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India/Pakistan

Musharraf must once again dance to a new beat
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With the United States appearing to side with India in New Delhi's call for a war on terror in Indian Kashmir, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf faces a new test in complying with US demands that he remold his foreign policy overnight, just as he was pressured into changing his Afghanistan policy towards the Taliban.

Following the terror attacks on the Indian parliament building in New Delhi last month, India had made all-out efforts to place maximum pressure on Islamabad to take action against militant groups. India has blamed the Pakistani-based Lashkar-i-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed for the attack in which 14 people died. These groups are active in the armed struggle for an independent Kashmir.

Pakistan has since frozen the assets of the first group and arrested the leader of the second. But India terms Pakistan's anti-terrorist actions ineffectual and but a token one.

However, the Lashkar-i-Taiba has rejected the allegations. In comments to Asia Times Online, its spokesperson, Yahya Mujahid, said that the group had never targeted civilian installations or civilians. On the other hand, when it did attack other targets, it always accepted responsibility, he added.

The Pakistani foreign office has asked India to present evidence that any Pakistan-based militant organizations were involved in the parliament attack. Pakistan has also offered to carry out investigations through a joint interrogation team comprising both Indian and Pakistan investigators.

But India has rejected this, reiterating its demand for the outright ban of the Jaish-i-Mohammed and Lashkar-i-Taiba, and the arrest of their leaders and that they be handed over to India.

Indian authorities have organized a well-planned international campaign against Pakistan to take maximum advantage of the situation. They have prepared a list of people they want to get their hands on, including Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-i-Mohammed and Professor Mohammed Saeed of the Lashkar-i-Taiba, as well as the kingpin of the Mumbai underworld, Daud Ibrahim, who is said to be holed up in Pakistan.

India appears set on a policy of eroding the pre-eminent position that Pakistan attained through becoming a frontline state for the United States in its war in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

Internally, India seems content to stir up anti-Pakistani sentiment across the country, which it believes will translate into support for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads India's ruling coalition, in upcoming elections, especially in Utter Pardesh, India's largest state and political weathervane where legislative elections are due in February.

In the immediate aftermath of the December 13 attacks on the Indian parliament, most analysts were of the view that India could not put too much pressure on Pakistan because Islamabad was a US ally in the war against terrorism, and as this was not yet over, the US would not allow any escalation of hostilities between the two countries. However, over the past few weeks this has not been the case.

India late last week took the extreme measure of recalling its ambassador from Pakistan and canceling all Lahore-Delhi rail and bus services. It also levelled spy charges against a Pakistani diplomat based in New Delhi. Further, Delhi cut air services between the countries, a move to which Pakistan responded in similar vein. As a result, millions of people of divided with the partition of British India in 1947 are out of contact.

Amid the saber-rattling come reports of the forward movement of Pakistan's Hatf and India's Prithvi nuclear-capable missiles. However, neither country has yet mounted nuclear warheads on them.

In Pakistan's view, the missiles' movement is meant to discourage India from a military "forward thrust". However, Pakistan's military doctrine permits a pre-emptive first nuclear attack against India's conventional forces. Unlike India, it does not subscribe to a no-first-use doctrine.

A conventional conflict could begin if India launches an armed attack while many Pakistani troops are still locked along the Afghanistan border to prevent Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants from crossing over.

Pakistan's Peshawar-based 11 Corps, now on the Afghan border, is crucial to creating backup support for any strike force that might be deployed against a major Indian thrust along the "international border" from Kutch to Punjab.

Pakistan has reportedly deployed its second major strike corps, the 70,000-strong Army Reserve North, in the Jhelum-Chhamb corridor, where India is vulnerable. Scores of soldiers have died in recent skirmishes.

Well placed sources say that it was not until the US placed the Jaish-i-Mohammed and the Lashkar-i-Taiba on its list of terror organizations that Pakistan was forced to act against them.

Initially, authorities arrested the Jaish-i-Mohammed's chief, Maulana Masood Azhar, and more than 50 activists for interrogation. The Lashkar-i-Taiba changed its name, but this made no difference and its leader, Professor Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, along with hundreds of his activists, were arrested. This came as something of a surprise as Lashkar receives very little aid from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but it has earned a reputation for its military successes in Kashmir.

At present, the situation is similar to the post-September 11 attacks when Pakistan was trying to retain its pro-Taliban policy, but under US threats it modified its stance to one of opposing them. Now it is having to take action against the militant organizations to which it has for a long time turned a blind eye and even supported. There have been ongoing raids in the port city of Karachi and parts of interior of Punjab and Sindh to arrest activists. However, despite a large number of arrests, Pakistan is insisting that the detentions have nothing to do with Indian demands. Islamabad says that Saeed was arrested because of his anti-government public speeches, and it insists that it will not hand any of its nationals to India.

It has become very difficult for Pakistan to even covertly support militancy in Kashmir. US authorities have positioned intelligence staff at many key places, including airports, and they are working with the ISI on a number of issues. According to sources, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is monitoring all of the ISI's operational plans, and even tapping telephones.

In the past few days, FBI teams have also forced Pakistani authorities to take measures against members of the Taliban leadership holed up in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas.

India, meanwhile, is also insisting on the arrest of Mumbai underworld don Daud Ibrahim. According to sources, India has handed over a complete file on him to Pakistan, including his whereabouts and fingerprints. Pakistani authorities deny his presence in the country, but Pakistani publications, Indian TV channels and even Time magazine have published articles that Ibrahim lives in Karachi.

There are reports that with the ISI's support, Ibrahim has established his gang in Karachi and created an alliance between the Mumbai and Karachi underworlds, covering casinos, drugs and betting on cricket matches. This network is said to extend to South Africa.

It is the demand for the handover of jehadi leaders that is likely to be the issue on whether the tense situation between India and Pakistan turns into out-and-out fighting.

The ball appears now to be in the court of Musharraf, and it remains to be seen if he will once again play it according to US interests.

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