Rice visits New Delhi in a show of support

The deadly Mumbai attacks and tensions between India and Pakistan leave Washington in a delicate diplomatic spot.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks with India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani.
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WASHINGTON // The deadly attacks in Mumbai and escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over the alleged involvement of Pakistani militants have left Washington in a delicate diplomatic spot, analysts say, and could ultimately set back the US-led "war on terror". Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, was in New Delhi yesterday in a show of support for the Indian government, which has accused Pakistanis of carrying out the attacks that killed 188 people during a 60-hour siege. Ms Rice said in the Indian capital that Pakistan "needs to act with resolve and urgency and co-operate fully and transparently", even as the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, was delivering a similar message in Islamabad. But observers said the United States must tread carefully as it seeks to tamp down tensions between two nuclear-armed states, which are both of strategic importance to Washington, including on matters ranging from nuclear energy to national security. Improved relations between India and Pakistan are a critical part of the new, more regional approach to the insurgency in Afghanistan that the incoming US administration is expected to take. The president-elect, Barack Obama, has indicated a desire to make regional co-operation - based on a more robust diplomacy that will be in the hands of his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton - a cornerstone of his strategy. In an interview last month with MSNBC, Mr Obama said the United States should help push a political resolution to the long-running dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. That way, Pakistan can spend its time and resources rooting out al Qa'eda insurgents who have found safehaven within its borders. But while India and Pakistan have taken steps towards peace in recent years, last week's terrorist attacks have left tensions as high as at any point since 2001, when an attack on the Indian parliament - by the same group that stands accused of perpetrating the terror in Mumbai - prompted both countries to amass troops on their border. Now, many in Washington worry that Pakistan, which was at best an unsteady ally in the "war on terror" under its former president, Pervez Musharraf, may again shift its focus away from the western insurgency, allowing the Taliban and other jihadi groups to thrive. "Who knows what the motivations of the terrorists were precisely, but it wouldn't be surprising to imagine that they were precisely that," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow on India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "One way to get [Pakistan] off your back is to make them fear India more than they fear you." Several leaders of tribal militias, which have been engaged against Pakistan's army in the west, have said they would support the army, in the name of nationalism, should India mount a military strike. For the United States, any shift of focus in Pakistan will likely be felt across the border in Afghanistan, where Mr Obama has said he will send more US forces. "It definitely has the potential to be a major diversion," Mr Markey said of the prospect of Pakistan's redeploying troops to its eastern border with India. "I think that's probably what people in Washington fear most." US and Indian officials believe the Mumbai attacks were carried out by Lashkar-i-Taiba, which was declared a terrorist organisation by the Bush administration after the 2001 assault on the Indian parliament. Although the group has ties to Pakistani intelligence services, India has not directly accused the government of involvement in the most recent attack. No matter who is ultimately found responsible, the attacks will have "serious repercussions" on Nato efforts to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, suggested Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Whether or not any alleged links between the Mumbai terrorists and Pakistan are confirmed," Mrs Felbab-Brown wrote recently, "the rise in tensions between India and Pakistan and the possible further escalation of their bilateral disputes will hamper the military campaign against the Taliban, likely exacerbate a crisis of governance in Afghanistan and jeopardise efforts to imbed the country in a regional security framework". In an interview, she said New Delhi and Islamabad, with diplomatic help from Washington, must avoid falling into the "trap" set by the militants, a trap that aims to derail an already fragile co-operation. "In the short term, it is very important to calm both New Delhi and Islamabad," Mrs Felbab-Brown said. "It needs to be handled carefully, obviously. India here is the victim, so we cannot simply show to the Indians that we care about what happened only because we care about what happens in Afghanistan." Mr Markey, formerly of the state department, urged the United States to pursue a course of "very subtle and very careful and probably very limited" diplomacy. "I think it's more a matter of being supportive and demonstrating the United States understands India's perspective and what they're going through," he said. "But that doesn't means that we give them a green light to take matters into their own hands with respect to Pakistan." He said the attacks could prompt Mr Obama - rightly - to make Pakistan one of his top priorities when he takes office next month. But he said a thorough policy reassessment, with an eye towards long-range solutions, is not always possible in the midst of a near-term crisis. "The pattern with Pakistan has unfortunately been lurching from crisis to crisis," he said. "It's hard to get a lot of focus on these things when you're constantly fighting fires ? You don't have the luxury of time in the heat of a crisis situation." eniedowski@thenational.ae