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India, Pakistan keep lid on tensions

Chu and King are Times staff writers.

Hostility between India and Pakistan is at its worst in years, but tensions stemming from last week’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai are unlikely to bloom into full-blown war between the nuclear-armed rivals -- at least for now, according to analysts on both sides of the border.

Indian authorities say that the gunmen who rampaged through luxury hotels and other crowded sites in Mumbai, leaving more than 170 people dead, were trained and guided by the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. New Delhi has angrily demanded that Islamabad turn over leaders of Lashkar and officials have pointedly refused to rule out military action, warning that they reserved the right to protect Indian territory “with all the means at our disposal.”

But a combination of new political and economic realities, U.S. pressure and perhaps some lessons learned in the past have inhibited a rush to open conflict.

Any war would be financially devastating, especially at a time of worldwide economic downturn. India’s economic juggernaut has lost some steam; and even more dire, Pakistan has had to appeal to the International Monetary Fund to keep its economy afloat. Foreign investment in both countries, which fled during a 2001-02 standoff, would vanish once again in the event of an armed clash.

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“No one can afford it,” said Abhay Matkar, a former Indian army major in Mumbai. “Both countries are not ready for war, and it will not happen.”

Ayesha Tammy Haq, a popular talk-show host in Pakistan, questioned whether Pakistan’s armed forces were even prepared militarily for a war, conventional or otherwise.

“We’ve had decades of propaganda about how strong we are, but we can’t win a war,” Haq said. “We have an army that’s fat, not a well-oiled fighting machine.”

Another factor leading to the relatively restrained response may be the lessons learned from a somewhat similar attack seven years ago this month -- an incident that some say almost led both countries to press the nuclear button.

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On Dec. 13, 2001, a group of gunmen stormed the Indian Parliament complex in New Delhi and came close to killing the high-ranking lawmakers inside. When the gun battle was over, a dozen people lay dead, including the five assailants and six security personnel.

India also blamed that attack on Pakistani Islamic extremists, allegedly abetted by their country’s powerful intelligence agency. Within days, India lashed back by deploying the first of hundreds of thousands of troops along its border with Pakistan, which promptly followed suit.

The military standoff lasted for months before intense international diplomacy helped dissuade the archrivals from launching their fourth war in 55 years.

Though the number of dead in last week’s coordinated assault in Mumbai was more than 10 times that of the 2001 attack, the Indian government has shown no signs this time of moving soldiers closer to Pakistan, despite some public pressure for hard-fisted action.

Part of India’s forbearance, some analysts say, is because it ultimately gained little from the 2001-02 military faceoff. A peace process initiated in 2003 has improved the air somewhat, but real progress toward resolving the dispute over Kashmir, the divided Himalayan region that lies at the heart of the two countries’ animus, has been fitful and elusive.

“The step taken in 2001 and 2002 was not the wisest. Maybe they learned from that,” said Ved Marwah, an expert on Indo-Pakistani relations at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

The political actors on both sides of the divide are also different this time around. In 2001, Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was forced to step down this year as the nation’s president and was replaced by an elected president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Although Zardari’s clout is weak and the military remains Pakistan’s most powerful government entity, there is a sense in New Delhi that perhaps he ought to be granted some time to muster a satisfactory response. Zardari has so far denied that the Mumbai attacks were launched from Pakistani soil, but promised to act if his nation received solid proof.

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“Here is a civilian leader who’s saying all the right things, so we should give him a chance. It’s the right thing from the Indian side,” said C. Raja Mohan, an Indian security analyst based in Singapore. “If anyone thinks it’s going to be the same script [as 2001-02], they’ll be mistaken.”

Likewise, the Hindu nationalist party that governed India during the previous crisis is no longer in power. Since 2004, the prime minister has been the bookish, mild-mannered economist Manmohan Singh, whose Congress Party espouses a pluralist, secular society.

With national elections due by May, Singh and other Congress Party leaders know that a war with Pakistan would cost them votes among the Muslims in India who form an important bloc of support for their party.

Another source of pressure on India and Pakistan is the United States, which was also instrumental in ending the previous standoff.

On a hastily planned visit to both countries this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Pakistan that the U.S. expected “robust” action to help bring the plotters of the Mumbai attacks to justice.

At the same time, she warned India not to do anything that might produce “unintended consequences” -- chief of which, to Washington, is a military buildup or maneuver that would cause Pakistan to divert its resources from fighting Taliban and Al Qaeda militants on its rugged western border, who regularly launch attacks on U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Singh’s government has made better relations with Washington a key element of its foreign-policy agenda and would be loath to sacrifice those gains.

“Before India takes any precipitate step, India has to consider what is the international context,” said Mohan, the analyst. “They don’t want to do something that will make immediate problems for the U.S.”

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Analysts stress that, despite the various constraints on a military flare-up in South Asia, the situation is, by nature, volatile enough that anything could happen. If India suffered another attack by militants believed to originate in Pakistan, for example, all bets would be off.

But forgoing overt military action for the time being does not have to mean sitting idle, analysts note.

The Indian security establishment could intensify covert actions to destabilize Pakistan’s military. New Delhi could also try to marshal support from other nations to bring suspected militant groups in Pakistan under international inspection, or to reduce the billions of dollars in financial aid that Pakistan has received from countries such as the United States.

“I don’t think a full-scale war is on the cards. . . . There’s a huge amount of strategic space for India to act” without resorting to out-and-out armed conflict, said G. Parthasarathy, who was India’s top envoy to Pakistan from 1998 to 2000 and is now an independent analyst.

“The response of mobilizing troops as we did in 2001 was, to my mind, a reaction relevant to that time,” Parthasarathy said. “But things have moved on. Nothing is static in a country’s affairs, including its strategies. We’ll have to wait and see.”

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henry.chu@latimes.com

laura.king@latimes.com

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Henry Chu reporting from New Delhi

Laura Kingreporting from Islamabad, Pakistan


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