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Making Sense of Mumbai

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India has a long history of communal violence, but events rarely manage to attract the attention of the world’s press. The attacks in Mumbai, however, have been prominent because Americans, Europeans, Indonesians and others see them as part of a larger pattern of terrorism. The raid obviously resulted from careful planning, and its implementation, however chaotic it appeared, almost certainly serves a larger strategic purpose.

The epicenter of religiously-themed terrorism in the world today is in Pakistan, specifically along a corridor stretching from Pakistan-administered Kashmir, through the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), and down to Boluchistan. The new government in Pakistan, along with the United States, is intent upon suppressing terrorist organizations that operate there, but far from an agreement as to tactics. The attack on Mumbai appears to have been designed to derail that cooperation and lower the pressure on terrorists. At a minimum, the raid’s authors likely suspect, they will dampen cooperation between India and Pakistan. More likely they will get leaders in both countries to focus on each other–and draw troops away from the NWFP and to the Indian frontier. Perhaps they will even inspire an Indian riposte.

Conflict between India and Pakistan would be a major accomplishment for the terrorists and a significant setback for the plans to crack down in the festering frontier zone, which is why the raid calls for attention and action in order to avoid heating up the tensions between Delhi and Islamabad. Much has appeared in print about these developments; most of it is predictable and not terribly useful. Steve Coll—one of the two or three keenest observers of the region in the United States—has a post that helps us understand the actors involved and the strategic dilemma. What can America do about it? Plenty.

The U.S. can do a few useful things here. At a minimum, it can provide transparent information about the investigation and where the facts lead, so that the Indian and Pakistani political systems are on the same footing; it can indict individuals and groups that can be established as culpable for the Mumbai murders, no matter who those individuals and groups are—even if they include officers in the Pakistan Army; and it can emphasize in public that the United States seeks the end of all Pakistani support for terrorist groups, no matter whether they are operating in Afghanistan, Kashmir, or Mumbai.

Sensible, imperative advice. Let’s see if the Bush Administration in its ineffectual dotage is capable of demonstrating any measure of responsible leadership–Condoleezza Rice recently entertained Queen Elizabeth with her performances of Brahms at the keyboard, but this situation calls for different skills. Rice isn’t neglecting the situation, but there is so far little evidence that it is getting the level of attention that it deserves.

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