Leading article: India must be careful not to play into the terrorists' hands

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If President-elect Barack Obama is showing signs of being sucked in, against his will, to opine on domestic economic matters before his 20 January investiture, he should thank his lucky stars that he has not yet been called upon to pronounce on the growing tensions between Pakistan and India. Instead it has been thrust upon the figure of the departing Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, and the Republican candidate, John McCain, to shuttle between New Delhi and Islamabad in a desperate effort to keep a war of words from breaking out into an actual clash of arms over the terrorist assault on Mumbai.

If the rumours are to be believed – and they are well-sourced – an outraged Indian government, under mounting pressure from its own people, is contemplating air strikes against the training camps from whence it believes the terrorists came. And President Bush is inclined to give the nod to a strictly limited expression of Indian anger. Limited it might be, but if the logic of the region is anything to go by, a new and fragile democratic regime in Pakistan would be forced to respond in the most aggressive terms.

At issue is the future of two embattled democratic governments, neither secure in power and both of whom are now under pressure from the more extreme nationalistic elements in their respective countries. At stake is a possible outbreak of open hostilities between two nuclear powers.

The immediate hope is that the Pakistani authorities may have taken some of the heat out of this growing confrontation by assaulting the main camp and arresting the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Kashmiri independence group held responsible for the Mumbai killings. The thorny question of whether Pakistan is willing to give up its suspects – as New Delhi is demanding – remains up in the air.

There is no doubt that, in this argument, India has a good deal of justice on its side. Although we still have a great deal to learn about the origins and organisation of the terrorists – and the Indian authorities have been highly selective in the leaking of "facts" from the interrogation of the one man taken alive – it does seem that the group who created such mayhem over two days were trained, financed and probably directed from Pakistan. It is also quite possible that they had connivance if not active help from elements in Pakistan's security forces.

But it also true that none of these allegations have been proven, that India has a vested interest in blaming it all on Pakistan rather than home-grown extremists, that the Pakistani government as such does seem to be genuinely surprised and shocked by the course of events and that this was a criminal act, subject to the processes of law as much in international relations as domestic prosecution.

Pursuing military actions, however limited, as an act of revenge or even in pursuit of criminals has no part in international law. It might please an angry public. It might seem tempting in the light of Pakistan's often feeble and dilatory efforts to control its own extremists. But it will only breed more extremism and angry nationalism in the nation attacked. Pakistan's nascent democracy needs support, not a confrontation which can only weaken the position of its government.

Terrorism has its aims, not least, in this case, undermining the standing of the elected governments of India and Pakistan and killing off any hopes of rapprochement between the two. For India to take unilateral action against its neighbour would only serve the purposes of the murderers of Mumbai.