Dealing with Pakistan

After Mumbai

Dec 4th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Even though the terrorists probably came from Pakistan, India should continue to keep its cool

PEOPLE in India are describing last week’s terrorist attack on Mumbai as India’s September 11th. In many ways, the comparison is apt. Although the death toll, at about 190, is a fraction of the number killed in America, this brutal attack on a business capital has traumatised an entire country.

But if the attack on Mumbai is like September 11th, India needs to learn from America’s mistakes. The 19 al-Qaeda hijackers changed history seven years ago. Had they not felled the twin towers, America would not have invaded Afghanistan or Iraq. The easiest way for India to play into the hands of those who sent the ten terrorists to Mumbai would be for India to consider a military response against Pakistan.

It is probable that the terrorists did embark from Pakistan. The testimony of the surviving attacker, the fact that the band arrived by sea, and American intelligence all point that way (see article). A prime suspect is Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of several groups based in Pakistan that are officially banned but suspected of receiving quiet encouragement from parts of the Pakistani state to wage jihad in the disputed territory of Kashmir and, increasingly, in Afghanistan as well.

When terrorists attacked the seat of India’s Parliament in December 2001, the two countries mobilised their armies and came close to war. This time India has shown admirable forbearance. There has been remonstrance but no sabre-rattling.

But forbearance alone cannot be a long-term answer to the problem of Pakistan. The Mumbai plot is only the latest indication that this huge, nuclear-armed country is not under the full control of its newly elected government. When President Asif Ali Zardari said after the carnage in Mumbai that he would take the strictest action against any guilty individual or group “in my part of the country”, it was perhaps a slip of the tongue. But the implication is true: large tracts of Pakistan, notably the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan, are under the control of local tribesmen, the Taliban, al-Qaeda or a mixture of all three.

The fighting in the tribal areas and the killing last year of Benazir Bhutto misleads outsiders into calling Pakistan a failed state. If that were truly so, America’s policy of bombing al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan might make some sense—as might Indian military intervention in Pakistan. But it is not that simple. Most of Pakistan is quite firmly under the state’s control. However, just as the state does not control all the country, nor does Mr Zardari control all the state. The ultimate arbiters of foreign and security policy in Pakistan have long been the army and intelligence services.

The army’s top brass seem in tune with their president in seeing Islamist terrorists as the most dangerous enemy facing Pakistan. But for some soldiers and spooks, the manipulation of the jihadists on Pakistan’s soil remains a rational instrument of foreign policy. Although it is America’s ally, Pakistan maintains links with the predominantly ethnic-Pushtun Taliban in Afghanistan, as a hedge against the day America leaves and a way to thwart a perceived Indian plan of strategic encirclement. The insurgency in Kashmir, likewise, is seen as a means of bogging down the old enemy, India. For those in Pakistan who think this way, the warming of relations between America and India—especially the rewriting of global proliferation rules to forgive India for building a bomb—looks like a menacing change that needs to be countered.


The vengeance trap

To understand these motives is not to condone them. India has every right to demand that Pakistan stops letting its territory be used as a terrorist haven and to track down those responsible. But these demands have to be accompanied by a balanced strategy that bolsters Mr Zardari and weakens the argument of his generals, not (as in the case of those American bombing raids) the other way round. It should include inducements, such as Indian flexibility over Kashmir, as well as pressure. Pakistan’s army would presumably like nothing better than an excuse to give up its demoralising battle against fellow Muslims in the tribal areas and redeploy against the traditional Hindu enemy in the east. India must not fall into that trap.