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After the Horror

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In the bloodstained aftermath of the horror in Mumbai, India picks itself up and counts the cost in lives lost, in property destroyed and, most of all, in the scarred psyche of a ravaged nation. But there are other consequences, yet to be measured, that the world will soon be coming to terms with--ones whose impact could extend well beyond India's borders, with implications for the peace and security of the region and the world.

As evidence slowly mounts that the terrorists--at least most of them--came across the Arabian Sea from Pakistan to wreak mayhem on Mumbai, the geopolitical reverberations of the carnage are beginning to resonate. Pakistan was hacked off the stooped shoulders of India by the departing British in 1947 to be a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims, and its relations with India have since been bedeviled by a festering dispute over the divided territory of Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. Almost as many Muslims have remained in India as live in Pakistan, but Pakistan has had the worst of four wars between the neighbors.

For two decades, a succession of Pakistani military leaders have made it a point to support, finance, equip and train Islamist militants to conduct terrorist operations in India. The logic is clear: it is more cost-effective to bleed India from within than to challenge it through more conventional military means. Kashmiri militancy against Indian rule has been fomented and supported by Pakistan, though India's own domestic problems--including the occasional eruption of Hindu-Muslim clashes, notably a 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat--offered a crucial opportunity to recruit disaffected Indian Muslims to the cause of violence. The increasing frequency of terrorist attacks on Indian targets in recent years has, however, repeatedly been traced to Pakistan. One assault--on India's parliament in December 2001 by the Pakistan-based militant organization Jaish-e-Muhammad--nearly triggered a full-scale war. This year U.S. intelligence sources publicly revealed that July's suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul was conducted at the behest of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The newly elected civilian government in Islamabad, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, had shown every sign of wanting to move away from this narrative of hatred and hostility. But Pakistan is a deeply divided nation. As the Kabul bombing showed, the disconnect between the statements of the government and the actions of the ISI suggested that the government was too weak to control its own security apparatus. In India, the state has an army; in Pakistan, the army has a state. An attempt this summer to place the ISI under the Interior Ministry had to be rescinded when the army refused to accept the order. And when, in the wake of the Mumbai bombings, Zardari acceded to the request of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to send the head of the ISI to India to assist Indian authorities in their investigation, the Pakistani military again forced the civilian government into a humiliating climb down.

The ISI is not exactly keen on cooperating with an investigation into the massacre. The Mumbai attacks bore many trademarks of the extremist groups based in Pakistan, notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which in the past has benefited from the patronage of the ISI. Whether the Pakistani military is orchestrating the violence or merely shielding its perpetrators, tensions with India are rising dangerously.

Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, realizes that India's enemies in Pakistan are also his own: the very forces of Islamist extremism responsible for his wife's assassination were behind the September bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel. The militancy once sponsored by the Pakistani military as a foreign policy tool now threatens to abort Pakistan's sputtering democracy. There has never been a stronger case for firm and united action by the governments of both India and Pakistan to cauterize the cancer in their midst.

Such an outcome is not as implausible as it sounds. Rarely has a Pakistani government been more inclined to pursue peace with India. Zardari has been pushing for greatly expanded trade and commercial links and the liberalization of the restrictive visa regime between the two countries. Indeed, his Foreign Minister was in New Delhi for talks on these issues when the terrorist assault occurred. Zardari had also begun winding down his government's official support for Kashmiri militancy and had announced the disbanding of the ISI's political wing. When he went so far as to propose a "no first-strike" nuclear policy--matching India's stance but violating his own military's stated doctrine--Indians began to believe that at long last they had found a Pakistani ruler who understood that normalizing relations would be of great benefit to Pakistan itself. But the Mumbai terrorist assault seemed to confirm that the peacemakers in Islamabad are not the ones who call the shots.

Zardari, for example, stated on Nov. 28 that Pakistan "will cooperate with India in exposing and apprehending the culprits and masterminds" behind the attacks. But this is not an objective unanimously shared in Islamabad. The terrorists and their patrons clearly wish to derail any moves toward harmony between the two countries, as it would thwart their destructive Islamist agenda. They enjoy the sympathy of elements in the military, whose disproportionate share of Pakistan's national budget would be threatened by peace with India. And Islamabad's civilian government dares not cross the red lines drawn by the military for fear of being toppled. Every civilian Pakistani government, without exception, has been overthrown before the end of its elective term of office.

Pakistan has denied any connection to the attacks in Mumbai, though their meticulous planning, coordination and precision imply a level of direction that no ordinary militant group is capable of. But this time the terrorists may have gone too far. The murderers of Mumbai made special efforts to single out American and British nationals among their hostages, and killed the Israelis running Mumbai's Jewish center. This was clearly not just an attack on India; the assailants were taking on the "Jews and crusaders" of al-Qaeda lore. If it turns out that the massacre in Mumbai was planned in or directed from Pakistani territory, the consequences for Pakistan are bound to be severe. In such circumstances, there would be a "cost" to "our neighbors," Prime Minister Singh said, and India would be likely to find sympathy and practical support from the countries of these other victims.

Before the attacks on Mumbai, the U.S. had been eager to see a reduction of Indo-Pakistani tensions in the hope--openly voiced by President-elect Barack Obama--that such changes would free Pakistan to conduct more effective counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its northwestern tribal areas. Washington fears that Indo-Pakistani rivalry will make its own task in Afghanistan more difficult. Obama therefore called a rapprochement between India and Pakistan a key objective of U.S. foreign policy. But he will find few takers in India for continuing a peace process with a government that does not appear to control significant elements of its own military. India will weary of being exhorted to talk to a government that is at best ineffective and at worst duplicitous about the real threats emanating from its territory and institutions.

Ironically, Zardari had proved to be a useful ally of the U.S. In addition to lowering the temperature with India, he was cooperating tacitly with Predator strikes against the Islamic extremists in the Afghan borderlands, much to the resentment of pro-Islamist elements in his military. This cooperation has now been jeopardized by the assault on Mumbai. As tensions with India ratchet up, the hard-liners in Islamabad's army headquarters will have the justification they need to jettison a policy they dislike and move their forces away from the border with Afghanistan, where the U.S. wants them, so as to reinforce the border with India instead.

Washington's frustration is understandable. But with Pakistan denying all responsibility for the Mumbai attacks, India has no good options. All New Delhi can do is demand that the well-intentioned but ineffective government in Islamabad crack down on terrorist groups, dismantle their camps, freeze their bank accounts, and arrest and prosecute their leaders. There is little appetite in Pakistan for such action. And the fear remains that expecting Zardari to fulfill even India's minimal demands might be asking him to sign his own death warrant.

So India seethes with impotent rage, Pakistan belligerently asserts its innocence, and Washington despairs that its task in Afghanistan has just gotten harder. Meanwhile, in Mumbai the fires of a hundred funeral pyres shoot their flames up into a glowering sky.

(Originally Published in Time Magazine December 4, 2008)