- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

WAGAH, Pakistan | As India and Pakistan put their militaries on alert following the terrorist attacks in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai, the mood on the border between the South Asian rivals is a mix of anxiety and resignation.

Wagah lies on a road linking the cities of Amritsar in India and Lahore, Pakistan.

Saud Khan, who works as a farmer in the fields around the village, said he has seen the movement of troops toward the border in recent weeks.

“It’s not as bad as it was in 1971,” he said, referring to the last war fought between India and Pakistan. “But I am a little worried. I’ve told my wife to pack up our bags and be ready to flee if the need arises.”

Pakistan has not officially acknowledged a significant redeployment of troops. Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, said recently that reports claiming that Pakistan has moved large numbers of troops to the eastern border are “not true.”

Ahmed Faraz, a journalist who lives in the border area, said the buildup is discreet. “The troops head to the border only at night and then return by daybreak to their positions a few kilometers from Wagah,” he said.

Tensions have risen between the nuclear-armed neighbors since terrorist attacks in November in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people. India has blamed the assaults on a Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Since the attacks, Pakistan has raided camps of the banned group in the Pakistani-control section of Kashmir and arrested at least two top leaders.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that one of the arrested Lashkar leaders confirmed India’s claims during interrogation by Pakistani officials.

Pakistani leaders have asked India to provide more evidence. Indian officials say Pakistan has enough evidence but chooses not to act.

U.S. officials have urged Pakistan to keep its focus on fighting militants along the western border with Afghanistan. However, sources in the Pakistani Interior Ministry reported a mass movement of Pakistani troops to the eastern border on Dec. 26. The Indian government responded by deploying quick-reaction forces near the border, according to Indian defense sources.

Sidra Sallauhuddin, 16, who has never seen a war break out on the border, is anxious. “I just hope no one gets killed,” she said, biting her lips as she spoke. “I don’t want to see any blood here. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t mind the soldiers coming here.”

But Seema Khan, 32, a housewife who lives with her family of four in Wagah, said she hasn’t seen much to get worried about. “I have seen a few soldiers here and there, but nothing much,” she said.

“I have told my children to play closer to the house and not wander far, but other than this, I am not greatly upset.”

Still, political commentators fear tensions could escalate.

“If not war, then I fear India may decide to conduct specifically targeted strikes against militant targets in Muridke and other parts of Pakistan where the Lashkar-e-Taiba have strongholds,” said Lahore-based newspaper columnist Asadullah Ghalib.

Outside the office where Mr. Ghalib works, the mood is somber.

On witnessing fighter jets flying overhead for two days in a row in Lahore and Islamabad, fashion coordinator Moeen Pal said it’s not safe to stay in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.

“We’re so close to the border areas,” he said. “If India attacks us, Lahore will be the first to suffer.”

The two-day flight exercises were later explained by the military as part of a procedure for putting the air force on red alert.

Political scientist Rasool Baksh Raees said that despite comforting statements from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that New Delhi does not want war, “there’s immense pressure on the Indian government from the public to do something. With elections coming up, they may well be forced to act more aggressively than expected.”

Still, retired Lt. Gen. Naseer Akhtar said the situation was not like 1971.

“Today our country’s army is in a much better position than it was then. In case of an attack, India will lose far more than they will gain,” he said.

On a Facebook site entitled “Against War: But when imposed then defend,” the mood is similar to that on the streets. One message reads: “We should volunteer for our country if needed,” while another states, “We have a right to defend our country.”

Meanwhile in interviews to media organizations, including The Washington Times, militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba and similar organizations have made one fact clear: If India attacks Pakistan, there is no dearth of volunteers ready to raise arms against it.

“If they touch us, we will go all out,” said a member of Harkat-ul-Jihad, a militant group operating in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. “Responding against an Indian assault is jihad which every Pakistani would want to be a part of.”

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