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The Pune message

As US pressure on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda grows, they will seek sanctuary, as they have in the past, in Pakistan. The US administration is hoping that Islamabad will seal its borders and deny them refuge. But will it? Karan Thapar examines...

india Updated: Feb 20, 2010 22:15 IST

The next few weeks are likely to be a trying time for India. Not just because Indo-Pak talks are resuming or because of the wider threats from our troublesome neighbour. I’m referring to the repercussions of President Barack Obama’s Af-Pak strategy which, last week, witnessed its first serious operation at Marjah in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province.

As US pressure on the Taliban and al-Qaeda grows, they will seek sanctuary, as they have in the past, in Pakistan. The US administration is hoping that Islamabad will seal its borders and deny them refuge. But will it?

If Pakistan does, it stands to lose its Afghan assets and, with them, its aspiration to strategic depth in Afghanistan. Given that the first are carefully-nurtured allies and the second a long-cherished hope, they are unlikely to be easily, quickly or comprehensively forsaken. But if it doesn’t, Islamabad will not only incur the wrath of Washington but also run the risk of further Talibanisation of its own society.

I have little doubt Pakistan, whilst claiming to the contrary and even, occasionally, acting as if it is in staunch support of the US, will connive to provide shelter. I don’t believe Islamabad is ready to turn its back on its ‘allies’. But since this will be neither easy nor acceptable to Washington, Pakistan will first attempt to deflect attention.

This is the point at which the trouble begins for India. Indeed, it probably already has. Pakistan — through jihadi groups like the LeT or, more directly, through the ‘Karachi Project’ – will step up terror attacks on India. We could also see increased infiltration and cross-border firing. The aim would be to provoke an Indian retaliation. This could take many shapes. It could be military mobilisation, as we saw in 2001, targeted attacks on some of the 42 terrorist camps we know of or heightened political rhetoric calling for retribution, which Islamabad will conveniently interpret as a serious security threat.

Such a response from India would be sufficient excuse for Islamabad to pull its troops from the west, thus debilitating the American fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, whilst claiming this is not a breaking of ranks with Washington but a necessary and unavoidable response to India’s behaviour. Thus Pakistan would hope to wriggle out of a difficult situation.

This is why last Saturday’s Pune bomb may not be a one-off. I fear we could experience more and also worse. In fact, that was the crux of Robert Gates’ very public warning.

However, that’s not all. A worrying corollary could be the manner in which Pakistan will try to drag America into the Kashmir dispute. The truth is it’s been seeking to do so for a while. But now, as the success of Af-Pak becomes critically dependent on Pakistani co-operation, might not Washington be more sensitive — or more vulnerable — to the Pakistani plea?

We have assurances from the US this will not happen. But they were given before the actual surge in Afghanistan began. The real test will come now that it’s actually underway.

These are issues I’ve repeatedly raised in interviews and discussions since Obama revealed his first Af-Pak plans in March last year. Each time they were politely brushed aside. In December, Shashi Tharoor suggested I was being “silly”. He added “I don’t agree with that at all.” This month, the Foreign Secretary was more discreet: “We have to be constantly alert to this possibility.”

In Pune that possibility became a reality.

The views expressed by the author are personal.