Mystery phone call put Pakistan and India on the brink of war

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 7, 2008 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan_A mysterious night-time phone call brought nuclear India and Pakistan close to the brink of war at the height of the crisis over the Mumbai terror attacks last week, Pakistani officials said Sunday.

They said the "threatening" call was made, ostensibly by India's foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, to Pakistan's president, Asif Zardari, on Friday, November 28, two days into the Mumbai assaults, in which some 170 people died. India had, by then, declared that the militants who had stormed Mumbai were all from Pakistan.

The heated conversation left Zardari believing that India was about to mount an attack on Pakistan and led him to place Pakistan's armed forces onto "high alert," according to Wajid Hasan, Pakistan's ambassador to London, a close associate of Zardari.

Given Pakistan's inferiority in conventional forces, it might not have been able to respond except with nuclear weapons to an Indian attack, analysts said. India, however, did not put its forces on the alert.

Zardari quickly mobilized Western leaders in an attempt to avert war, telephoning Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State, and British foreign minister David Miliband among others, who in turn frantically called India, Hasan said. Pakistani reporters who were briefed by the Indian Embassy in Islamabad said they were told that Rice telephoned Mukherjee in the middle of the night and demanded: "Why have you threatened war?"

According to those same sources, Mukherjee told Rice he made no such call or threat. Nevertheless Rice, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates rushed to the region.

Indian officials in New Delhi, who like other sources could not be identified by name because they were unauthorized to speak to the public, said they suspected the call had its origin in the Pakistan's own Inter Services Intelligence agency - suggesting a deliberate attempt to foment war between the two neighbors.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's growing internal security crisis spilled over into U.S. military operations in Afghanistan when as many as 200 armed assailants overran a depot housing military supplies for US and coalition forces in Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier province. The assailants, believed to be Pakistani Taliban, set the depot on fire and destroyed around 100 trucks, carrying equipment, food and other supplies. About 70 Humvee vehicles were turned into smoldering hulks of metal.

Around 70 percent of the supplies to international forces in land-locked Afghanistan are trucked through Pakistan, and Pakistani militants have mounted a campaign to try and choke off the route.

The news of the tension created by the mysterious "Indian" telephone call emerged as the Bush administration, in the face of growing pressures from India, put Islamabad on notice that it must clamp down on the Islamic militant groups accused of targeting India.

According to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who flew to Pakistan after a visit to New Delhi, Indian officials are now threatening the use of force if Pakistan does not move swiftly to act against those responsible for the Mumbai assaults.

"I did say to the Pakistanis that the argument that these are non-state actors is not acceptable," Condolezza Rice said Sunday on ABC's This Week program. "Non-state actors in your territory are still your responsibility."

In a separate appearance on Fox News, Rice added: "The United States expects the full and complete cooperation of Pakistan, and Pakistani action. And that yes, it is a matter for our relationship."

As if on cue, Pakistani security forces Sunday raided a camp used by members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, the provincial capital of Pakistan part of Kashmir. India had pinpointed the group as the outfit, which carried on the attack on Mumbai, though it is only one of dozens of jihadist organizations active in Pakistan.

On Sunday, India lashed out at Pakistan over the phone call episode. It was "worrying that a neighboring state might even consider acting on the basis of such a hoax call," Mukherjee said in a statement.

"I can only ascribe this series of events (the story of the call) to those in Pakistan who wish to divert attention from the fact that a terrorist group, operating from the Pakistani territory, planned and launched a ghastly attack on Mumbai," he added.

Pakistan's government insisted that the phone call came from a number in Indian's Ministry of External Affairs. Pakistan's ambassador in London said a caller ID system in the presidency was used to identify the origins of the call.

"They did it (made the call). It was not a hoax call but an instrument of psychological warfare. They were trying to scare Pakistan, test the waters for our reaction," Hasan said in an interview.

Hasan added that he had received information that India was "about to launch a very drastic action" on that Friday, and it was only intervention from Western leaders that averted it.

To add to Pakistani injury, first news of the phone call was leaked to a select group of Pakistani journalists at a briefing given by the Indian embassy in Islamabad, in an apparent attempt to make Zardari's government look weak, according to reporters present and Pakistani officials.

It is unclear who actually made the call. Indian officials, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, theorized that Pakistan's ISI made the call by using technology to make it look like a number from India's foreign ministry. That suggests that the ISI, which is part of the military, was trying to break relations between the governments of the two countries, which had already been torn by the Mumbai assault, in order to leave Pakistan's military in charge.

Meanwhile, McCain, who had had talks in New Delhi with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, told Pakistani journalists that India is ready to order air strikes. The defeated Republican presidential candidate said Indian officials told him they had evidence of the involvement of former ISI officers in the planning and execution of the Mumbai assault, according to reporters who met him.

"The democratic government of India is under pressure and it will be a matter of days after they have given the evidence to Pakistan to use the option of force if Islamabad fails to act against the terrorists," McCain told the journalists, according to an account by a reporter present published Sunday in Pakistan's Daily Times.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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