Mumbai Massacre May Sink Bush-Obama Strategy

Pakistani troops take aim in Kashmir

Secretary of State Condi Rice, with the blessing of Barack Obama, has flown off to South Asia charged with the mission of preventing tensions between India and Pakistan from escalating in the wake of the Mumbai massacre. Both the current and the incoming U.S. Administrations consider that a matter of urgency in light of their shared Afghanistan outlook: Both are well aware that the key to stabilizing Afghanistan is not sending more Western troops (although both are committed to doing so anyway), but resolving the conflict between India and Pakistan, of which Afghanistan has lately emerged as a primary theater. (Pakistan nurtured the Taliban in the early ’90s and helped it take power in Kabul; India has been the key backer of the Northern Alliance which today is the dominant force in the U.S.-backed government.)

Washington wants the Pakistani military to turn away from its traditional mission of confronting India, and instead to focus on eliminating the Taliban and other Jihadist elements operating both inside Pakistan and in Afghanistan. That requires tamping down tensions across the borders, and finding a satisfactory diplomatic formula for addressing their 60-year conflict over Kashmir. (Obama was going to task Bill Clinton with this mission.) It was always a bit of a long-shot: Although the U.S. view is shared by Pakistan’s current elected civilian political leadership, that political leadership is notoriously corrupt and viewed with contempt by a military establishment over which it exercises no real control. The military has ruled Pakistan for most of its six decades of indpendence, and it’s a fairly safe bet that it will do so again at some point in the not too distant future. And the military, whose central role in Pakistani society has been established precisely on the basis of an existential conflict with India remains skeptical. Its support for the U.S. “war on terror” has been, at best, ambiguous. It has allowed the Afghan Taliban to continue operating out of its territory, seeing it as the proxy that counters Indian influence in Kabul. And some elements of the ISI have clearly continued to cultivate some of the more radical jihadist groups even as the Pakistani military is involved in counter-insurgency operations in Waziristan.

So, the Bush-Obama plan to reconfigure Pakistan’s strategic orientation was a tough call even before Mumbai. It may have become exponentially more difficult.
The geopolitical consequence of the Mumbai massacre, as I wrote last weekend, was always going to be a dramatic escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan. It’s highly likely that the attack was the work of groups based in Pakistan, identities as yet undetermined but with the Pak-based Kashmiri outfit Lashkar e-Toiba being the prime suspect. And it’s not only the fact that this attack probably originated on Pakistani territory that has India wanting Islamabad held accountable; it’s the track record of the Pakistani military and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) wing. “Terrorism has long been part of the Pakistani military establishment’s strategy of proxy warfare against India over Kashmir, and more recently, even, over Afghanistan,” I wrote last weekend. “Kashmiri jihadist outfits – some of them suspects in last week’s Mumbai attacks – have long been based in Pakistan and backed by its Inter Services Intelligence agency. When suicide bombers struck India’s embassy in Kabul in July, the CIA produced clear evidence of involvement by ISI operatives.”

Washington feared, with good reason, that the attacks would prompt both sides to concentrate their armed forces along their common border in a confrontational posture. And that, of course, would mean the Pakistani military would close down its campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan — which is exactly what Pakistan has threatened to do.

The problem for Washington is that India’s government is under tremendous domestic pressure to respond to an attack that Indian public opinion overwhelmingly blames on Pakistan. It’s not inconceivable that the tide of anger of the attacks could be exploited as a route back to power for the Hindu nationalists in India, who are already cynically painting themselves as the party that can “protect” India — although not its Muslims, of course, against whom some in the Hindu nationalist camp periodically unleash vicious pogroms. A return to power of the BJP would make rapprochement with Pakistan even more difficult.

So, Washington wants Pakistan to unambiguously align itself with India right now, as “two states threatened by terrorism”, pursuing those responsible for the Mumbai outrage. President Asif Ali Zardari, closely allied with Washington, tried to play ball, promising to send the head of the ISI to India to help with the investigation. The Pakistani military quickly slapped down that suggestion, sending only lowly officials, and embarrassing Zardari by making it clear that while he may be President, he doesn’t really make the decisions that count in Pakistan.

