In the wake of the carnage in Mumbai, India is contemplating another round of coercive diplomacy. But the geopolitical winds are unfavourable. In 2002, India was successful in pushing Washington to arm-twist Pakistan. The then ruler Pervez Musharraf learnt a lesson. Today, India has less left behind its push, Islamabad has a greater hold over the US and, in any case, the lights are going out in the White House.
Most Indians believe the Army mobilisation that followed the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) attack on Parliament in 2002 was much sound and fury signifying nothing. It didn’t bring peace on earth. But Islamabad did learn a lesson and paid a price — which should be the goal of any Indian response to Pakistan-based terrorist outrage.
The lesson of 2002: before 9/11, Islamabad could count on the US jumping in during any India-Pakistan terror crisis, point fingers at the two countries’ nuclear weapons and persuade New Delhi not to retaliate. After 9/11, the Bush administration told Pakistan, “If India wants to bloody your nose, they have the right.” US embassy officials rang up Indian journalists to stress that the US was no longer using the word ‘restraint’ when it came to India.
The price of 2002: India, after considering and abandoning the demand for the extradition of 20 terrorists because it feared its own courts would let them go, demanded Pakistan put an end to militant infiltration into Kashmir. New Delhi knew very well this would be a band-aid concession. But it calculated a few months of border quiet would be enough to push through a peaceful and fair Kashmir election. Its success on that front is the main reason the turbulent state has seen relatively low levels of violence since 2002.
Outwardly, it seems like India could play the same game again. Pakistan has denuded its border with India of troops. Most have been transferred to fight recalcitrant militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. If India waves a big stick, these troops would have to return to the eastern border. Washington is desperate for that not to happen as its Afghan war effort would be crippled. In theory, then, the US would be prepared to press Pakistan to cough up a concession to ensure the troop transfer doesn’t happen. However, the landscape has changed in all three countries. The most telling is that President George W. Bush is down to his last 50 days in office. There is very little desire in the US to cut the ground from under President Asif Ali Zardari’s feet. He is Mr Nice Guy and Mr Best Hope.
Which raises a question: whom exactly is there to arm-twist in Pakistan? As the recent ‘Now he’s coming, now he’s not’ farce over the ISI chief showed, Zardari only thinks he’s President. He has legitimacy, but no authority. Military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has authority, but no legitimacy.
Finally, the sands are running out for the Manmohan Singh government as well. The 2002 coercion game, when the deck was stacked in India's favour, took a full year to play out. Singh has to call for elections by April. Expect Pakistan to play for time by demanding additional evidence, pleading internal weakness or just keeping mum.
There is widespread acceptance in the West that India is not off the mark in blaming the LeT for the attacks. The deliberate pinpointing of Americans by the Mumbai attackers has helped India’s case, strengthening a growing US consensus that the LeT and al-Qaeda are increasingly fusing at the hip. But in the short term, the US message to India will be: don’t rock Zardari’s boat too hard now and keep the Afghan situation in mind.
This leaves India with the option of turning on the pressure on its own. Which means military action, but of a variety well below the nuclear threshold and preferably of a kind that can be white-lied about. If Indian military and intelligence officials are to be believed, India has developed the ability to carry out precision strikes on LeT targets inside Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. A surgical strike is feasible, says G. Parthasarathy, former High Commissioner to Pakistan, “But it would take two months of preparation. Diplomacy right now should be about preparing the ground for such action.” In other words, attack loudly, but be stealthy about it afterwards.