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December 5, 2008

Mumbai Massacre Seen as Major Blow to Regional Strategy

by Jim Lobe

A week after the massacre of more than 170 people by armed militants in Mumbai, US officials are scrambling to prevent the incident from blowing up into a full-fledged confrontation between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.

While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent Wednesday in meetings with Indian leaders in New Delhi warning them that any retaliation could result in "unintended consequences or difficulties," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, Adm. Michael Mullen, was in Islamabad pressing top Pakistani civilian and military officials to fully cooperate with any investigation.

He also urged them to crack down hard against any groups – almost certainly the officially banned Lashka-e-Taiba (LeT), according to government and independent analysts here – found to be responsible.

"The response of the Pakistani government should be one of cooperation and of action," Rice said sternly in a press conference with Indian Foreign Secretary Pranab Mukherjee Wednesday before jetting off to Islamabad to convey the same message directly in talks Thursday with President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. "This is a time for everybody to cooperate and to do so transparently, and this is especially a time for Pakistan to do so."

The attack and subsequent two-day siege, apparently carried out by at least 10 assailants of whom only one survived, have clearly dealt a serious blow to US hopes for Indo-Pakistani détente which is increasingly seen, particularly among top Pentagon officials and key advisers to President-elect Barack Obama here, as essential to stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating al-Qaeda.

In their view, only by reassuring Islamabad that Delhi does not harbor aggressive intentions against it and won't use its growing economic and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan for hostile ends, will Pakistan – and especially its Army and the military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency – be persuaded to move decisively against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, whose leadership is believed to enjoy safe haven in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

In addition to providing these groups safe haven, the ISI helped create, train, equip, and has sustained the Taliban, LeT – originally a Kashmiri insurgent group – and other militant Islamist groups over the past nearly two decades as critical weapons against Delhi's presumed regional ambitions, according to experts here.

How closely tied the ISI remains to the Let, as well as the other groups, remains the "64,000-dollar question" in the wake of the Mumbai massacre, said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution and former career intelligence analyst. "It is difficult to believe that no connection remains."

Riedel and other experts had been encouraged by unexpectedly bold steps taken by Zardari in recent weeks not only to build on a five-year-old confidence-building process that includes talks on Kashmir's status, but to give the process much more momentum.

They included reopening trade between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled halves of Kashmir for the first time since Partition, repeatedly pledging to assert control over the ISI, declaring in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that "India has never been a threat to Pakistan," and suggesting that Islamabad was prepared to commit itself to a "no-first-use" policy regarding its nuclear arsenal.

All of these gestures raised hopes here that a rapprochement of the kind sought by Washington – particularly if they were reciprocated by Delhi – might indeed be in the cards. At the same time, however, experts here knew that Zardari's moves were likely to evoke strong opposition at home, particularly within the military, which has long felt that strategic policy, particularly toward India, was its domain, and the radical groups it has fostered through the ISI.

"It's pretty clear that the Mumbai attack and the likelihood that it would completely shatter the détente that was underway was in the interests of a number of different groups," according to an administration official who asked not to be named.

Originally a Pakistan-sponsored Kashmiri insurgent group, the LeT, which has so far denied any role in the attack, has strongly opposed negotiations with India that might result in Delhi's retaining control over any part of the divided region.

"One of the purposes of the attack was to ensure there wouldn't be negotiations on Kashmir," according to Stephen Cohen, another South Asia expert at Brookings and co-author of Four Crises and a Peace Process, a book about US efforts to mediate between India and Pakistan published last year.

But that is not the only possible motive, according Cohen and other experts, who suspect that the ISI, as LeT's creator and historic supporter, or senior officers within it, may well be behind the attack both to reverse the ongoing détente and undermine Zardawi and the civilian-led government.

"(Lashkar) is an ISI asset," Christine Fair, a Pakistan specialist at the RAND Corporation here, told the Voice of America earlier this week. "So the big question is not why did Lashkar do this, but why did the ISI order it?" she asked, suggesting that the attack was aimed not only at undermining Zardawi and sabotaging prospects for détente, but also as a warning to an incoming Obama administration's purported plans to increase pressure on Islamabad to cooperate more against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

A number of experts here – who note that Osama bin Laden also played a role in LeT's early financing, and that some "high-value" al-Qaeda figures have used and even been arrested at LeT safe houses and other facilities – also see the group's hand in the attack, particularly the fact that the assailants' primary targets were US citizens, Israelis, and Hindu Indians.

"This is a target set of global jihad," said Riedel, who cited exhortations by al-Qaeda leaders to fight, in their words, the "Crusader-Zionist-Hindu alliance." In addition, the choice of Mumbai – India's financial capital – corresponds to bin Laden's apparent conviction that strikes against economic targets can be particularly potent, especially at a time of global financial crisis, according to Riedel.

There may also be a tactical dimension to the Mumbai attack that benefits al-Qaeda and its allies, according to Riedel and other experts who compared its timing and intent to the deadly suicide assault led by another ISI-backed group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, on the Indian Parliament in mid-December 2001, just as US and allied Afghan forces were chasing the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership in the mountains of Tora Bora along the Pakistan border.

As tensions mounted in the aftermath of that assault, Pakistani troops stationed at the Afghan border were diverted to the Indian border, thus facilitating the escape of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and bin Laden, among others. "This was undoubtedly not a coincidence," said Riedel.

With Pakistani troops currently engaged – with Washington's strong encouragement – in heavy fighting against Islamabad's own Taliban insurgents along the Afghan border, their redeployment eastwards to face Indian forces would be another major blow for Washington's regional strategy.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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