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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Last month's attacks in Mumbai prompted us to explore the roots of conflict between India and Pakistan. Today: A standoff that lasted months and brought the two nuclear powers to the brink of war. The flashpoint came on December 13, 2001.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BLOCK: Just before noon, five gunmen attacked the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi.

Mr. JASWANT SINGH (Former Indian Foreign Minister): I was in my office in the Parliament, about 20 feet from where the attack was initiated.

BLOCK: Jaswant Singh was then India's foreign minister.

Mr. SINGH: I heard machine gun fire, and I knew it was a full-fledged attack. Once the main door was shut, then grenades began to be thrown, and so there was grenade fire, which you can't mistake.

BLOCK: In the end, eight security guards and a gardener were dead, as were all five attackers. India blamed a militant group from Kashmir. The disputed Himalayan region has been the source of conflict between the neighboring rivals since partition in 1947. India claimed the attackers were part of a Kashmiri separatist group, armed and supported by Pakistan, the same group blamed for last month's attacks in Mumbai. Within weeks, India had mobilized half a million troops along the Pakistani border and deployed nuclear-capable missiles. Pakistani forces responded in kind.

Dr. MALEEHA LODHI (Former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S.): At the height of that crisis, there were troops on that frontier in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, which obviously made the region very fraught.

BLOCK: Maleeha Lodhi was Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. at the time.

Dr. LODHI: This was deemed and read by Pakistan at that time as an exercise in coercive diplomacy by India. India was playing off the 9/11 dynamic. It was trying to exploit the war on terrorism for its own purposes, hoping to win international sympathy and support, especially for its position on Kashmir. And we felt that this whole military escalation was an effort by India to drive a wedge between Islamabad and Washington, and also cast Pakistan in the role of some kind of a supporter or abettor of terrorists.

BLOCK: The rhetoric on both sides was fierce. Here's Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, a couple of weeks after the attack on parliament.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

General PERVEZ MUSHARRAF (Former President of Pakistan): Pakistan has taken all countermeasures. If any war is thrust on Pakistan, Pakistan armed forces are fully prepared to face all consequences with all their might.

Mr. STEVE COLL (Columnist, The New Yorker) The idea with the sort of rhetoric that Musharraf evinced that day was just to intimidate the Indians.

BLOCK: Steve Coll has been writing about South Asia for 20 years, now for the New Yorker. He says Musharraf was brandishing Pakistan's nuclear capability before the Indians.

Mr. COLL: To raise doubts in their minds about what would be the threshold at which Pakistan's army might feel sufficiently threatened to consider first use. This was never spelled out. So this puts doubt in the minds of Indian commanders. If we drive to the city of Lahore and capture Lahore, is that the threshold? If we break the country in half by crossing the Indus River, is that the threshold? The potential for misunderstanding and sudden escalation to nuclear use was certainly present in the equation.

BLOCK: In the view of U.S. intelligence, how close did India and Pakistan come to nuclear conflict in 2001-2002?

Mr. COLL: The standard view inside the U.S. government today is that war was a very close thing in May of 2002. You'll find many people who were involved in the crisis, who continue to believe, and who reported at the time in internal assessments to the U.S. government that they believed war was a close-run thing.

BLOCK: Well, what ultimately brought India and Pakistan back from the brink?

Mr. COLL: Fundamentally, I think India concluded correctly that as frustrating as it was, they could not accomplish anything in war that would be worth the prize of waging that war. India's economy was racing ahead. India was breaking out into a new century of great power, status, and prosperity. And that infrastructure of terror in Pakistan unfortunately cannot be destroyed by military means alone. It requires political programs. It requires economic programs. It requires a sort of will that cannot be imposed from outside. So, as a rational matter, the cost-benefit equation just didn't add up.

BLOCK: If you look at the attacks in 2001 on the Indian Parliament, compare them with the recent attacks in Mumbai, many, many more people died in the attacks in Mumbai. Do you think these two countries are now as close to confrontation - potentially nuclear confrontation as they were seven years ago?

Mr. COLL: Actually, I don't, because I think the Indian government has internalized the lessons of 2002. And I think the Indian government recognizes that there's something else different this time, which is that the government in Pakistan is much more unstable, much more divided, and much weaker than it was in 2002. So the equation is different. If India attacks, it may destroy the only allies it has in Pakistan, the civilian government led by President Asif Zardari. So I do think there's more cause for the Indians to be restrained this time than last time.

BLOCK: That's New Yorker writer Steve Coll. The former Pakistani ambassador, Maleeha Lodhi, says as India considers its response to last month's attacks in Mumbai, it might also consider something more fundamental about Pakistan.

Dr. LODHI: I've always said that if nations were like individuals, my country would have moved out of its neighborhood a long time ago. Pakistan has lived next door to Afghanistan, which has seen three decades of war and internal strife. It has also lived right next to Kashmir which has seen two decades of an insurgency. I think this has produced a state which has lived in a very insecure and a very vulnerable way. It has felt itself vulnerable also living in the shadow of a big neighbor, India, which somehow hasn't had a big heart to match its big size.

BLOCK: But Indian politician Jaswant Singh says Pakistan's fears are of its own making.

Mr. SINGH: Pakistan and India are born of the same womb, and if Pakistan today speaks of the intensive insecurity that it has, I personally am of the view that a great deal of that insecurity is self-induced.

BLOCK: Singh says Pakistan is wrong to try to strengthen its national identity through militant Islam and continuous hostility toward India. Pakistan, he says, has to answer this question: What is its foundation?

Mr. SINGH: In hatred, there is no answer. In perpetual enmity, there is no answer. And in continuous, self-induced uncertainty and insecurity, there cannot be an answer.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Tomorrow, I'll talk with an Indian writer and a Pakistani filmmaker about how a new generation sees the relationship with its neighbor. You can see a detailed timeline of the tumultuous history between India and Pakistan at npr.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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