Citing the very real threat of a new Pakistan-based terror attack on India, a noted South Asia expert says that unlike in 2008 Indian military restraint "cannot be taken for granted if terrorists strike again".
"India faces the real prospect of another major terrorist attack by Pakistan-based terrorist organizations in the near future, writes Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a Washington think tank.
But "unlike the aftermath of the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, in which 166 people died, Indian military restraint cannot be taken for granted if terrorists strike again," he says in a new Contingency Planning Memorandum examining what India's response would be and its consequences.
Noting that "an Indian retaliatory strike against terrorist targets on Pakistani soil would raise Indo-Pakistani tensions and could even set off a spiral of violent escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals," Markey says this would harm US interests "given Washington's effort to intensify pressure on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated militants operating from Pakistani territory."
"The threat of another Mumbai-type attack is undeniable," he warns noting "numerous Pakistan-based groups remain motivated and able to strike Indian targets" as they have "incentives to act as spoilers,whether to disrupt efforts to improve Indo-Pakistani relations or to distract Islamabad from counterterror crackdowns at home."
"Thus the immediate risk of terrorism may actually increase if New Delhi and Islamabad make progress on resolving their differences or if Pakistan-based terrorists are effectively backed into a corner," Markey suggests.
Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed are the two terrorists groups that have proven themselves the most capable and motivated to carry out attacks in India, he notes.
"Al-Qaeda has historically focused its efforts outside India, but if the group's leadership feels threatened in the Pakistan Afghanistan border areas, it might direct and assist regional proxies to attack India as a way to ignite a distracting Indo-Pakistani confrontation," Markey writes.
Noting that more clearly a terrorist attack can be identified as having originated in Pakistan, the more likely India is to retaliate militarily," he says the US has a clear interest in preventing an Indo-Pakistani crisis.
"To defend against a terrorist attack, Washington should share information and technical tools with India and work with Pakistan to clamp down on materials that might be used in weapons of mass destruction."
It should also press Islamabad to accelerate the judicial process against the Mumbai plotters and crack down on militants throughout Pakistan, Markey says and "If US cooperation with Islamabad proves inadequate, Washington should develop its own capacity to infiltrate or attack these groups."
"In a worst-case scenario, Washington would have to choose between accepting an Indian strike on Pakistan and levelling its own coercive military threats against Islamabad," he says. But it should avoid policies that are likely to rule out effective working relationships with Islamabad and New Delhi once the crisis is over.