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NEW DELHI, India — Indian diplomats and military strategists no doubt felt a twinge of satisfaction last month, when the just-retired chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staffs finally came out and accused Pakistan's spy agency of employing terrorist groups.
New Delhi had long hoped for a breakdown of ties between Washington and Islamabad that would put an end to billions of dollars in U.S. aid that it says Pakistan uses primarliy to amass weapons against India.
But as much as New Delhi may have hoped and prayed for such a rift, when the United States succeeded in patching things up following Adm. Mike Mullen's accusation that Pakistani intelligence was using the Afghanistan-based Haqqani terrorist network to wage a “proxy war” against U.S. forces, the sigh of relief was almost audible.
What India wants above all, is for Pakistan to stay in check. And the fact of the matter, experts say, is that the United States makes that possible.
“The unraveling of U.S.-Pakistani ties in recent days posed huge dilemmas for India,” said Harsh Pant, an academic with the Department of Defence Studies at King's College London.
It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that whatever satisfaction India may have derived from hearing its own frequently repeated refrain from the mouth of America's highest-ranking military officer, it is more concerned about Pakistan being suddenly unleashed than it is about Islamabad's influence in Afghan peace talks or its diplomatic role in post-war Kabul.
That's because even though New Delhi has for years complained that the United States has overlooked Pakistan's alleged use of terrorist groups to wage a so-called proxy war against India, beginning with the Kargil conflict in 1999 and increasingly since Sept. 11, 2001 the United States has offered India its only leverage, however limited, over an increasingly reckless enemy.
“While there might be a sense of schadenfreude in certain circles in India, over the longterm [a rift between the United States and Pakistan] complicates the strategic realities for India,” Pant said.
Though “proxy war” has been its pet term for the Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence's activities for decades, New Delhi did not seize the moment following Mullen's statement to urge Washington to sever its military alliance with Islamabad. Rather, it issued a call for an extension of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which makes breaking that alliance impossible.
"For peace, stability and security in Afghanistan, it is imperative that the ongoing transition must be linked to the ground realities rather than rigid timetables,” India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Hardeep Singh Puri told fellow delegates in the aftermath of Mullen's statement.
“This, the international community in its hurry to withdraw from a combat role in Afghanistan, will ignore at its own peril.”
Enemies since the bloody Partition that carved two independent states from the erstwhile British India, India and Pakistan have fought four wars since their creation in 1947 — three times over territory in Kashmir and once as part of modern Bangladesh's fight for independence from Pakistan.
But even though India has never lost, Pakistan has never given up. The region remains one of the world's hot spots, with many other conflicts threatening to boil over.
More recently, all eyes have been trained on the subcontinent since a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament and a subsequent nose-to-nose confrontation between Indian and Pakistani forces on the border raised fears of the world's first nuclear war in 2002.
But New Delhi's retreat from the brink then and its refusal to mobilize troops again after the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai suggest that another full-scale war between India and Pakistan is far less likely than once believed.
The reasons are simple. India's growing military superiority virtually rules out an invasion by Pakistan, particularly since Beijing has more or less made clear that its support begins and ends with looking the other way with regard to Islamabad's employment of terrorist groups to nip at India's flanks.
And Pakistan's substantial nuclear arsenal, superior missiles and well-equipped air force act as a more than sufficient deterrent to any military action by India — whatever the provocation.
“India has not shown interest in fighting, Pakistan or anybody. It has reacted to provocations rather than seeking to resolve its 'Pakistan problem,'” said Sunil Dasgupta, co-author of "Arming Without Aiming: India's Military Modernization."
By almost any measure, today Pakistan's military prowess simply does not compare with India's, according to figures tabulated by Global Firepower.
At $36 billion, India's defense budget is nearly six times Pakistan's expenditure of $6.41 billion, and if it came to financing a shooting war, New Delhi has $284 billion in foreign reserves to Islamabad's paltry $16 billion.
In terms of boots on the ground, India has a standing army of 1.33 million soldiers, versus Pakistan's 617,000. Its tanks and other land-based weapons outnumber Pakistan's by 75,000 to 16,000. Its navy is nearly 10 times larger, and its 2,462 military aircraft are almost double Pakistan's 1,414 — though some say Pakistan's pilots are both superior and better equipped, thanks to decades of American military aid.
There's only one problem, says G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan. And that's what America is only just beginning to confront.
“I'm glad that reality has dawned, rather late in the day,” said Parthasarathy, in response to Mullen's statement. “But [the Pakistanis] are not going to give up their jihadi assets. If you choose to keep your head in the sand, there's nothing we can do about it.”
Pakistan's singular focus on India — some might call it an obsession — and its willingness to employ any means necessary to frustrate its nemesis mean that it remains a serious threat for India.
Moreover, India's increasing regional role, and China's saber-rattling response, makes it impossible for New Delhi to match Islamabad's singleminded approach.
“India needs to deploy a substantial number of its forces along the Sino-Indian border, thereby attenuating its capabilities,” said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University.
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“Separately, Pakistan has long adopted an asymmetric war strategy against India [by providing covert aid to terrorist groups] and conventional capabilities are not especially helpful in dealing with such a strategy. Also, because of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, India cannot respond using conventional forces.”
Things could well get worse before they get better. According to Pakistan's Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia," Pakistan now faces economic strife, deadly ethnic tensions and an internal problem with the Islamic extremists it once fostered.
Meanwhile, civilian control over the military is at a low ebb. “Pakistan is on the edge of a precipice and one faulty step — either by the Americans or the Pakistan army — could plunge an already beleaguered state into meltdown,” Rashid wrote in a recent column for the BBC.
That leaves an ever-reluctant India — still punching below its weight, even as it seeks a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — on the edge of a precipice, too.
“In the longterm, obviously, India and the U.S. are headed for strategic, economic, and social convergence,” said Dasgupta, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The policy challenge for the U.S. and India for some time now has been to figure out how to get from the short-term divergence over Pakistan to the long-term state of natural alliance.”