Visiting U.S. Defense Chief Says al Qaeda Aims to Destabilize the Volatile Region by Triggering a Pakistan-India War

Reported by Yochi J. Dreazen and Paul Beckett for The Wall Street Journal

NEW DELHI—U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said al Qaeda is working with an array of local militant groups to destabilize South Asia and trigger a war between India and Pakistan, an indication of growing U.S. fears about new terror attacks throughout the volatile region. Mr. Gates said al Qaeda had formed alliances with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-based group that carried out the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that left more than 160 dead.

The American defense chief, who is in the middle of a three-day visit to India, said the al Qaeda-led “syndicate” is trying “to destabilize not just Afghanistan, not just Pakistan, but potentially the whole region. “Speaking to reporters here, Mr. Gates said the Islamist groups were focusing particular attention on India and Pakistan, regional rivals who have fought three major wars since 1947. He said that Pakistani-based militants were trying to carry out strikes within India in hopes of provoking an Indian counterattack that could escalate into a new conflict between the two nations.

Mr. Gates said the groups also posed an “existential” threat to Pakistan and warned that India’s government—which refrained from reprisal attacks on Pakistan after the Mumbai assault— wasn’t likely to exercise similar restraint if new attacks occurred on its territory. “The ability of any state to continue that, were it to be attacked again, I think is in question,” Mr. 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 three-day trip here was designed to bolster Washington’s ties to New Delhi, a U.S. ally that is rapidly emerging as one of the biggest purchasers of American-made weapons, airplanes and military vehicles in the world. In an editorial published in the Times of India on Tuesday, Mr. Gates said India and the U.S. had made “significant strides in developing a stable defense trade.”

Mr. Gates encouraged India’s government to sign a series of technical agreements that would clear the way for India to purchase high-tech American-made encryption, navigation and targeting systems. The agreements, which have been under discussion for months, face significant Indian opposition. Beyond the commercial dealings, Mr. Gates’s meetings with senior Indian officials including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh focused heavily on the threat posed by al Qaeda and its regional allies.

Mr. Gates said that Pakistani-based militants might try to provoke a new war “through some provocative act” within India. After the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, New Delhi has pursued an international diplomatic push to force Pakistan to take responsibility for the fact that the terrorists emanated from there.

With United Nations and U.S. pressure, Pakistan agreed to pursue the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants responsible for the attack and to clamp down on the organization’s charitable wing. Pakistan also brought charges against several individuals suspected of helping to plan the attack.Indian officials take pride in the fact that their response was handled entirely through diplomatic channels, and Mr. Gates praised them this week for behaving with “great statesmanship.”

But the Indian government has also repeatedly called on Pakistan to do more to curtail terrorists dedicated to attacking India. Indian officials have cautioned that if there is another attack on India emanating from Pakistan, the response would likely go further than mere diplomacy.If new major attacks take place in India, it is widely expected here that India would respond with what it considers to be military restraint—such as targeted missile strikes against terrorist camps on the Pakistani side of Kashmir.

That scenario presents American officials who are in the region with a huge challenge: how to create enough political breathing space to prevent a subsequent escalation that could lead to outright war between the two sidesIt is an effort that U.S. officials in the region view as central to their mission of helping maintain and improve relations between the two neighbors.

Mr. Gates encouraged India and Pakistan to work together and share information about the militants imperiling both their countries, and to avoid blaming each other for any new violence. “It’s very dangerous for the region as a whole,” Mr. Gates said. “It does require a high level of cooperation among us all.”

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