Tensions rise as Pakistan moves troops

China and Russia join calls to avoid brinksmanship.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Indian soldiers keep vigil along the border with Pakistan. Pakistan began redeploying thousands of troops from the Afghan border on Friday amid tensions following last month's Mumbai attacks.
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    POSITIONS: A Pakistani soldier stood alert Saturday in Mingora, the main town of Swat Valley, where the Army has been battling militants. The US and other nations worry that Pakistan's redeployment of troops away from the northwest will undermine antiterror efforts in the area.
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One month after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India and Pakistan are turning to brinksmanship because they have not yet found a way to talk constructively.

Both governments have spoken of their desire to avert war, yet both are constrained by strong public prejudice against the other. Neither wants to appear to capitulate, given that both face significant internal challenges. India's government is facing elections next year, and Pakistan's civilian regime must be mindful of its country's powerful Army.

Reports of provocative actions by both sides – with local residents confirming the redeployment of Pakistani troops from the Afghan border – have forced the international community to step up efforts to break the deadlock. Influential new players such as Russia and China are becoming involved.

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The best option is to calm the situation and force the two nations to talk, says Ahmed Rashid, a political analyst in Lahore. "This is a significant thing," he says, noting that Russia and China have broad influence in India and Pakistan, respectively.

Since the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which India blames on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, both countries have alternated threats with conciliatory remarks. The pattern is intensifying.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said Saturday that "Pakistan will not indulge in any misadventure," insisting Pakistan will not strike first against India.

Yet a day earlier, local and international media outlets reported that the Pakistani Army had postponed all leave for soldiers to maintain a peak state of readiness. It had also redeployed soldiers from the Afghan front, where they are fighting militants, to the Indian front, the reports said.

Locals confirmed that Pakistani soldiers were given a send-off party this weekend here in this town along the Afghan frontier. A group of policemen on duty said they had seen an unusually large Army convoy pass through Takht-e-Bhai, which is at the crossroads of the tribal areas and the Swat Valley, both places where the Pakistani Army is battling militants. The Army stopped for tea and sweets and was given a warm reception, they said.

Naimatullah Khan, who works as a bodyguard in Mardan, a nearby town, says the convoy arrived from the north. "It seems they have left their places in Swat," he said.

The redeployment has been characterized as minor, with Pakistani officials calling it a "minimum defense measure." Yet it is precisely what the United States wished to avoid. With many Afghan militants maintaining command-and-control hubs in Pakistan's tribal areas, a few dozen miles from here, the US wants Pakistan to focus its military might on its Afghan border, not India.

But any such move will play well in Pakistan. Habib Zade, a social worker based near Mardan, says some people in the area are pleased to see the Army go. "They're glad that finally after so much fighting between ourselves, we have a common enemy to fight," he says.

Nasir Khan, a farmer, is not so sure that redeployment is a good thing. "Who's to say that the Taliban won't just start coming back down here again," he worries.

The fact is, neither Pakistan nor India has the political security to offer an olive branch to the other, says Shuja Nawaz, author of "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within."

"Weak governments are worried about being perceived as even weaker," he says. "This is more about domestic politics than anything else."

As a result, each government has failed to reach out to the other. Today, India and Pakistan are holding essentially to the same lines they set forth in the days after the attacks – India demanding that Pakistan take action against a list of alleged terrorists, and Pakistan saying India has given no evidence of their guilt.

With no movement diplomatically, tensions have slowly escalated. Pakistan's apparent decision to redeploy some troops to the Indian border follows Indian jets reportedly violating Pakistani airspace on Dec. 13.

Pakistan has used India's refusal to rule out military strikes "to whip up war hysteria," which, in turn, antagonizes India, says Mr. Rashid. "We're in a very vicious cycle."

It is this cycle that the international community seeks to break. The US and Britain have shared evidence with Pakistan linking the Mumbai terrorists to Pakistan, according to a report in The News, a Pakistani daily. Pakistani officials have said the evidence would not be admissible in court, the paper says.

Perhaps more significantly, a host of other nations are also becoming more involved in trying to calm the two nuclear-armed rivals.

• Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi called his counterparts in both India and Pakistan late last week, saying they should "properly handle" the situation.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister was in New Delhi this weekend to be briefed on India's claims that Pakistanis were behind the Mumbai attacks.

• On Saturday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to ask for his support in pressuring Pakistan.

• Also Saturday, Russia, a longtime ally of India, issued a statement, saying it was "extremely concerned" about the tensions.

Within Pakistan, there are signs that some Pakistanis are also concerned about the growing focus on India. Militants along the Afghan border killed 23 in northwestern Pakistan Sunday, the latest in a string of such attacks.

In an editorial, the influential newspaper Dawn wrote: "[Pakistan] just cannot afford to redeploy any large number of its troops on the eastern border, leaving the 'wild' west in a free fall."

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