Will India-Pakistan tensions hurt fight against al Qaida?

ISLAMABAD _ Pakistan has warned that it will divert troops fighting the Taliban and al Qaida on its western border with Afghanistan to its eastern frontier with India, as tensions over the terror attacks in Mumbai push India and Pakistan towards military confrontation.

Washington may be forced to mediate as Indian officials declared that their country was being put on a virtual war footing. Indian officials have squarely blamed Pakistan while its media have reported detailed but unconfirmed accounts from unnamed security officials, that last week's assault on the commercial capital Mumbai was planned and launched from Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, called all political parties together over the weekend, in an attempt to forge a united stand, while it reached out Sunday to international allies for support, including France and Britain. India’s home (interior) minister, Shivraj Patil, resigned Sunday over the glaring security failures that enabled the terrorists to hold parts of Mumbai hostage for three days.

“It has been made very clear to the Americans and the British that if a situation arises on our eastern borders, our priority would be our eastern border,” said a Pakistan security official, who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The force differential between India and Pakistan is so much that with 150,000 in the west (on the Afghan border), we can’t have a two-front situation. We can’t fight on two fronts.”

Islamabad has deployed between 90,000 and 120,000 troops in its semi-autonomous tribal border region with Afghanistan, an area which is known to be a sanctuary for Taliban and al Qaida who are fighting US and coalition troops in Afghanistan. If those soldiers were withdrawn, insurgents would have a virtually unmolested base from which to launch operations into Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has got very formidable armed forces and we can quickly move to the eastern frontier,” said Nisar Memon, an opposition member of Pakistan’s upper house of parliament, the Senate, and chairman of the standing committee on defense. “The entire body politic will stand behind the government if there is any question of national security.”

Since the 60-hour terror spree started in Mumbai on Thursday night, India has made progressively more direct charges against Pakistan, although officials have not openly alleged the complicity of Pakistani state institutions. Islamabad has denied the allegations.

In the past, Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, which part of the military, had close links with Islamic extremist groups based in the country, especially Lashkar-e-Taiba, seen by India as the prime suspect. Indian distrust of the ISI was exacerbated over the weekend by a Pakistani decision to withdrawn an offer to send the chief of the intelligence agency to India to help the investigation. Indian media reports have repeated fingered Lashkar-e-Taiba, while officials have talked more vaguely of Pakistani extremist groups. They suggested early on that at least one of the assailants came from a place called Faridkot, in the Pakistani province of Punjab. Indian officials have consistently said that the militants came by boat from the Pakistani city of Karachi.

“They can say what they want, but we have no doubt that the terrorists had come from Pakistan,” said Sriprakash Jaiswal, India's deputy home affairs minister, on Sunday. “Our intelligence will be increased to a war level, we are asking the state governments to increase security to a war level.”

For the first time Sunday, an official named the group suspected and said that the only gunman caught alive, named variously as Ajmal Amir Kamal and Azam Amir Qasab, was a member.

“Lashkar-e-Taiba is behind the terrorist acts in the city,” Rakesh Maria, a senior police official in Mumbai told reporters Sunday. “The terrorists were from a hardcore group in the L-e-T.” “Ajmal Qasab has received training in a L-e-T training camp in Pakistan,” he said. “Our interrogation indicates that the terrorists had other places that they also intended to target.”

Indian media reports, which are unsubstantiated, claimed that intercepted phone calls were between some of the terrorists and a mastermind in Karachi called “Amir”. They have reported that the attackers were trained in marine commando techniques on Mangla Dam, a lake stretching between Punjab province and the Pakistani-held part of the Kashmir region.

A report Sunday in The Hindu newspaper said that an email taking responsibility for the attacks, signed by an unknown group called the Deccan Mujahideen, originated from a computer in Pakistan. The Indian accounts left analysts and security experts with many questions, however. Lashkar-e-Taiba has not previously targeted Westerners, as in the Mumbai attack, as it is focused against India, especially Indian rule over part of Muslim-majority Kashmir. Nor has it shown the military-style expertise displayed by the terrorists.

Nonetheless, Pakistani president Asif Zardari, appeared by phone on an Indian political show over the weekend, on the CNN-IBN news channel, where he pledged the “strictest of action” against any terrorist links in Pakistan.