A syndicate of terror groups affiliated with al-Qaida might try to start a new war between rivals India and Pakistan as part of an organized effort to sow upheaval across South Asia, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.
"I believe this operation, under the umbrella of al-Qaida working with all of these different groups, is intended to destabilize not just Afghanistan, or not just Pakistan, but potentially the whole region," Gates said.
Gates described the relations between Taliban groups and Lashkar-e-Taiba extremists accused of orchestrating the 2008 terror attack on the Indian city of Mumbai, and he suggested the Pakistan-based militants might try a new terror assault on India to provoke a reprisal.
U.S. officials say one of their greatest fears is that Islamic militants who oppose the popularly elected governments in both India and Pakistan will find a way to get the nuclear-armed rivals fighting one another instead of the militants.
Gates praised his Indian hosts for restraint following the three-day terror siege of Mumbai, which India immediately blamed on militants inside Pakistan. There were no reprisals, and Pakistan has charged seven men. Yet it might not be the same next time, Gates said.
"The ability of any state to continue that, were it to be attacked again, I think is in question," Gates said. "I have to leave the answer to that question to the Indian government and its officials, but I think it's not unreasonable to assume that Indian patience would be limited were there to be further attacks."
The United States has been trying to lower tensions between India and Pakistan to free up both nation's military and economic resources. India, with its emerging economy, could be an important regional power in the U.S. view, while Pakistan could be a stronger bulwark against Muslim extremism.
"I think it's a very complicated situation. I think it's very dangerous for the region as a whole. I also think it's dangerous to single out any one of these groups and say if we could beat that group that will solve the problem, because they are, in effect, a syndicate of terrorist operators intending to destabilize this entire region," Gates said. "It does require a high level of cooperation among us all."
Cooperation is likely to be a tough sell.
The neighbors have fought three wars and remain wary over each other's intentions. Pakistan is unhappy with India's significant influence in Afghanistan, and India accuses Pakistan of harboring terror groups plotting attacks here.
Following the November 2008 assault on Mumbai, India froze talks with Pakistan that had been aimed at resolving the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which both countries claim in its entirety.
India is an important offstage player in the Afghanistan war, and part of Gates' mission was to shore up support for the war effort without provoking further animosity between India and Pakistan. The United States sees Pakistan as a more central player in the Afghanistan fight, since militants who attack U.S. forces find shelter across the fluid border with Pakistan.
India, however, resents additional U.S. aid to its arch rival for what the United States says is cooperation against a shared threat from extremism and terrorism.
India has pledged more than $1 billion for Afghanistan rebuilding.
The militant groups Gates named Wednesday are all based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They include the Taliban branches in each country, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
When one group succeeds in carrying out an attack, all of them gain in capability and reputation, he said. "A victory for one is a victory for all."
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