The United States has responded well to India's diplomatic thrust. Any overplaying of its cards by New Delhi will be counter-productive.
FOR obvious reasons, the United States is watching closely the escalation of tensions in South Asia. In the first place, the prospect of India and Pakistan getting into more than just a shoving match across the border is quite frightening for many in the U.S. - people both in the Bush administration and outside it. Even a conventional war is sufficient cause for worry; the fact that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers is really alarming. Naturally, few people in the administration are amused at rhetoric that is emanating from India and Pakistan.
Washington has reasons to be particularly worried about its immediate strategic objective, which is in the last stages of realisation - its ongoing "war against terror" in Afghanistan. For good or bad, Pakistan has been the main ally of the U.S. in the war, and Washington wants no distraction at this point of time. This view has been clearly put across to New Delhi and Islamabad by President George Bush, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. While India has sought to use the Bush administration to impress on Pakistan the need to contain the terrorists, especially in the aftermath of December 13, Islamabad has been playing its game too - trying to convince Washington that if India keeps upping the ante, Pakistan will have no choice but to pull its troops out of the Afghan border. This is something that the Bush administration does not want to see happen. The U.S. is also concerned that in the event of a war in South Asia, there will be curbs on its use of air space. Rumsfeld remarked that if Pakistan withdrew its troops from the Afghan border, that would be a "big disappointment, needless to say". That was "because they are performing an important task. They must have seven or eight, nine battalions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which is clearly a deterrent to people trying to come across, trying to escape from Afghanistan".
The Bush administration is worried also about the security for U.S. civilians and military personnel and installations inside Pakistan, now guarded by Pakistani troops. Given the popular mood against the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, this is a matter of concern to Washington. "This is something we are keeping our eye on very carefully and we have made the interest we have in this subject known to both sides (India and Pakistan) very carefully and with clarity," Rumsfeld said at a press conference.
India's diplomatic thrust against cross border terrorism has paid off handsomely. The constant reminding of Washington in the last few years has finally resulted in the designation of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) as foreign terrorist organisations under U.S. law. The Bush administration moved in this direction in the aftermath of the assault on Parliament House. This decision may not mean much in substantive terms, but it does have high symbolic value: it has put Pakistan in a spot and President General Pervez Musharraf in a bind for failing to rein in militant and terrorist organisation, which have been blatantly backed by successive governments in Islamabad.
But the manner in which the Bush administration went about the whole process has irritated many in India and elsewhere. It is one thing for Washington to say that India and Pakistan do not stand to benefit from terrorism and that a united front goes a long way in promoting stability in South Asia. But to say that the LeT - an organisation propped up and sustained by Pakistan - has been involved in terrorist activities against Pakistan is something bizarre; it reinforces the notion that once again the U.S. is seeking to "balance" between India and Pakistan.
The clearest message to India came from Bush himself, from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Bush argued that his government was actively working to bring "some calm" to the region and to convince both India and Pakistan to pipe down. He bluntly asked India to take note of the fact that Musharraf had started cracking down on terrorist groups. "I am pleased to note that President Musharraf has announced the arrest of fifty extreme terrorists, extremists or terrorists. I hope India takes note of that, that the President is responding forcefully and actively to bring those who would harm others to justice," Bush said. "I am pleased that President Musharraf is responding to the Indian request to round up those who do harm to others and incarcerate them, which he did," he added.
One perception was that Musharraf had to be given the benefit of the doubt and also of time. After allowing dubious organisations to flourish for so many years, even a General cannot expect to crack the whip and have results instantly. New Delhi may have taken the position that Musharraf's actions against terrorist organisations were of a cosmetic nature or even a "joke". But Washington seemed impressed with the general direction of Islamabad's actions.
The praise for Musharraf has to be seen in the context of the Bush administration's unwillingness to say or do anything that would rock the boat in Pakistan and upset its designs in Afghanistan in the immediate context. In fact, for all the reports of Osama bin Laden's possible escape to Pakistan, Washington has been steadfast in its position that Musharraf would be happy to assist it in tracking the Saudi fugitive.
A view in some quarters in Washington has been that New Delhi stands to lose the diplomatic leverage by overplaying its cards. A genuine case of India's outrage has been presented to the international community, chiefly the West and the U.S., and now the pressure is on Musharraf to rein in the terrorist groups. Musharraf is seen as being genuine in his response. If New Delhi insists on upping the ante, that will most likely be counter-productive.