January 16, 2009 / 10:38 AM / 11 years ago

SCENARIOS - Assessing risks of India, Pakistan confrontation

ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Tension between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India has been running high since militants killed 179 people in an assault on Mumbai in late November.

Soldiers of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) (R) and Pakistani Rangers hold their respective flags during the "Beating the Retreat" ceremony, a daily ritual, at Indian and Pakistani joint check post at Wagha border, on the outskirts Amritsar in this December 17, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Munish Sharma/Files

With relations fraught between rivals who have fought three wars, here is a look at some scenarios that could unfold.

WAR

Highly improbable. No one, except the militants, would want it. The Indian government and military have repeatedly said all options are open — comments the Indian media and many Pakistanis have interpreted to mean that a military response is possible. But the Indian government has also said war is not a solution. Pakistan says it does not want war but is ready to fight if India starts one. A U.S. State Department spokesmtan said on Wednesday both sides had moved some troops, but overall, there had been some cooperation and tension had not escalated to the point of threatening peace and stability.

If conflict were to begin, analysts see the most likely scenario as an Indian strike on what it sees as militant targets in Pakistani Kashmir or in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The Pakistani military has vowed to respond to any such strike “within minutes”. Tit-for-tat missile strikes would be followed by the rapid mobilisation of troops along the line separating the two sides in disputed Kashmir and along their international border that runs south to the Arabian Sea. Both sides have hundreds of thousands of soldiers and large amounts of a range of military hardware based near their frontier. Their navies would face off in the Arabian Sea and analysts say India would probably try to block Pakistan’s main port of Karachi.

The fear is that strikes and counter-strikes would rapidly escalate between two countries armed with nuclear weapons and various ways of delivering them.

Domestic pressure on India to pursue a military option would rise sharply if militants struck in India again and India believed the attackers came from, or got support from, Pakistan.

PEACE PROCESS

India has imposed a “pause” on a peace process begun in 2004, which had brought better ties. Pakistan has said it regrets the move but there is nothing it can do if its interlocutor doesn’t want to talk. For the time being, a resumption of the peace process would be unpopular with the Indian public so the pause is likely to last at least until May elections in India.

In the longer term, India probably realises it’s better to engage Pakistan than ignore it, and it would like to help civilian leaders establish authority over the generals.

U.S. pressure to move more swiftly in peace talks won’t cut much ice with India, as long as India feels Pakistan should be doing more to “dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism”.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration is expected to encourage settlement of the 60-year Kashmir dispute, a step Pakistan sees as essential in normalising relations and one that many analysts see as necessary to bring stability to the whole region, including Afghanistan.

NO WAR, NO PEACE

If, analysts say, the Pakistani military refuses to abandon old jihadi assets, there will be no war and no peace. Instead there’s a real danger both sides could use non-state proxies to try to destabilise each other. India says Pakistan backs violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir and other areas while Pakistan says India stirs up trouble in western and northwestern regions on the Afghan border. The world would be haunted by periodic crises and fear of nuclear war between the neighbours.

That, in turn, would complicate the West’s efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. The Pakistani military could be expected to scale back its operations against militants on the Afghan border and could even resume support for the Taliban, which was officially ended after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Pakistan fears a hostile India over its eastern border and a hostile Afghanistan, backed by India, over a western border that Kabul has never recognised. Even now, many Pakistanis see the Taliban as the only bulwark against expanding Indian influence in Afghanistan.

An end to Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts in its northwest would see the lawless region again becoming a sanctuary where al Qaeda and the Taliban operate with impunity.

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