Now, Secretary of State Rice is flying in, warning Zardari that “this is a critical moment for Pakistan to bring all its institutions into a common strategy to defend Pakistan. And defending Pakistan means rooting out extremism, defending Pakistani interests means cooperating fully, defending Pakistani interests means investigating this so further attacks can be prevented.” She insisted on full transparency and pursuit of the investigation wherever it leads.

The problem, of course, is that Zardari doesn’t effectively control the security forces, nor are they likely to subject themselves to his control. His government was weak to begin with, his own reputation being widely disdained even within Pakistan. Public opinion there is overwhelmingly opposed to the U.S. “war on terror” and missile strikes on suspected militants in Waziristan have caused mounting public outrage since the summer. When Zardari asked parliament to debate a strategy against the homegrown Taliban, the legislature refused to endorse the military counterinsurgency campaign demanded by the U.S. and instead urged negotiations with the militants.

And when Zardari’s prime minister earlier this year sought to put the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry, he was forced to beat a hasty retreat at the first hint of a growl from the military brass. Moreover, Zardari is a lot weaker now than he was then, thanks to an economic collapse that has forced the government to seek an IMF bailout to avoid bankruptcy. The problem with IMF bailouts, of course, is that they come with strict conditions that require the recipient to sharply rein in public spending, which means further austerity for a long-suffering population that has already begun to express its anger on the streets.

Pakistan, in short, is teetering, and it’s not hard to imagine a descent into chaos that prompts yet another military takeover. In fact, the only chance Washington has of achieving its goal of uniting India and Pakistan in a common struggle against Islamist militancy is if it is able to convince the skeptical Pakistani military establishment to pursue that course. Current indications don’t exactly inspire confidence that either the Bush Administration or the Obama Administration will be any more likely to resolve the India-Pakistan conflict than they are to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that, in turn, suggests that if it does send more troops to Afghanistan next year, the Obama Administration will be sending them into another quagmire.

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26 Responses to Mumbai Massacre May Sink Bush-Obama Strategy

  1. billy says:

    Missed you Tony. Keep writing.

  2. charles molesworth says:

    An excellent and informative piece. (Contrastively, Bill Kristol, writing in the NYTimes, distorted the informative essay by Martha Nussbaum and all in the service of his praise for nationalism/patriotism, which is truly adding fuel to the fire.) But the question I am left with: is there any hope that the ISI and the Pakistani military can be brought under civilian or rational control? Everyone says they are “the real power” and then sketches in their history of resentment, concealment, and vengeance. But what is the countervailing power?

  3. Shlomo says:


    They already have been. That’s what the protests of the past year, which eventually unseated the Musharraf junta, were all about. Power is shifting to the people of Pakistan now, perhaps permanently. Musharraf’s state of emergency was essentially a coup, and it backfired on him.

    The big question, for me, is whether India figures this out, or chooses the Israel-in-South-Lebanon approach to fighting Lashkar e-Taiba.

  4. Tony says:

    Uh, Shlomo, that’s more than a little naive and overly optimistic. Power in Pakistan is hardly vested with the people. The military are still far more powerful than the politicians, and the politicians are largely a bunch of corrupt and self serving oligarchs… It’s a mess, and the people are screwed by both sides. (Notice how Zardari, the consummate goniff, ignored the popular will over reinstating the judges? That’s because they’d have restored the corruption charges against him…)

    When Musharraf took power, he had the support of more people than the political leadership he deposed precisely because of their venality… Then he lost their support because of his own authoritarian tendency and the military’s venality…

  5. William Timberman says:

    The consummate goniff. And here I thought that the title was sewn up for all time by Richard Grasso, Kenny Lay, and DIck Cheney.

    Missed your posts….

  6. Rupa Shah says:

    Excellent analysis Mr Karon. Right now, the citizens of Bombay are very angry with the govt for its total failure to prevent the attacks and incompetence at handling of the seige of the city ( and massacres ) rather than interested in attacking Pakistan. Also, fortunately, there are no communal tensions and the citizenry is united. However with forth coming elections, how the political parties will exploit this tragedy to remain in power or come into power is difficult to judge. For the sake of India, I hope, cool heads will prevail and there will not be a horrible mistake like attacking Pakistan like we attacked Afghanistan after Sep 11, 2001 ( India and Pakistan have enjoyed best relations in the past few months and it would be a great tragedy to lose that momentum).

