Does anyone recall a top American official publicly declaring that India would be justified in attacking Pakistan if terrorists struck Indian targets again?
I don't. Which is why I believe more attention must be paid to what United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates said last week in India, when asked whether he had counselled restraint to New Delhi in the event of another terror strike.
Gates' reply, "I told all of the Indian leaders that I met with that I thought that India had responded with great restraint and statesmanship after the first Mumbai attack. The ability of any state to continue that, were it to be attacked again, I think is in question..."
That was more of a threat against Pakistan than Washington has made before. Underlining that, Gates emphasised, "It's not unreasonable to assume that Indian patience would be limited, were there to be further (terrorist) attacks."
At that point (in New Delhi, on January 20), it could legitimately be argued that Gates was double-dealing, as America frequently does, sweet-talking India in India before heading off to Pakistan to repudiate his statement. But, this time, in Islamabad the next day, Gates repeated to Pakistan TV almost exactly what he had said in New Delhi. His words, "I believe that after the tragic attack on Mumbai, India was restrained in its response. But no country, including the United States, is going to stand idly by if it's being attacked by somebody."
Interesting, especially the similar phraseology, pointing to a pre-formulated response! Was Washington merely waving the India stick to nudge Islamabad towards greater cooperation in the Af-Pak war? Or, is the US starting to believe that Islamabad is a lost cause, and that India can be used -- not just politically and diplomatically, but its hard power as well -- to deal with Pakistan?
Unthinkable? Remember that a government's public positions usually lag, in both time and emphasis, what policymakers agree to behind closed doors. It would be reasonable to assume that Robert Gates, while meeting Dr Manmohan Singh, was even more forthright in signalling America's tolerance for the use of Indian force.
America's dwindling patience is evident from more than just Gates' warning. At the same time that Gates visited Delhi, two former US officials -- General Richard Myers, former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and William Schneider, until recently the Pentagon's head of technology -- were in India, sounding out key opinion-makers and policy-makers about the possibility of a growing military role for India in Afghanistan.
The question at the heart of their discussions was: how best can Indian police organisations, like the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Central Industrial Security Force, take on a major role in training the Afghan National Police to look after security? Neither Myers nor Schneider seemed even slightly constrained by Pakistan's entreaties to Washington to curb India's role in Afghanistan. Myers and Schneider, some might argue, are not from the US government; they merely represent an academic viewpoint! That distinction, however, is far less relevant in America.
Washington works closely with its think-tanks, even outsourcing research that underpins key decisions: e.g. how best can the India card be played to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan? New Delhi's mandarins must surely wonder if America -- losing patience with Pakistan and calculating that US military action against Pakistan would be expensive, bloody, and the end of all influence in Islamabad -- was signalling that if India wanted to do the dirty work, Washington would look away.
For Islamabad, though, Gates' words will be nothing other than a stark threat. Superimposing the India stick on the traditional carrots of aid, weaponry and undying friendship, is a measure of Washington's desperation in dealing with Pakistan's reluctance to crack down on Jihadi terrorism. Gates' new stance will also highlight America's shrinking interest in cultivating a benign image in Pakistan. Draining the abscess of radicalism is now a greater imperative.
Despite India's satisfaction, Gates' understanding is not an unalloyed blessing. Whenever the next major terrorist strike takes place --and Pakistan's prime minister has declared that he cannot stop one -- New Delhi will find its options dangerously narrowed. An inflamed public and a rampant media will challenge Indian policy-makers with the question: what now holds back India from retaliating against Pakistan? With international restraints loosened, Indian strikes on Pakistan's territory would be a real option, and war not just an academic question.
But how ready for that challenge is the military? After the terrorist strikes on Parliament on December 13, 2001, and in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, the subcontinent stood poised on the brink of war. Despite General Padmanabhan's brave statement, after the Parliament attack, that India would wage war with whatever equipment it possessed, the army asked the government for more time to prepare. With military modernisation remaining stalled for a quarter of a century, Defence Minister A K Antony and his predecessors have set the scene for potential embarrassment.
India has done the diplomatic heavy-lifting for coercing Pakistan on terrorism. The military preparation, however, remains sadly lacking.