This option is both too obvious and too attractive not to have captured the attention of the leadership echelon of al-Qaeda. Not only have India and Pakistan gone to war several times before, both countries (Pakistan far more than India under its present government) are willing to stage another rematch. All that is needed is a proper inciting incident or maybe two if the Indians are in a particularly cautious mood.
Had it not been for India's "restraint" and "statesmanlike" behavior, as Gates correctly characterized matters, the attack on Mumbai would have been sufficient. The lack of a robust response by India undoubtedly perturbed both the heavyweights of Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qaeda. Even the foot dragging and irresolute response on the part of Pakistan's government to the Indian demands that Islamabad haul its freight in both investigating and prosecuting the LeT leaders down home in Pakistan did not end India's policy of restraint.
A year ago some outside observers (including the Geek) expected an Islamist "second strike." It was unimportant just which group of the many available undertook the second attack as long as one occurred. No Indian government could have survived politically had it not taken strong retaliatory measures.
Gates observed that Indian patience and restraint was not unlimited in the face of future attacks on a scale rivaling the one on Mumbai. The Secretary's words were both diplomatic and quite blunt.
Their bluntness implies that the Indian government had made it abundantly clear that the next attack would not pass by unanswered. A further implication is that the Indians would be unwilling (or politically unable) to accept any US counsel to the effect that they be patient, that they show restraint, that they turn the other cheek in the event of another outrage committed by Islamist jihadists with a documented or even probable connection to Pakistan.
The Indian military has a wide range of retaliatory capabilities at its disposal. In highest probability the use of the most circumspect method would recommend itself. The most probable response would be carried out by Indian domestic manufacture cruise missiles against known terrorist training centers in Pakistan. This approach would limit collateral damage while allowing for an escalation should such prove necessary for either legitimate security reasons or compelling domestic political requirements.
Any Indian response even one as low profile as a single cruise missile strike on remotely located camps would carry risks. Additionally, it would have to be very carefully calibrated. The Indians would need to consider--and to avoid if at all possible--stimulating either of two probable Pakistani reactions. There is no desire in India for Pakistan's population to rally monolithically behind its government let alone the Islamists of LeT and Taliban. Neither would the Indian government (or the US) hope to see a Pakistan further weakened internally so as to assure an Islamist victory in that country.
Whether the Indian government and military are capable of so perfectly calibrating any hypothetical retaliatory strike is questionable at best. What Gates said hints strongly at the reality that the Indians are less concerned about that aspect of life than they are about motivating the Pakistani government to get off the dime and work far more sedulously at the task of eradicating both Taliban in Pakistan and the leader of the "syndicate of terror," al-Qaeda.
The US is just as interested in motivating Pakistan to do more in the war for its government's survival. Gates correctly called the conflict with al-Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan "existential" in nature. Regardless of the hopes and delusions of those Islamists in the government, military, and Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the contest between Taliban et al and the current regime is a zero sum game. There is only room at the top for one winner be it the status quo or the Islamist jihadists.
For just over two decades now the Pakistani military and ISI have fostered, nurtured, supported, guided, and protected both Taliban and al-Qaeda. Throughout this long period and process it has been the hope of ISI and others in the power elite that someday in someway the Islamist jihadists would provide the winning element in the future war with India. Whether through the provision of strategic depth in Afghanistan or the means of creating a fifth column in Kashmir and elsewhere in India, the Pakistanis have seen Islamist jihadists as a key weapon for future success against the hated Hindu rival.
In a set of very real ways India has already won the future war. Not only is the Indian military far more competent than its Pakistani rival, the Indian decision to invest heavily in human capital has given the country a vast advantage economically and in terms of social coherence. In addition the landmass of India compared to that of Pakistan implies strongly that the former country can survive a limited nuclear attack far better than the latter.
The great equalizer of nuclear weapons does not exist as regards the Indian-Pakistani calculus. The population and economic infrastructure of Pakistan is simply too concentrated to survive even a very limited (one to five weapons of twenty kilotons yield) nuclear attack. Sheer geographic propinquity assures that even a conscientiously counter-force strike would be a major counter-value attack.
The same situation does not apply to nearly the same extent in India. The country could survive a mid-sized attack (twenty to fifty weapons of up to fifty kiloton yield) without being existentially impaired.
In short, reality behooves Islamabad even more than it does New Delhi to take firm, effective, and rapid action to end the "syndicate of terror" before the syndicate can bring its strategic vision into effect. Should the syndicate succeed, the results will be far more disastrous for Pakistan than India.
And that, bucko, was the crucial sub-text of Secretary Gates' remarks to the press. One can only hope they read the papers in Islamabad.