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The US made the right noises, but nary a word on Pakistan or on cross-border terrorism

No Ripples To Show
No Ripples To Show
President Bush phoned President Vajpayee soon after the attack to offer his sympathy and support, the White House spokesman announced after the attack on Parliament in Delhi. He quickly corrected himself to say "Prime Minister Vajpayee". No great matter, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is not a frequent name in Washington. And the attack over which he got that phone call, no big issue.

Bush did offer a little more than sympathy. He "offered the assistance of the FBI and the State Department counter-terrorist teams if so desired", spokesman Ari Fleischer said. But there was more to the phone call than words of sympathy and offers of support to the Delhi Police. The US wanted to make it clear that it would support a probe but not an attack on any source of terrorism in Pakistan.

"Do you think India should do the same thing that the Israelis are doing?" Fleischer was asked. The spokesman skipped that one, and moved to other questions. The silence left no one in any doubt that as the White House sees it, it’s not okay for India to do what the Americans, Israelis or the British do without hesitation. India can fight terrorism, but mustn’t cross the Line of Control.

Pakistan was always going to outlast its flavour-of-the-month status after winning official American praise for what they called Musharraf’s "180-degree turn on the Taliban". Secretary of state for defence Don Rumsfeld made that clear once again on Thursday. The Americans are doing all they can to find Osama bin Laden, he said. "People are providing lots of scraps of information. The Pakistanis are. The people in neighbouring countries are."

And what if the Taliban fighters flee to Pakistan or Somalia, "are you going to keep hunting them in these countries?", he was asked. Washington still didn’t have a word to offend Pakistan. "We intend to look for terrorists, terrorist networks and nations harbouring terrorists aggressively," Rumsfeld replied. On India, on the terrorist attack on Indian Parliament, there wasn’t a word from him.

What shook India caused hardly a stir in Washington, though it’s all supposedly a part of the same war. The Osama tapes, released the day Parliament was attacked, wiped out what little interest there might otherwise have been. The big issue of the day was Bush’s proposals on the missile defence treaty, on his exchanges with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The attack in Delhi was just an incident in India.

Some South Asian experts in the US did think the attack could further worsen the crisis in the area. Michael Krepon, president emeritus, Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, compares today’s South Asia to the 1956 situation, when there were simultaneous crises in Europe and the Middle East. "Back then, the Kremlin took action against Hungary while Britain and France were striking Egypt. The current situation is far more dangerous, given what’s happening in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Simultaneous explosions in the Middle East and South Asia could become open-ended, unlike 1956. It also would have nuclear dimensions."

This apart, the Americans could be missing their own point in fighting terrorism globally. Col Christopher Langton, head of the defence analysis department at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Outlook that "the signature on these attacks has all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation".

The very absence of a group owning immediate responsibility points to Al Qaeda, he said. "Think of the wtc bombing, the Cole bombing, the suicidal nature of the attacks. It all points to Al Qaeda."

The near end of the Taliban in Afghanistan is nowhere near the end of Al Qaeda, US leaders were acknowledging last week. "It remains the case that large numbers of Al Qaeda terrorists, including senior leaders as well as leaders of the Taliban, are still at large," deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. "It ain’t over yet. It’s going to be a long and difficult job to find them, to root them out."

Wolfowitz acknowledged that the US may no longer have the Northern Alliance on their side in gunning for Al Qaeda operatives as it did for the Taliban. "Our objectives may not be quite as high a priority for them. They may also start pursuing some local objectives that interfere with us. The most important thing for the American people to understand is our objectives remain very largely to be done in the future," Wolfowitz said. "Half-defeated enemies can be very dangerous. They can take a long time to clear out," he added.

A half-defeat is just what the US is inviting by taking on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and not noticing them in India. That split follows the not unsurprising one that sees Americans talk global but think American. The US National Security Council met last Thursday and agreed to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty with the old Soviet Union. That treaty "hinders our ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks", Bush said. Long-term, he is thinking only of American interests. "Defending the American people is my highest priority," he said.

This should not surprise India, says M.J. Gohel, director of the Asia Pacific Institute in London. "Nobody in India should expect that the Americans are going to fight terrorism on India’s behalf," he said. "After all, no one expects India to take a hand in fighting Basque terrorism in Spain or terrorism in Northern Ireland." There is credible information that about 90 terrorist camps have been running on the Pakistani side and if India is convinced of their existence, "India should take out these camps," he said.

In London, as in Washington, most arguments are back to good old nationalism now that slogans of a global war on terrorism are beginning to fade away. When Al Qaeda attacks Delhi, it will have India to deal with, not a global alliance that stayed back in Afghanistan awhile before their return flights to London and the US.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw dressed that up after the Srinagar assembly attack as admiration for India. "Military decisions are a matter entirely for the Indian government to decide," he said. "With all due respect to the armed forces of the US and of this country, anyone who knows of the professionalism of the Indian military will know that it does not need any assistance."

Conservative Party MP Alan Duncan, shadow minister for the foreign office, told Outlook, "We completely deplore the attack and we believe the government in Britain should do all it can to support the fight against terrorism everywhere." He declined to comment on any action India might take across its borders. "There is obviously a cross-border problem," he said. But he did not want India to create problems by crossing it.

Menzies Campbell, MP and Liberal Democrat spokesman, said that the US attacks on Afghanistan cannot be a precedent for an Indian attack across its borders. In Afghanistan, according to him, the action was taken on the basis of Article 51 of the UN. "Every situation is different and it would be important for India to respect the LoC," he said.

Krepon, too, feels New Delhi’s position is unenviable. "When the particulars become known, the Indian government will have a very difficult decision to make. If the group perpetrating this outrage is based in Pakistan, it is as much an enemy to the Musharraf government as it is to the government of India," he says. In other words, he is cautioning India against precipitating the crisis in South Asia.

The global alliance against terror has talked of targeting terrorism in several countries after Afghanistan. Somalia and Iraq have been named, others hinted at. But Pakistan seems excluded from the list. India has a fight on its hands, and it has only itself on its side.

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