Mumbai and Obama

by , December 09, 2008

In international politics, events can precipitate crises few had expected, although the elements of crisis may have been lying apparently dormant. Just a few weeks ago, Newsweek‘s John Barry could write a piece suggesting that whatever domestic economic problems he faced on Inauguration Day, his "foreign policy and national-security inbox shows that, even on pressing issues, Obama has the luxury of time." He noted that Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Korea, and other lingering problems were in a condition of relative quiescence and could be approached gradually.

That situation changed with the horrendous terrorist attacks Nov. 26 on Mumbai, India’s financial and cultural center. The incident has already led to heightened tension between India and Pakistan, two countries that acquired nuclear weapons to counter one another and exist in a more-or-less constant state of tension, especially over the province of Kashmir, now split between the two countries. The United States has already jumped feet-first into the emerging situation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Pakistan to reinforce Indian demands that Pakistan crack down on militant groups said to be operating out of Pakistan, one of which is strongly suspected of having perpetrated the attacks. Tensions are likely to escalate in the near future, in ways that could easily draw the United States into a situation that will be difficult to defuse.

It is important to recognize that regardless of the origin of the attacks, India’s government would have a vested interest in placing the blame on Pakistan. If the attacks were seen to have come from a domestic terrorist group, of which there are several, the Indian government would be seen as lax and unable to protect the people. Elections must be held in India within the next six months. Being able to blame the attack on an outside country is politically preferable for the Indian government.

With that caveat, however, evidence that the extremely well-orchestrated and sophisticated attack emanated from Pakistan seems fairly compelling. According to Indian police, the lone surviving terrorist says he was trained in four different camps in Pakistani Kashmir by the shadowy group known as Lashkar-e-Taiba. This Islamist guerrilla/jihadist group was originally formed with the cooperation of Pakistan’s powerful and sometimes mysterious secret police organization (a state-within-a-failing-state beyond the effective control of the elected government), Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to fight in Kashmir. Whether the ISI, which was instrumental in installing the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when that was seen as in Pakistan’s interests, still controls Lashkar-e-Taiba is unknown, but it is strongly suspected that some former and perhaps current ISI officers have helped to train the group.

The Mumbai attack and the evidence implicating Lashkar-e-Taiba have led to demands from India and the United States that the Pakistani government take firm action to neutralize or eliminate this and other groups known to be operating in Pakistani territory. There are wheels within wheels here. Even if Lashkar-e-Taiba is not controlled or influenced by the government (it has been officially outlawed since 2002, but official and real are often quite different in Pakistan), as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari claims, the government might not be able to subdue it effectively.

For starters, Zardari’s government took power only a few months ago after the ouster of former President Musharraf, and its situation is still shaky. In addition, Pakistani’s military has been configured to fight a conventional war with India rather than to conduct counter-insurgency. Its shortcomings have been highlighted in the campaign against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and related groups in the provinces bordering Afghanistan, where the army has inflicted casualties but has also suffered serious setbacks.

In addition to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Indian and U.S. officials have called attention to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an ostensibly charitable group (schools, clinics, disaster relief) that is seen as the successor to Lashkar-e-Taiba, given that the two groups share some members, notably Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who is said to have delivered an inspirational address to the fighters being trained for the Mumbai attacks. As the AP’s Babar Dogar notes, however, "a concerted move against Jamaat-ud-Dawa … risks a backlash from conservatives in Muslim Pakistan that could destabilize the country’s shaky pro-Western government."

Indeed, it is possible that destabilizing the Pakistani government – if Lashkar really is operating beyond the Pakistani government’s effective control for its own purposes – was one of the purposes of the Mumbai attack.

The U.S. and Indian governments are said to suspect that Jamaat-ud-Dawa is funneling some recruits to Lashkar, to the Northwest Provinces, and possibly even into Afghanistan, so the group’s activities could have an impact on the battle there, which Obama has declared to be the real central front in the vaunted "war on terrorism."

Stratfor.com has also noted similarities between the attacks in Mumbai and a plot that U.S. authorities thwarted against New York City’s financial centers and prestigious hotels, where foreign visitors and high-ranking officials are likely to be staying or meeting, dubbed the Landmarks Plot, back in 1993. The similarities suggest, according to Stratfor, that the plan to disrupt Mumbai was an "off-the-shelf" scheme adapted to Mumbai. This could mean that whatever group pulled off the Mumbai attacks is already in close contact with whatever remains of al-Qaeda or has access to plans al-Qaeda developed. Or perhaps this is simply emulation.

It’s not difficult to imagine the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks developing into a full-blown confrontation between India and Pakistan (both with nukes, remember) that would be dreadful to contemplate. There have already been demonstrations in India, which has experienced several similar but lower-level attacks suspected to have Pakistani origins in recent years, demanding some kind of retaliation against Pakistan.

It is certainly possible that even if no elements of the current Pakistani government were involved in the Mumbai attacks, the government will be simply unable to bring Lashkar and other groups to heel. Jamaat-ud-Dawa has influence in the upper echelons of the Pakistani political order, and as mentioned the Pakistani military has little counter-insurgency capability. Would the U.S. and India accept Pakistani claims that they were working diligently and making progress but needed more time (and perhaps more money and weapons)?

Pakistan and India will certainly recognize the danger of letting the situation spiral into possible military action, and they may be able to calibrate their demands well enough to achieve the delicate balance of satisfying their domestic constituencies while avoiding outright conflict. But it won’t be easy, and there are elements in both countries that would rather see conflict than a peaceful resolution.

It is not difficult to imagine that by Inauguration Day, in addition to the financial and economic problems the new titular head of the American empire is facing, Obama will inherit a foreign policy crisis at a dangerous and delicate stage. One might wish that the United States had never become so deeply embroiled in conflicts halfway around the world that it understands only dimly, but that die was cast long ago. It might even be that the safest course in the near future is disentanglement, trusting that the logic of mutual deterrence will prevent the most catastrophic of outcomes. But it is unlikely that the United States will choose that course even if it becomes more viable than it appears now.

Read more by Alan Bock