The latest troop movements come less than a month after the terror attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people. Indian officials have blamed Pakistan for sponsoring the violence and demanded that Islamabad arrest those responsible within its borders. While the Pakistani government has denied direct involvement, but its intelligence services have long supported terrorist groups that carry out attacks inside India.
Pakistan's deployment of additional troops along the Indian border creates a double headache for Washington. First, the military build-up heightens the prospect for a new conflict between Pakistan and India, bitter foes who have fought three major wars over the past 60 years. Both are nuclear-armed, and any new fighting could quickly escalate beyond the conventional thresh hold.
And, if that's not bad enough, Islamabad's move is causing new problems in the Global War on Terror. The troops now moving to the Indian border are being drawn from Pakistan's tribal areas, the same regions that serve as a recruiting, training and support base for the Taliban and Al Qaida. With fewer Pakistani troops on the ground, security in the northwest region will almost certainly deteriorate.
That, in turn, means an increased threat to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the supply lines (through Pakistan) that support them. In recent weeks, Taliban fighters have carried out a series of high-profile strikes on NATO supply convoys, destroying hundreds of vehicles. Those attacks will almost certainly grow in the coming weeks, possibly rendering those corridors unusable. Without those routes, the U.S. and its allies will be forced to seek new routes through equally inhospitable territory.
But the deployment's most disturbing element is the mission of the units that are on the move. Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal has an excellent analysis on the importance of these formations, as they relate to a possible war with India:
More than 20,000 Pakistani soldiers from Pakistan's 14th Army Division are being moved to the cities of Kasur and Sialkot in Punjab province, The Associated Press reported. The eastern cities are close to the Indian border and sit along the projected path of an Indian armored assault into Pakistan.
The 14th Division is part of Pakistan's XXXI Army Corps based out of Bahawalpur. "The XXXI Corps is the defensive formation assigned to take the brunt of an Indian armored assault," said Ravi Rikhye, the editor of Orbat.com, a website that tracks the order of battle for militaries throughout the world. Mandeep Singh Bajwa published an order of battle for Pakistani forces fighting counterinsurgency operations in northwestern Pakistan at Orbat.com just days ago. "The II Corps in Multan is assigned to follow up the XXXI Corps holding action and counterattack against invading Indian forces.
That referenced "holding action" represents the expected third phase of a general war between India and Pakistan. In the initial phase, Islamabad's elite Strike Corps would push into Indian territory. That incursion would be blunted by New Delhi's numerically and technically-superior forces, which would launch with their own counter-attack in the war's second phase.
But few experts believe that Pakistan's XXXI and II Corps can withstand the Indian assault. If that "third phase" goes badly for Islamabad (as most analysts anticipate), it will lead to a nuclear strike on the invading Indian armored columns. That would be followed by a wider nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, which could kill millions of people.
In other words, Pakistan is now deploying troops for the third phase of its battle plan with India. That suggests that tensions are much higher than most observers believe, and the two countries may be moving closer to war.
To be fair, Islamabad has made these moves before, without resorting to armed conflict. But intelligence gaps on both sides create uncertainty, and the potential for miscalculation. This is particularly true in regards to the nuclear forces on both sides. Even the U.S. intelligence system has reported great difficulty in tracking nuclear movements and activity by India and Pakistan in the past, and it's a fair bet that New Delhi and Islamabad have only limited knowledge of what the other side is up to.
The U.S. is urging India and Pakistan to remain calm. A spokesman said the White House is in contact with New Delhi and Islamabad, urging cooperation on the Mumbai attacks and the wider issue of terror. It's also likely that a senior U.S. defense official may return to the region, for more talks with Pakistani officials. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen have traveled to Islamabad in recent weeks, and it's almost certain that one of them will head back to the sub-continent, in an effort to defuse the situation.
But it may not be enough, and we may be under-estimating the situation. A year after the 1999 Kargil Crisis, our intelligence agencies discovered that India and Pakistan had come dangerously close to a nuclear exchange over a situation that was (arguably) less heated than this one. Today, we face similar intelligence gaps in trying to assess the current crisis.