The Terror Next Door

by Shashi Tharoor Shashi Tharoor, an acclaimed novelist and commentator, is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations 03.12.2008

NEW DELHI - The fallout from the terror attacks in Mumbai last week has already shaken India. Deep and sustained anger across the country - at its demonstrated vulnerability to terror and at the multiple institutional failures that allowed such loss of life - has prompted the resignations of the Home Minister in the national government and the Chief Minister and his Deputy in the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital. As evidence mounts that the attacks were planned and directed from Pakistani territory, calls for decisive action have intensified. But what can India do?

The terrorists hit multiple targets in Mumbai, both literally and figuratively. They caused death and destruction to Indians with near-impunity, searing India's psyche, showing up the limitations of its security apparatus and humiliating its government. They dented the worldwide image of India as an emerging economic giant, a success story of the era of globalization and an increasing magnet for investors and tourists. Instead the world was made to see an insecure and vulnerable India, a "soft state" bedevilled by enemies who can strike it at will.

That was not all. By singling out Americans, British and Israelis for their malign attention, the terrorists extended the global Islamist war against "Jews and crusaders" to new territory. As they dominated the world's media for three gruesome days, the killers achieved a startling success for their cause, one that must have shaken anti-terrorist experts around the world, who now realize how easy it would be for ten men unafraid of death to hold any city in the world hostage.

The interrogation of the one surviving terrorist, and evidence from satellite telephone intercepts and other intelligence, has led to an emerging international consensus that the attacks were masterminded by the Wahhabi-inspired Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group once patronized, protected and trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a useful instrument in their country's proxy war against India in Kashmir. Though banned by General Pervez Musharraf under duress after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Lashkar (which considers the United States, Israel and India "existential enemies of Islam") simply regrouped under a different name and is even more powerful than before.

The Pakistani military finds militant outfits useful tools to bleed their adversaries in India and Afghanistan, and has shown little inclination to clamp down on them, despite years of assurances that action would be taken to curb their activities. In July this year, American intelligence sources publicly revealed that the suicide-bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul had been conducted at the behest of the ISI. This episode, along with two climbdowns by Pakistan's government after public attempts to curb the ISI had been spurned by the Army, confirmed that the civilian government in Islamabad is too weak to challenge the all-powerful military.

So if the US and India demand, as they will, that Pakistan disband the Lashkar and similar terrorist outfits that have enjoyed military patronage in the past, dismantle their training facilities, freeze their bank accounts (before they are simply transferred to another name) and arrest their leaders, they will face a typically Pakistani conundrum: the military isn't willing, and the civilian government isn't able.

India's government, which has reacted to previous terrorist outrages with calm and restraint, has no choice this time but to respond decisively. Anything that smacks of temporizing and appeasement will further inflame the public a few months before national elections are due.

But India's government has few good options. An earlier assault on India's Parliament in December 2001 by the Pakistan-based militant organization Jaish-e-Muhammad, nearly triggered a full-scale war between the two countries. In the end India pulled back its deployment on the border.

Though some hotheads in India now call for military action, including strikes on terrorist facilities in Pakistani territory, this would certainly lead to a war that neither side could win. If anything, such an Indian reaction would play into the hands of the terrorists, by strengthening anti-Indian nationalism in Pakistan and diverting forces away from the Afghan borderlands, where they are aiding NATO's fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

For this reason, the US is likely to press India not to contemplate forceful retaliation that could undermine America's objectives in Afghanistan. And since both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, the risk of military action spiralling out of control is too grave for any responsible government to contemplate.

Yet inaction is not an option. So India is likely to ask the US to use its undoubted clout with Pakistan - the US is a huge donor of both military and economic assistance to its near-bankrupt ally - to demand tougher action against the militants on its territory. The governments of the victims of the Mumbai massacre are also likely to demand accountability from Islamabad. Pakistan is likely to face disagreeable diplomatic and economic consequences for inaction. But excessive pressure may only bring down the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who is personally inclined towards rapprochement with India but who knows that every one of his civilian predecessors has been overthrown.

Contemplating such options, the world may be forced to admit its impotence. That will have a chilling result: as long as a military-dominated Pakistan continues, willingly or helplessly, to harbour the perpetrators of Islamist terror, what happened in Mumbai could happen again -- anywhere.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

Watch Shashi Tharoor to talk about " India's Unique Multiculturalism" on September 17, 2007 in New York City

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