had to fight since independence. In modern history, no state has pursued a sustained indirect war of the scope and extent waged by Pakistan against India. Nor has any state tolerated for so long a situation in which its security has been progressively impaired by clandestine war as India.

Can India allow itself to be bled further by a country that is seen internationally as a borderline failed state? The Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament was an attempt to wipe out India's elected leadership and lawmakers. If not for the exceptional courage of security personnel in the shootout, the resulting political chaos could have brought the world's largest democracy to its knees amid the lack of clear lines of succession.

In terms of what the terrorists sought to achieve, Dec. 13 was probably worse than Sept. 11. It was the equivalent of a joint attack on the U.S. Congress and the White House. The near brush with death has left an indelible mark on the psyche of India's main political class. It is, therefore, understandable that India should use Dec. 13 to shape its response to terrorism in the same way that Sept. 11 has defined America's.

As poll after poll shows, the overwhelming majority of Indians feel that the country has reached the limits of its patience and that it now needs to go after the terrorists and their backers. Still, a large middle ground between the two extremes needs to be exploited before the nation considers military options.

Today, India is signaling that it has had enough and that the Pakistani military either must sever its ties with terrorism or face sustained, punitive Indian counteraction. New Delhi's graduated approach seeks to penalize Pakistan not through immediate application of force but through nonmilitary steps up the retribution ladder.

The freeze on travel between the two countries and the downgrading of diplomatic relations are part of the new penal campaign against Pakistan. Meanwhile, as the troop buildup along the border indicates, India is also preparing for military action if the other measures fail to achieve results.

India has deployed its strike forces from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea. It has positioned a naval task force within striking distance of Karachi, Pakistan's main port. The threat of force can yield the same results as actual force, if the threat mounted is credible and backed by the political will to wage war.

Under India's credible threat of war, the Pakistani military has suddenly mellowed. The fire-spewing Musharraf, who periodically threatened to "teach India a lesson" and who recently warned New Delhi to "lay off," is now meowing. And instead of nuclear blackmail, as it practiced during the 1999 Kargil war, Pakistan is dousing all talk of nuclear war, lest its first-use threat and unsheathed nukes provide an opportunity to U.S. forces to divest it of its "crown jewels."

Pakistan also finds itself under pressure from the United States. President George W. Bush publicly demands "decisive" Pakistani steps to "eliminate" the terrorists threatening India. India's largest mobilization of forces since its last full-scale war with Pakistan in 1971 provides Washington an additional lever against Musharraf.

As U.S. special forces hunt for the al-Qaeda high command and many senior Taliban leaders in Pakistan, Musharraf has not been able to deliver on some key assurances to Washington. While the U.S. does not want a subcontinental war, the Indian military pressure on Pakistan is not adverse to its current regional priorities and interests.

Musharraf, even as he seeks succor from India's other rival, China, has been left with little wriggle room. Islamabad is conveying through official sources that it intends to put the lid on Pakistan-based terror groups operating against India while continuing to support indigenous Kashmiri militant groups. It is not clear whether the Musharraf regime is serious about severing its ties with transnational terrorists or is just playing games to ease pressure.

India is likely to stay the course until it knows that Islamabad has ceased the export of terror. This means no early end to the present crisis. Indian military forces will continue to breathe down Pakistan's neck. For India, the move from being the silent victim of an undeclared war to engaging in a declared war no longer seems impossible.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies with the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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