Mumbai Wake-up Call

A few months ago, trucks loaded with goods crossed a border. All over the world, this kind of thing happens every day, but not here. October marked the first time in 60 years that Indian trucks loaded with apples and walnuts traveled to Pakistan. The trucks returned carrying a shipment of Pakistani rice and raisins.

Around the same time, India and Pakistan increased the number of goods the two nations could trade from just 13 to nearly 2,000. They opened new freight train lines and refurbished custom houses in anticipation of vigorous cross border trade.

All of this goodwill is now frozen, stopped by a hail of bullets and the deafening crash of bombs in Mumbai. The attacks – shocking in their lethality and their high level of coordination – left more than 170 people dead. Beginning on November 26, heavily armed gunmen fanned out in the city of Mumbai – India’s hub of international finance and communication. They fired indiscriminately into crowds on the street, in a train station and at a hospital for women and children. At the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, a Jewish cultural center and other sites, the attackers took and killed hostages, set off grenades, lit fires and detonated bombs.

On Tuesday, the Indian government released the names of the nine dead gunmen, announcing that they were all Pakistani and that they were part of a larger cell of more than 20 men committed to carrying out these attacks. A tenth gunman – Pakistani villager Mohammed Ajmal Kasab – was apprehended and remains in custody. This new information strengthens allegations that the attacks were the work of the Pakistani-based Laskar-e-Taiba organization, which has in the past received training and support from Pakistan’s intelligence services. In early December, Pakistani security forces raided the group’s training camps and offices and arrested members.

Rising Tensions

Tensions between India and Pakistan are at their highest levels since 2001, when a suicide attack on the Indian parliament was carried out – allegedly by groups based in Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India would "go after" those responsible and called the attacks "well planned with external linkages."

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari responded to these threats and the allegations of Pakistani involvement in the attacks with a New York Times op-ed, in which he asserted that "Pakistan will take action against the non-state actors found within our territory, treating them as criminals, terrorists and murderers." As an indication of his government’s seriousness, Zardari described how his air force has been striking militant targets with F-16 fighter planes for the past two months.

The addition of this specific detail is not accidental or incidental. Those F-16 fighters are made in the USA, long promised to – and coveted by – Islamabad. The fact that Pakistan is now flying them as it cooperates in the global war on terror is a sign of how close relations between these two countries have grown in the past decade.

Against the backdrop of this latest wave of brutal violence (and as both sides brandish their military might) an examination of Washington’s policies of military support and arms exports to these rivals is long overdue.

Sixty Years, Three Wars

Both nations have fought three wars in their 60-year history and continue to clash over the Kashmir region they both claim. In 1989, Pakistan began supporting an Islamist insurgency in its mission to drive out the 500,000 Indian troops deployed in Kashmir. It is here that Laskar-e-Taiba got its start (and its support from Pakistani security forces). For its part, India constructed a huge electrified fence along the Line of Control in an effort to stop these Pakistani-backed incursions.

An estimated 68,000 people have died in Kashmir since 1989, and tens of thousands more have been displaced by violence. India and Pakistan entered into wide-ranging peace talks in June 2004 and agreed to a series of steps aimed at resolving their disputes. Among other things, the nuclear-armed rivals agreed to notify each other before testing missiles, to open consulates, and to work toward a peace agreement regarding Kashmir.

Even before the Mumbai attacks, the peace process was dragging. This fall in Kashmir huge pro-independence demonstrations – the largest since 1989 – triggering a violent crackdown by Indian security forces which led to the death of more than 45 people and injured hundreds.

With a huge population and a burgeoning middle class, India is often referred to as the "world’s largest democracy." But India’s aggressive actions in Kashmir – and its human rights record more generally – contradict this moniker. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is particularly fond of this phrase despite the fact that her department’s Human Rights Report cites "numerous serious problems," including "extrajudicial killings of persons in custody, disappearances, and torture and rape by police and other security forces."

India is at the beginning of a major military upgrade that could cost $100 billion, and US-based defense contractors are eager for a big slice of the business. After decades of looking to the Soviet Union and then to Russia for geostrategic support, India has now turned to the United States to feed its appetite for high-tech weaponry. In September alone, the United States offered India more than half a billion dollars in weapons systems, including HARPOON missiles. And in October, India signed a major civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the Bush administration and is looking forward to increased investment from US corporations as a result.

US Military Aid

Despite continued violent political upheaval, a dismal human rights record and a long legacy of dictatorship, Pakistan enjoys billions of dollars in US military aid as a close ally in the "Global War on Terror." In 2006 alone, Pakistan signed agreements with the United States for more than $3.5 billion in weaponry and military material, making it the single largest recipient that year. In the past six months, Washington has offered $190 million in weapons, including eight refurbished Cobra helicopters worth $115 million.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks and continued violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, these "all the weapons you want" policies are now under review. In a new classified assessment of U.S strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Bush administration seems ready to admit that the money and weapons haven’t had the intended impact. An official involved in drafting the report – which will be presented to President-elect Barack Obama – told The New York Times that despite "seven long years" of "proclaiming that Pakistan was an ally… the truth is that $10 billion later" Pakistan still doesn’t "have the basic capacity for counterinsurgency operations."

US weapons and military aid haven’t transformed that nation into a bastion of democracy and human rights either; the State Department’s own Human Rights Report highlights a worsening situation with major human rights problems that included "extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances."

With US weapons and aid, the subcontinent’s two nuclear-armed nations are increasing the size and sophistication of their arsenals, even as they continue to spar over territory, religion, and regional dominance.

These alarming developments could bear bitter and dangerous fruit for years to come. How the incoming Obama administration chooses to respond will have broad implications across a range of issues: affecting ongoing relations between the two competitors, fanning or dampening tensions along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, provoking or discouraging nuclear proliferation concerns, and impacting how the United States succeeds or fails in the broader war on terrorism. As a start, perhaps the Obama administration should encourage New Delhi and Islamabad to focus on trading apples for rice and walnuts for raisins, and stop adding US weapons to an already volatile mix.