Taliban Offers Military Support to Pakistan in Event of War With India

Taliban fighters battling Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border volunteered Tuesday to fight alongside the army if war breaks out with traditional foe India over the Mumbai attacks.

Analysts say the offer is meant to fan the flames of anti-Hindu sentiment and draw support away from Islamabad's fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal regions close to Afghanistan.

The government, which is appealing for calm, has not responded to it.

"That is what they would love, to see the attention of the Pakistan army shift from the tribal areas to the eastern border with India," said defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

The Taliban's offer came in a video recording by its deputy chief, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, that was made available to reporters Tuesday.

"If India launches a war on Pakistan, we will divide the fight into two parts. The air defense will be the responsibility of the military, and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan will fight the war on ground," he said. "If it makes a mistake to attack Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Taliban will defend Pakistan and Islam."

Tehrik-e-Taliban is headed by Baitullah Mehsud, a militant blamed by Pakistan for the assassination of the country's moderate ex-premier, Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto's widower is President Asif Ali Zardari.

The group is accused of other suicide attacks in Pakistan and is strong in the tribal regions, where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding out.

"The Taliban want to generate goodwill for themselves in Pakistan by emphasizing they are friends of the government," said Rizvi. "A lot of Islamist elements and parties have been saying that the real threat to Pakistan comes from India rather than Taliban, so why should the military fight them?"

The nuclear-armed nations have fought three wars since the subcontinent was divided in 1947, two over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is claimed by both.

The Mumbai attackers are said by New Delhi to have been trained by the banned Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, a banned Pakistani militant group with roots in the disputed Kashmir region.

There have long been suspicions that Pakistan's military and intelligence services helped create, arm and train Lashkar-e-Taiba as a proxy force against India's much larger military.

The countries began a slow-moving peace process in 2004, but mutual distrust of India runs high in Pakistan, which for years demonized its giant eastern neighbor.

"The Mumbai incident is an Indian conspiracy against Pakistan," said Qari Shafiqur Rahman Alvi, spokesman for banned extremist group Sipahe Sahaba. "They are making grounds to attack Pakistan by falsely implicating Pakistan and its Islamic groups."

Despite tensions on both sides, few observers see the likelihood of full-blown conflict breaking out. But they note that even a further slowing to the peace process would benefit Pakistan's hardliners.

"It's not a matter of all out war, the real threat is will they stop talking to each other, that gives the space to the spoilers that will lead to more tension, more crises in the future," said Samina Ahmed, a South Asia expert at the International Crisis Group think tank.

Pakistan's 8-month-old government has said it is willing to cooperate with New Delhi in investigating the Mumbai attacks, but must balance that against demands from Muslim politicians and nationalists that it not be too soft.

In a sign of the resonance the anti-India message still has, the country's often fractious political leaders issued a statement Tuesday condemning the attack but criticizing the "unsubstantiated allegations made in haste against Pakistan."

They also stressed they supported the army's right to defend the country's security interests.

"As far as issues like this, we all are one," said opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. "The whole nation is one."