Asserting the same right of preemptive war that the United States used to justify its invasion of Iraq, Indian officials have accused Washington of failing to end Pakistan's support for guerrillas in Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir and warned that India may be forced to take limited military action against its nuclear-armed neighbor.
In a series of recent public statements, Indian officials have stepped up accusations that, contrary to assurances he provided the United States last spring, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, has been giving free rein to militants fighting to end Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region.
While India has made such charges before, it has lately begun to draw parallels to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha told Parliament on Wednesday that Pakistan's nuclear capability and alleged support for the Kashmir groups make it a "fitter case" for intervention than Iraq.
Indian officials say that following a brief crackdown on militant groups last summer, Pakistan is now permitting the operation of up to 120 training camps for the fighters and is once again helping them cross the cease-fire line -- called the Line of Control -- that separates Pakistani and Indian forces in Kashmir.
Moreover, they say, intercepted messages provide strong circumstantial evidence that two of Pakistan's largest militant organizations -- Lashkar-i-Taiba and Hizb ul-Mujaheddin -- collaborated in the March 23 massacre of 24 Hindus in the Kashmiri village of Nadimarg. A senior official in India's Home Ministry, which handles internal security, said in an interview this week that at least 3,000 "trained Pakistani cadre" are currently operating in Indian-held Kashmir.
India regards these people as terrorists. Pakistan says its assistance to those it describes as "freedom fighters" is limited to diplomatic, political and moral support. It has condemned the Nadimarg massacre and called for an independent third-party inquiry into it.
"This is creating the impression that the United States is unable to put sufficient pressure on Pakistan," Kanwal Sibal, India's foreign secretary, said in an interview today. "If these terrorist attacks on a large scale continue, then at some stage in terms of our public opinion the government will find it very difficult to continue to absorb this."
Sibal said that comparisons between Pakistan and Iraq were rhetorical in nature and were not intended as "advance indication for any kind of imminent action" against Pakistan. Nevertheless, Western diplomats both here and in Islamabad are worried about the potential for military conflict later this spring, when mountain snows recede and militant infiltration typically increases.
They fear that India, which nearly launched a war on Pakistan last year following terrorist attacks against the Indian Parliament and other targets, may feel it has no option but to take action if there is another incident on the scale of the Nadimarg massacre.
While such a response would likely be limited to airstrikes on training camps or army posts on Pakistan's side of the Line of Control, diplomats worry that the situation could escalate out of control. Both countries have small nuclear arsenals.
"If they do something, it won't be in the expectation it's going to solve the problem," a Western diplomat said. "It will be almost entirely political."
On March 27, following blunt private warnings from Indian officials that they were close to taking action against Pakistan, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw took time out from an Iraq war summit at Camp David to jointly urge Pakistan to "fulfill its commitments" to end militant incursions into Kashmir.
Despite the statement, Western diplomats assert that the case against Pakistan is not as clear-cut as Indian officials claim, noting that some Pakistani militants are nearly as hostile to Musharraf as they are to India and the United States.
State Department officials reacted sharply this week to Sinha's attempts to draw parallels between the governments of the ousted Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, and that of Musharraf, a close U.S. ally in the war against terrorism.
But Western diplomats in New Delhi and Islamabad say they have been dismayed by what they regard as Musharraf's failure to fulfill the promise he made last spring to "permanently" end militant incursions into Kashmir.
They say they generally concur with the Indian assessment that after dropping sharply in June and July, infiltrations increased -- by how much is unclear -- in the latter half of 2002 before trailing off in February due to heavy snows. They also share India's pique over the release from house arrest of several leaders of militant groups ostensibly banned by Musharraf.
Among the leaders are Hafiz Sayeed, the head of Lashkar-i-Taiba, which got around the ban by changing its name to Jamaat-ul-Dawa. The new group's office in Islamabad is the same one that was used by Lashkar-i-Taiba. Last month, Sayeed called for holy war against the United States in a speech to antiwar protesters in the city of Lahore. Sayeed has said in recent interviews that the government has not restricted his activities.
Musharraf, meanwhile, appears confident of continued backing by Washington. According to senior Pakistani officials, in recent weeks he has described receiving private assurances from both Powell and Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, that Pakistan will get a piece of the reconstruction business in Iraq in the form of supplying labor and some construction material, especially cement.
Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.