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Could Saber-Rattling Lead to War between India and Pakistan?

Saeed Shah / Jonathan S. Landay

Civilians gather near a barbwire fence at the India-Pakistan border post to watch the beating the retreat ceremony in Wagah, India, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2008. Pakistan told India on Saturday it did not want war and was committed to fighting terrorism, a move apparently aimed at reducing tensions after Pakistan moved troops toward their shared border. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan is moving some troops away from its
border with Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said on Friday, sparking
renewed fears that last month's terrorist attack in Mumbai, India,
could trigger a fourth war between the two countries, both of which are
now armed with nuclear weapons.

Media reports in both
countries, most unconfirmed and some false or exaggerated, have fueled
rising war hysteria in India and Pakistan, and U.S. officials and
independent analysts worry that any signs of preparation for war could
trigger a conflict that neither country wants and that neither can

The Bush administration has been trying to calm
the situation, but U.S. officials worry that Pakistan's weak civilian
government can't meet India's demands for a crackdown on Islamic
militant groups without sparking a backlash from the country's powerful
army and the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, which have
ties to some militant groups.

"We hope that both sides
will avoid taking steps that will unnecessarily raise tensions during
these already tense times," said U.S. National Security Council
spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Stephen Cohen, a South Asia
expert with The Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research
organization in Washington who returned on Monday from a visit to
India, said the coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
doesn't want a confrontation, but is under considerable public pressure
to retaliate against Pakistan for the Mumbai attacks.

is nothing (the Singh government) can do except make threatening noises
toward Pakistan," he said. "Both countries are rattling their sabers.
These are two weak governments that are clearly trying to get the
Americans nervous so they put pressure on the other country (to back

He called the current atmosphere "a precursor to
a crisis" that could erupt because of the high possibility of a misstep
on either side.

"We are in a period of touch-and-go," he said.

U.S. and NATO troops battling the Taliban and al Qaida, however, any
Pakistani withdrawal from the frontier with Afghanistan could be
disastrous. Pakistan has some 100,000 troops stationed along the Afghan
border, and their departure would give the Taliban and other groups
refuge and free reign in an area that sits astride America's supply
lines into Afghanistan.

It wasn't clear Friday, however, how extensive the Pakistani move away from the Afghan border is.

Pakistani defense official, who couldn't be named because of the
sensitivity of the issue, said: "Troops, in snowbound areas and places
where operational commitments were less (in the west), have been pulled

The official, however, denied reports that the
soldiers had been redeployed to the Indian border, and he declined to
say how many troops were involved. Media reports, quoting witnesses,
spoke of long convoys of trucks carrying troops, passing through towns
in western Pakistan, traveling eastward, but another security official,
who lacked the authorization to speak and couldn't be named, said that
there'd been "no untoward troop movement."

The objective
and magnitude of the Pakistani troop movements are unclear, said a U.S.
official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak

He said, however, that Pakistan usually pulls
troops out of mountainous northwestern areas bordering Afghanistan
during the winter, when operations against militants allied with al
Qaida usually wind down.

Indian Prime Minister Singh met
with his military chiefs on Friday, and there also have been
unconfirmed reports in recent days that India has moved troops to
Rajasthan, a region that borders Pakistan. Pakistan fears that India
might launch an invasion from Rajasthan into Sindh province, aiming to
sever the northern and southern halves of Pakistan.

Askari Rizvi, a military expert based in the eastern Pakistani city of
Lahore, said that India might be calculating that a move into Sindh
wouldn't trigger a nuclear response from Pakistan, unlike an invasion
of Punjab province, the country's heartland.

and India are at some distance from war, but when troops start moving,
any misperception, or any miscalculation, can be dangerous," Rizvi said.

has canceled leave for all its soldiers, and India has told its
citizens not to travel to Pakistan. Since the Mumbai attacks, there
have been at least four air incursions into Pakistan by Indian fighter
jets. Pakistani officials publicly acknowledged two cross-border
flights, but dismissed them as inadvertent.

However, a
U.S. State Department official, who requested anonymity because of the
sensitivity of the issue, said the incursions appeared to be attempts
by India to identify gaps in Pakistan's air defenses by provoking the
Pakistani military into turning on radars.

The Indian air
incursions were also designed to turn up the pressure on Pakistani
President Asif Ali Zardari to keep the investigation into the Mumbai
bombings moving, he said.

"The Pakistani investigation is
not done, and for every day that it goes on, it raises the potential
for a negative outcome," the official said.

The first
U.S. official said that "at this point," the U.S. continues to believe
that the gunmen who staged the Mumbai attacks were affiliated with
Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Army of the Righteous, a Pakistan-based Islamic
extremist organization that has links to al Qaida.

Delhi has angrily blamed "elements from Pakistan" for the assault on
Mumbai, hinting that the group had support from a section of Pakistan's
military. Zardari's government has offered to co-operate, but it says
that India hasn't shared evidence in the case.

whether Pakistani authorities were continuing a crackdown on the group
that they launched in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the second U.S.
official said, "It's really too early to say."

really is going to matter is (Pakistan's) performance over time," he
said. "In the past, they've arrested guys and then released them. The
jury is still out."

Analysts think that India's military
options are limited to targeted air strikes, but those could be
counterproductive and would risk starting a full-scale conflict without
destroying the extensive jihadist network that's thought to operate in

"We are at the cusp of war," said Zafar Hilaly,
a retired Pakistani ambassador turned analyst. "I really do think there
is a chance. We shouldn't, by any means, rule out some kind of hostile
action on the part of India."

The Indian government has at times ruled out war, but at others stated that "all options" are open.

is not much that Pakistan will or can do to address Indian demands,"
said Kamran Bokhari, the head of Middle East analysis at Stratfor, a
private U.S. geopolitical intelligence firm. "There are signs from both
countries of preparation for war. Unilateral military action on the
part of New Delhi appears quite likely."

Indian foreign
minister Pranab Mukherjee said Friday that, "Instead of raising war
hysteria, (Pakistan), should address this (militant) problem."

are for peace, not conflict," Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza
Gilani told reporters in Lahore. "But if there is any action, we will

Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad. Landay reported from Washington.

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