reflections

Geopolitical Diary: The Mumbai Crisis

5 MINS READDec 1, 2008 | 02:56 GMT
The world grew more complicated during the American Thanksgiving holiday. On Wednesday night, Nov. 26, a group carried out a complex terrorist-style attack in Mumbai, India. In addition to seizing two luxury hotels and a Jewish facility, the attackers carried out a series of random attacks throughout the city, using automatic weapons and hand grenades. Current evidence indicates that at least one group came to Mumbai from Karachi, Pakistan, via ship, then hijacked an Indian vessel and landed at a fairly isolated beach, hooking up with operatives already deployed in Mumbai. Some of the attackers appear to have been Indian Muslims and some from Pakistan, but under any circumstance the attacks were more complex and sophisticated, and of longer duration, than previous terrorist-style attacks in India. The Indian government, which is not particularly strong, obviously must respond. It does not have the option of simply moving past the event. The Indians’ two responses must be either blaming themselves for poor security or blaming the attacks on a foreign power —obviously Pakistan. Both of these could be correct responses, but emphasizing one would probably bring down the Indian government, while emphasizing the other would allow the government to deflect responsibility to Pakistan, a country neither liked nor trusted in India. The charge would not necessarily be that the Pakistani government, or even elements of the government, planned the attacks. The charge would be that the Pakistani government failed to act decisively to prevent the attacks. In other words, the attacks occurred because the Pakistanis have not been sufficiently aggressive in bringing radical Islamist forces in Pakistan under control. This is, of course, the same charge the Americans have been making against Pakistan, and is one of the foundations of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy. He has said that he would place heavy pressure on the Pakistanis to get them to be more effective in fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, Obama has said he would be sending more troops to Afghanistan and would expect Pakistan’s cooperation with U.S. efforts. It is not clear precisely what India will do in this crisis. In 2001, when New Delhi was responding to another terrorist attack, it took about a week to decide what to do; in the end, the government sent forces to the Pakistani border. The tension escalated to include nuclear threats. If that model is followed here, we might well be in an intense crisis in a week or so, although reports of intense political infighting might delay a response. The Pakistanis will try to head off a crisis by offering full cooperation with India in dealing with the problem, but it is not clear that the Indian public or politicians will accept this. It will be regarded as an ineffectual gesture by many, if not most. From where we sit, Pakistan will have to provide more than an agreement to increase cooperation. That places Pakistan between two very powerful forces: India and the United States. Pakistan has already indicated what it might do, saying that if India increased its forces along the border, Pakistan would shift 100,000 troops to the border as well — all of them drawn from its border with Afghanistan. In other words, Pakistan has let the United States know that Indian pressure will result in a reduction of Pakistani forces along the Afghan border, while the United States is demanding that the number of forces there actually be increased. That in turn would create a crisis in Pakistan's relations with the United States. Pakistan's other option is to take effective action against Islamists along both its borders. The problem is that it is not clear that the Pakistani government could do this, even if it wanted to. There are elements within the Pakistani intelligence service that potentially could sabotage any move in this direction, and there is widespread opposition among the Pakistani public to any crackdown. If the government attempted one, it is not clear that Pakistan would not fracture and dissolve into chaos. The Mumbai attackers, whoever they ultimately turn out to have been, clearly were not stupid. They were less interested in killing people in Mumbai than in creating precisely this crisis. First, the Pakistanis are trapped between the United States and India. Second, the government can either turn on the Islamists — unleashing chaos — or refuse to do so, creating an international crisis. In the event of chaos, whoever organized the attack is in a position to increase their influence in Pakistan. In the event the government refuses to act, it will grow more dependent on radical Islamists. In either case, the attack has set into motion a process that could increase the influence of Islamists in Pakistan. The alternative is for India to let the attacks pass without generating a crisis with Pakistan. But the problem with that strategy is not only internal Indian politics. There is also the fact that there is no reason to believe that attackers don't have the ability to mount more attacks in India. There is no way for the Indians to block these attacks, and if such attacks were to continue, the Indian government not only would lose further credibility, it would wind up in the same crisis it might wish to avoid now. And no one knows what follow-on capabilities and plans the attackers have. For the moment, therefore, the attackers — whether al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba or some other combination of groups — are driving events. It is not clear how the Indians, Americans or the Pakistani government can seize the initiative away them. And it is not clear that any of the three countries can get out of the way of the crisis that is unfolding.

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