Last week's terrorist siege of Mumbai has created a new geopolitical crisis, with many angles and complications that will make President-elect Barack Obama's life even more complicated as he attempts (in a limited way now and a more direct way in 46 days) to keep things in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India on an even keel. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are leaving some hellacious messes behind. Here are some important factors to keep in mind about this one.
** The attackers were Islamic jihadists, and Pakistani-connected. This isn't what we wanted to hear when I wrote about this last week on the Huffington Post, but even the Pakistanis are not denying this. What they do deny is official Pakistani involvement in the attacks. Meanwhile, there is much talk of the attackers being trained and advised in, and transported from, Pakistan.
** India and Pakistan had been having a slight rapprochement. The two countries have been at sharp odds since the British partition after World War Ii. The disputed, mountainous region of Kashmir has been the most frequent flashpoint between the two countries, though there have been others.A terrorist bomb killed more than 20 people today in Peshawar, in Pakistan's northwest frontier.
** Pakistan is key to Afghanistan. It was central in the US war against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan during the not-so-Cold War, when it was a safe haven for Afghan rebels, a staging area for the CIA, and the funnel for US aid to the insurgency. Now it's key to the US and NATO effort to hold back the Taliban resurgence. Even as it provides safe havens for Taliban and Al Qaeda cadres.
** Elements of the dread Pakistani intelligence outfit, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) played major roles in creating the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The ISI has always had a heavy Islamist influence. The Taliban were developed to bring a fundamentalist Islamic sense of order to the chaos of Afghanistan left in the wake of the Soviet defeat and America's always wavering attention span. The Lashkar-e-Taiba, working hard to end Indian rule in Kashmir, have the goal of establishing Islamic rule over South Asia.Years of fighting over Kashmir have accomplished nothing.
** Both the Indian and Pakistani governments were shaky even before Mumbai. Last year's assassination of Pakistan's returned opposition leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, hastened the end of General Pervez Musharaff's regime. But the new government is shaky, trying to balance between modernist reformers, Islamic fundamentalists, the ISI, and the most stable institution in an unstable country, an army founded on British traditions. The Indian government has been under fire for past security lapses, particularly related to Kashmir, and closely pressed by its conservative religious-oriented opposition.
** There's a discrepancy about the number of terrorists taking part in the Mumbai attacks. The reports from the first few days referred to 25 to 30 gunmen, perhaps 40. That made sense, given the amount of havoc they were wreaking simultaneously at multiple locations around the city. But the official number ended up at 10, with nine killed by Indian security forces and one captured and talking about his Pakistani connection. However, other evidence suggests there were at least 15 attackers. With all the chaos and anger, Indian authorities wouldn't want to admit that some of the attackers had escaped. Although it's embarrassing to claim that it took two-and-a-half days for Indian police and elite military units to defeat 10 terrorists.The Mumbai attacks were very disruptive to India's commercial and financial capital.
** Whatever the facts, India was always going to cast blame in the direction of Pakistan. India's home minister has been sacked in the wake of the attacks, along with the provincial governor. Calling it a homegrown attack, even if that were true, would be devastating for the government's tattered credibility. The siege of Mumbai was very disruptive to India's commercial, financial, entertainment, and tourist capital.
** Pakistan's new civilian government has been trying to rein in the army and the ISI. With only limited success. In the wake of the attacks, Pakistan's prime minister announced that the ISI director would go to India to cooperate with Indian authorities in the investigation. The ISI then announced that that was wrong, that an assistant would go later on. Yesterday, the former head of the ISI met with the prime minister and informed him that it is far more important for the prime minister to defend the integrity of the institutions of Pakistan than to open the country up to inspection from the outside.The tactics used in the terrorist siege of Mumbai were not as unique as originally portrayed.
** The Mumbai plan looks just like a 1993 plan against New York. At first, the terrorist tactics employed in Mumbai were said to be novel. But it turns out that what took place looks a lot like an Al Qaeda plan from the early '90s, employing water-borne transportation and assault weapon and grenade attacks against luxury hotels and well-known landmarks to create large numbers of casualties and a general sense of havoc in the major commercial city of a country. That doesn't mean that Al Qaeda is behind this, even if an Al Qaeda plan is. The attacks also bore great similarities to those made by Chechen rebels, according to Russian security services.
** The Clintons have been very close to India, which may make it hard for new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to deal with Pakistan. When President Clinton made a farewell tour of the region in 2000, he spent five days in India and seven hours in Pakistan. Hillary has raised so much money from Indian-American interests that an Obama campaign document described as "Senator Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)."
** It should not be a surprise that resurgent Russia is playing in this as well. The two countries earlier this year announced that they had created the world's fastest cruise missile. Now they have just announced that they are collaborating on a new multiple-role fighter aircraft. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited India the day after Secretary of State Condi Rice. The Soviet Union was very close to India during the Cold War, and was certainly no friend to Pakistan while that country helped create the Soviet Vietnam.
** There are no easy solutions. If the Indians don't retaliate militarily against targets inside Pakistan -- whether official, rogue official, or private -- they risk looking weak. If they don't demand the hand-over of terrorist suspects, they risk looking weak. But the first option could lead to outright war. The second option could further destabilize Pakistan. Or it could lead to a military confrontation if Pakistan did not comply.