  7. writeon says:

    Eccellent piece. Pakistan is teetering on the edge. One could argue that it always has been. It’s an unstable state held together by its military. Som call it an army with a state, not a state with an army!

    The point is that the United States is destabilizing the entire region and this is very, very, dangerous.

    First we destroy Iraq, then Afghanistan, we theaten Iran and are attacking Pakistan in cross border strikes from Afghanistan. Now we are backing India against Pakistan.

    This destabilization and interference in this region is highly problematic and incredibly dangerous. Two of these nations have nuclear weapons. Is this ‘balkanisation’ sensible? Have the consequences of intervention been thought through carefully? Is it really a cynical strategy of devide and conquer? Are we forming an alliance with Hindu India against a muslim and nuclear armed Pakistan? Is the real goal the elimination of Pakistan’s Islamic bomb?

  8. the janitor says:

    The past is prologue …

    “But I do not regret that my experience allowed me to see first-hand the how secret intelligence agencies increasingly dominate the foreign policy of nations like the United States and Israel. Whereas once intelligence was supposed to inform leaders and guide them in making policy decisions, today covert intelligence operations and foreign policy are too often inseparable, one and the same. The tools of secret slush fund money, covert operations, and disinformation have been used on such a grand scale that they have changed the nature of the entire political process. A handful of people never elected by anyone are now able to manipulate politics.

    “And my former colleagues, the international arms merchants with whom I had so many dealings, are not out of business, not by a long shot. If there isn’t a big war going on at any given time, there are always a number of small wars. The events in Eastern Europe – in Yugoslavia and in the former Soviet Republics – continue to generate profits for them. As I sit here I imagine them around their tables, waiting for the next big one, just like Iran and Iraq. Perhaps India and Pakistan. Plenty of cannon fodder to be equipped, a balanced conflict to last a long time, no one in the West to care who gets killed – a real gold mine.

    “I am a humbler man today than I was in the 1970s when I joined Israeli intelligence. I’ve learned the hard way that everyone makes mistakes, some of them so big that they are irrevocable. I’ve also changed my view of Israel and the Jewish people. When I was young, I shared with many Israelis a deep nationalistic feeling – the self-righteous and arrogant belief that we were right and everyone else was wrong, that it was more important for Jews and Israel to survive than others, that we were – as the Bible says – the chosen people.

    “I still believe that Jews are chosen. But no longer can I accept the premise on which the Iranian arms deals were based: ‘Better that their boys die than ours.’ People are people. We are all chosen.”

    –Ari Ben-Menashe writing in the afterword of The Profits of War: Inside the Secret U.S.-Israeli Arms Network, Sheridan Square Press, 1992. “Ben-Menashe was one of six members of Israel’s top secret Joint Committee on Israel-Iran Relations, responsible for the transfer of billions of dollars of arms to Iran during the 1980s. He traveled the world, buying and selling arms, setting up front companies and conduits necessary for the trade, virtually all of it with the connivance of the CIA.” Ben-Menashe served in the IDF (1974-1977), as a civilian employee of the External Relations Department of IDF Intelligence (1977-1987), as a special intelligence advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (1987-1989). Indicted on arms dealing conspiracy charges by the U.S. Government, Ben-Menashe spent almost a year in U.S. jails before, “… in October 1990, he was acquitted – because he proved that both Israel and the United States had, indeed, authorized the decade-long secret sale of arms to Iran. … [he] was a key source for Gary Sick’s October Surprise and for Seymour Hersh’s The Sampson Option.” The Profits of War details Ben-Menashe’s meetings and dealings with some of the then-most-powerful men in the world, including the late British publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, the late U.S. Senator John Tower, and disgraced former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, as well as Robert Gates, a former Director of CIA who now serves as U.S. Secretary of Defense. The book is very interesting reading. How accurate a record it is, readers must decide for themselves, if they can find it. The used hardcover now typically sells for more than it did when the book was first published.

  9. survivor says:

    You don’t think for a moment that the missile attacks on the Pakistani Tribal areas by the CIA over the last 5 months killing scores of innocents with maybe a few insurgents had nothing to do with the attack on Mumbai? Or, the hundreds if not thousands of innocents killed in Afghanistan by U.S. bombs that that had nothing to do with the attack on Mumbai? There is an old saying. What goes around comes around.

