The United States has set the stage for punitive internationally-backed strikes by India against terrorist camps in Pakistan if Islam does not act first to dismantle them by rejecting President Zardari’s alibi that non-state actors were responsible for the last week’s carnage in Mumbai.
The game-changer, outlined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among others, robs Islamabad of the fig leaf that Zardari used in his interview on Larry King Live that ''stateless actors'' are holding the whole world hostage and Pakistan was not to blame. Rice said in effect that the excuse does not absolve Pakistan responsibility for terrorist acts that originate from its territory,“ Rice said.
Although US officials have not outright approved immediate punitive Indian strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan, it is clear Rice has bought time for Islamabad to prove its bonafides. Pakistan has a ''special responsibility'' and needs to act ''urgently'' she said, even as India has indicated it will wait for a Pakistani response to its demands before any punitive action.
In Washington, experts pressed the administration to expand the scope of punitive strikes to an international level to avoid making it an India-Pakistan issue, particularly since the death toll included citizens of ten countries.
''Rather than simply begging the Indians to show restraint, a better option could be to internationalise the response. Have the international community declare that parts of Pakistan have become ungovernable and a menace to international security,'' Robert Kagan, an influential analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, said.
''Would such an action (strikes) violate Pakistan's sovereignty?'' Kagan asked in an op-ed, and answered, ''Yes, but nations should not be able to claim sovereign rights when they cannot control territory from which terrorist attacks are launched.''
Rice echoed this outlook more discreetly and cautiously.
Pakistan's civilian government has sought to portray its helplessness in governing its own territory. In fact, in a startling slip noted by the Economist, Zardari said in a television interview last week that ''if any evidence points towards any individual or group in MY PART OF THE COUNTRY,'' he would take action. The implication, it said, was Pakistan was already severed if with parts of the country out of federal control.
While US position towards Pakistan has hardened perceptibly after the Mumbai attack, Indian officials are still leery about Washington’s approach. The hard part to swallow for New Delhi is that the Bush administration, while pushing for a strategic relationship with India, has bankrolled what some are already dubbing a terrorist state to the tune of $ 10 billion since 2002. Most of the money, according to the US government’s own audit, has gone towards building Pakistan's military muscle against India.
On Tuesday, even as Rice counselled patience and restraint in New Delhi, India’s Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon made the rounds in Washington, explaining India’s position and the growing anger across the country after Pakistan’s latest provocation.
Menon packed more than a dozen meetings, including with former intelligence czar and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Under Secretary of State William Burns, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and several top lawmakers as Washington struggled to contain Indian outrage. New Delhi’s message was uniform: India’s patience is wearing thin.
The Indian Embassy said later that ''unequivocal condemnation of the (Mumbai) incident and the need for the perpetrators to be held accountable was reiterated,'' at the meetings. It was also indicated that there would be full cooperation and support at various levels, including government, from the US to India as it dealt with the consequences of the incident, it added.
From all accounts, India too appears to be preparing ground for punitive action if Pakistan fails to respond and act adequately.