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reflections

May 14, 2008 | 01:49 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Terror Attack Creates Geopolitical Options

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
A series of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) went off in the city of Jaipur in northwestern India on Tuesday, killing at least 70 people and injuring more than 150 others. Nine explosions went off in a crowded area within about 15 minutes. One IED failed to explode — a fact that will give police some clues as to the identity of the attackers. The Congress-led government condemned the attack, saying that foreign elements were responsible, which is the code word for Islamist militants backed by Pakistan. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed the government for being insufficiently aggressive with its "soft approach" to terrorism and directly blamed the Pakistanis. India has responded to these periodic attacks in various ways. After the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, the Indians mobilized military forces and went into a confrontation with Pakistan that seemed to threaten nuclear war. In other instances, the Indian government has simply condemned the actions and increased security but not moved toward confrontation. The Tuesday attack caused more casualties than most in the past (the 2006 Mumbai railway bombing was the last major event) and will be more difficult to ignore. In addition, the government is under domestic pressure over its counterterrorism policy. India now has a choice and it is one that has little to do with terrorism. It is difficult for the Indians to stop terrorism and the Pakistanis, whatever their underlying inclination, have not been successful in shutting it down either. Rather, the question is to what degree the Indian government wishes to move into a confrontation with Pakistan. Ultimately, however, the Jaipur incident gives them an opportunity to shift policies if they wish. Earlier in the decade, the United States and India seemed to assume the roles of good cop/bad cop regarding Pakistan. The United States wanted shifts in Pakistan's position on al Qaeda and the Taliban. Periodic terrorist attacks caused the Indians to move toward confrontation with Pakistan. The United States used the threat from India to extract concessions from Pakistan. Pakistani Islamists — supported by the Pakistani intelligence service, according to many — provided multiple occasions for an Indian response. As the Indians moved to respond, the United States served as conciliator, and used the Pakistanis' fears of India to extract concessions from them. The United States and India haven't played that game in recent years. The Indians have allowed recent attacks to pass without direct confrontation, which is what the BJP is condemning. Rather, the Indian government has sought to create a diplomatic framework with Pakistan, meaning that they would not hold the Pakistanis directly responsible for each terrorist attack. Prior to the diplomatic process that took off in late 2003, New Delhi would accuse Islamabad of abetting terrorism. However, as part of an effort to normalize relations, the Indians have since limited their claims that the Pakistanis were falling short in preventing cross-border terrorism. The difference between the older stance versus the more recent stance is significant. In the old days, India could not afford to continue with routine diplomacy. Therefore, a key indicator to watch for would be a shift back to the old rhetoric. The United States is having its own problems with the new Pakistani government. Washington is uneasy over the fact that the new government, either through weakness or through policy, may try to reach an accommodation with the Taliban and al Qaeda, not in order to split the Taliban, but in order to reduce the threat to Islamabad. That directly affects American interests in Pakistan. It has been clear that American levers in Pakistan are limited. More so than in the past, the United States would benefit now by playing its old game with India. The United States needs pressure on Pakistan from India to allow Washington an opportunity to mediate while exacting a price from Pakistan for getting India to stand down. India has not wanted to play that game for several years, and the U.S. has not needed to. It is unclear whether the Indians want to play that game now, and it is unclear whether Washington is asking them to do so. However, this attack gives India a policy option. If it wants to test the new government in Islamabad, while also giving the United States opportunities to pressure it, the terror attacks have given New Delhi the justification and the opportunity to move in that direction. At the moment, we suspect the Indian government doesn't know what it is going to do. In recent years, it has avoided allowing attacks like this to escalate. But with recent food and energy problems, as well as looming state and general elections, India is feeling internal political pressure more intensely, and the geopolitical situation has shifted sufficiently in Afghanistan and Pakistan to make this a potentially worthwhile option. It will be difficult for the Indians to simply let this pass, but the question is how far they are prepared to go. Also unknown is what Indian intelligence is telling the government about who the attackers were and the degree of support from Pakistan. We are not yet in a crisis, but for a range of reasons, this gives India the opportunity to create one if it wants to.

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