  10. Lawrence Swaim, Interfaith Freedom Foundation says:


    What a pleasure to read literary journalism of this very high caliber. (To use a military metaphor, which seem increasingly to be the only effective ones left.)

    The Indian government will have to act militarily, because the BJP will win if they don’t. If I were advising them, I would suggest rolling surgical air strikes against LeT training camps to be continued as long as militarily and politically necessary. (The Pakistanis to be informed of same through the Americans.)

    Incidentally, is it possible for a Rootless Cosmopolitan to also be a “willing pariah” (Arendt’s term for the secularist who accepts marginalization in order to fight establishment injustice)? And is it possible for a Christian to be both, if s/he is sufficiently ticked off at the unquestioned conventions of Christendom?

    I hope so.

  11. masmanz says:

    First we have to figure out what are the goals of our government in Afghanistan. Regardless of who did Mumbai attack, US response will be based on her (should have written our here, but I certainly am against the PNAC idea of a world-wide US Empire) long-term strategic goals. If the goals were peace in the region then nobody would have given any credence to the story that the terrorists came by boat from Karachi. Bombay is 500 miles away and even a fishing trawler cannot escape the eagle eyes of the Indian navy. This would then be called a ‘conspiracy theory’ and the other more plausible scenarios would be put on the table.

    So, coming back to the original question, Why are we in Afghanistan anyway? The so-called al-Qaida, never anything significant (compared to the real forces in the world), has now been reduced to two men hiding in the mountain who can do no more than issue a tape every few months. Can anyone in his right mind believe that al-qaida, or even Taliban, pose any serious danger to us. And if they do, what about all the other forces in the world. Armies of even the tiniest countries have lot more money and firepower then all the terrorists put together. Do we plan to send our troops everywhere just in case some armyman somewhere may go crazy. If an ex-marine like Timothy McVeigh can cause so much damage, should we consider all retired or even serving military men a ‘potential’ threat. I do not see such level of paranoia, yet we are still in Afghanistan claiming to protect our homeland. And, now we want to move into Pakistan on the same pretext.

    Why are we there? Is it to circle Russia? Is it to control India and China? Is it to grab the Muslim land and start a clash of civilization? Or, is it just building an empire? This is what we need to figure out.

  12. Harry S. says:

    Dear Tony,
    India was working out with Pakistani rulers for so many years but look at the results; Pakistanis, kept on sending terrorists to every part of India. How long do you think Indians should keep on tolerating ? On contrary, if US helps India in war and attack, it’ll be beneficial for all the region to stabilize. It’s like a surgery on cancer, you hate it but you’ve to do it. For example, all of us here bash Bush for Afghan war but please tell me truthfully, how many attacks did really happen on US soil ?

  13. Rupa Shah says:

    As a person who called Bombay home and who has family and friends there, I strongly disagree with commenters who are recommending military action by the Indian govt against Pakistan. There is nothing called ‘surgical strikes’. Innocent civilians will be killed ( and Pakistanis have had more than their share of terrorist attacks ). Though the Lashkar e-Toiba was banned, it is probably still suppported by the rogue elements in the ISI. The answer to the horrible attacks in Bombay is for the Indian govt to work with the Pakistani govt to isolate the perpetrators ( the new civilian govt had taken many steps to improve relations betwen the two countries ), act adequately on intelligence and warnings received and have better security mechanisms in place ( all of these were dismal failures ). And last but not the least, work on a just resolution to Kashmir conflict.

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  15. Pat S. says:

    Great analysis. A development unrelated to Pakistan but that I do want to follow is whether or not the Indian upper class will finally get involved to demand better public services and accountability in the wake of all the domestic anger at the Indian security apparatus. That’d be about the only way the country would ever make a dent in its tremendous patronage / corruption civil establishment.

  16. Pat S. says:

    Also, I agree with Rupa, the only people who benefit from an Indo-Pakistani military clash are the Pakistani Islamists.

  17. Pat S. says:

    And finally, one more thing: putting the blame on the U.S. for Mumbai is utterly ridiculous. That ignores the entire history of the Indo-Pakistani conflict and the terrorism that happened long before the U.S. got directly involved in the region, and the related Hindu / Muslim dynamic that isn’t even close to resolved. If you’re that desperate to somehow make a Western country responsible, you should probably blame the U.K. of 1612 to 1947.

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