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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 13:42 GMT
India facing tough choices
Military exercise
Heightened rhetoric is fuelling fears of conflict
By defence analyst Rahul Bedi in Delhi

The Indian Government is under pressure to retaliate against Pakistani-based militants following last week's attack on parliament which left 13 people dead.


Pakistan will retaliate and India will have to be prepared to deal with this escalation

Senior Indian army officer
Hardline groups are pressing for punitive raids to be launched on alleged militant bases inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

But many within India and outside have warned that any such move could escalate tensions between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan and even lead to a full-scale war.

Opinion is divided over how effective any military action on India's part may be.

Any strike on suspected militant bases inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir would involve the air force and the army's special forces.

It would include bombing raids against the targets using a combination of attack aircraft backed by ground attacks on militant camps by helicopter-borne special forces.

Risks

One military official told BBC News Online that by confining the attack to Pakistan-administered Kashmir India would not be seen as having declared war on Pakistan.

However, the paucity of specific intelligence on the exact whereabouts of militant camps, means the air operations would have to be supported by technology on the ground.

Indian soldiers in Kashmir
There are often exchanges along the Kashmir frontline
Remotely-piloted vehicles and laser designators would have to be used to avoid hitting Pakistani military targets that would, doubtless, escalate the situation into full scale hostilities.

But Indian military officers say these would have to be backed up with troop reinforcements along the international border in Rajasthan and Punjab.

"Pakistan will retaliate and India will have to be prepared to deal with this escalation," a senior army officer said.

Pakistan has already moved its "strike" formations up to the Jammu border at the week-end.

Supported by armoured formations around four divisions or over 80,000 troops are believed to be fortifying their positions in anticipation of an Indian attack.

Around a third of India's 1.2 million strong army is permanently based in Kashmir to guard the border and on counter insurgency operations.

Both sides regularly exchange artillery, mortar and small arms fire along the Line of Control that divides the two armies in Kashmir.

Nuclear fears

Some Indian observers believe that the US military presence in Pakistan would deter any nuclear retaliation from Islamabad.

But others disagree.

Pakistan missile test
Both countries are now nuclear capable
"The fact that Pakistan is a nuclear weapon state should be considered," warned retired General Ved Prakash Malik, who was India's army chief during the Kargil conflict in 1999.

He cautioned the government against attacking militant camps in Pakistan, advising it to use covert means against its neighbour to deter further insurgent strikes.

India and Pakistan's nuclear tests in 1998 and their decision to develop weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them has led to rising tensions between the two neighbours.

"Possession of nuclear weapons has emboldened Pakistan to raise the military stakes at a time and place of its choosing," said an Indian military officer.

Military and intelligence officials in India believe that the nuclear factor has ensured that any flare-up between the two countries would lead to international intervention - something that Pakistan favours but India does not.

Pakistan was therefore safe in the knowledge that India would remain committed to preventing any military crisis from escalating into a full-blown conventional conflict, the thinking goes.

See also:

15 Dec 01 | South Asia
India steps up pressure on Pakistan
15 Dec 01 | South Asia
Suspects held over parliament raid
13 Dec 01 | South Asia
Pakistan leads world condemnation
13 Dec 01 | South Asia
Kashmir groups condemn attack
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
India and Pakistan: Troubled relations
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