After Mumbai, Can the US Cool India-Pakistan Tension?

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Mustafa Quraishi / AP

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left, talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a meeting at his residence in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008.

Even if the perpetrators came from Pakistan, the Mumbai massacre, like the murder of Benazir Bhutto and the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, proves that India and Pakistan share a common enemy in jihadist terrorism — and they need to put their six decades of mutual hostility behind them in order to fight the extremists.

So goes the narrative that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials are trying to sell both sides in order to avoid an escalation of tensions that would threaten regional stability and undermine U.S. goals in Afghanistan. But while Pakistan's civilian government enthusiastically echoes that perspective, it's a tough sell with the players that count most in this instance: India's government, and Pakistan's military.

Publicly, Rice has talked up the idea that Pakistan is now ruled by a democratic civilian government committed to eradicating militant groups from Pakistani soil, and making peace with India. But neither Pakistan's generals nor India's political leadership have any doubt about who controls the critical levers of power in Pakistan — and it's not the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Witness Islamabad's response to India's call for the chief of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) organization to visit India to assist the investigation. The ISI is an arm of the Pakistani military that has long cultivated jihadist groups ranging from the Taliban to Lashkar e-Toiba (LeT), prime suspect in the Mumbai massacre. Pakistan's government immediately announced that Lieutenant General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha would fly to India to comply with New Delhi's request. A day later, however, Pakistan changed its tune — reportedly following a midnight meeting between army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani, on one side, and Zardari and his prime minister, on the other, — and said a more junior official would be sent instead. To date, no one has gone. So nobody believes the ISI takes its orders from the civilian government. In fact, when the government tried earlier this year to put the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry, it was quickly sent packing.

New Delhi is justifiably skeptical of the extent of Zardari's control over the military and intelligence institutions that have been responsible for cultivating the jihadists, and would be responsible for eliminating them. Nor would it easily believe that Pakistan's security establishment, despite its promises to Washington, has entirely renounced jihadist proxy warfare against India. Following the December 2001 attack on India's parliament by LeT militants that brought the two countries to the brink of war, Washington twisted Pakistan's arm to crack down on some of the groups it had cultivated. The LeT was even banned in Pakistan (it had to be, since the U.S. had added it to its list of international terrorist organizations) and many of its members were arrested. But most were simply released, and LeT continues to operate openly in the guise of its parent organization, Jamaat ud Dawa, while its clandestine military arm maintains its structures on Pakistani soil.

While it's unlikely that the military or ISI leadership would have been aware of, let alone sanctioned, the attack in Mumbai, India will see the Pakistani intelligence service as key to resolving a problem it had a strong hand in creating. Nor is the ISI's current orientation entirely unambiguous: the CIA recently confronted Pakistan with evidence of direct involvement by elements of the ISI in a July terror attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. In response to the pressure resulting from the 2001 India parliament attack, the Pakistani security establishment appears to have tried to stand down some of the its key militant proxies, rather than entirely disabling and eliminating them. A number of analysts believe the LeT then moved beyond the control of its erstwhile ISI patrons, and has drawn closer to the Taliban/al-Qaeda axis, even as it continues to operate in some of Pakistan's largest cities.

India on Tuesday presented Pakistan with a list of 20 senior militant suspects based in Pakistan that it wants immediately extradited to face justice in India. Pakistan declined that request, with President Zardari saying that anyone against whom evidence of crimes could be produced would be prosecuted in Pakistan — hardly a response likely to satisfy India.

While there's no doubt of Zardari's sincerity in his hostility toward the militants, he simply does not call the shots in Pakistan — a fact India's leaders may be more intimately aware of than their American counterparts. The Pakistani president's political weakness is not confined to having to defer to the military in all national security matters; he's had a hard time selling Pakistanis in general on the need to wage war on the extremists. The majority of his fellow citizens oppose cooperation with U.S. efforts against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Even after the Marriott bombing, Pakistan's parliament called for negotiations rather than force to be the dominant response to the militants.

U.S. missile strikes on Taliban suspects in the tribal areas have escalated Pakistani hostility to the war on terror, and opposition parties are none too happy about the prospect of their government cooperating with India over the Mumbai massacre. Many Pakistanis see any move to accede to India's public demands as an unwarranted admission of guilt. And any large-scale move against Pakistan-based militants could bring a sharp reaction on the streets. Zardari's government is in a particularly precarious position now that it has been forced to seek an International Monetary Fund bailout to avoid bankruptcy — the conditions attached to the IMF loan will force the government to rein in public spending, intensifying the hardships being suffered by much of the population and raising the likelihood of social instability.

Unless the Pakistani military can be persuaded that its own interests lie in standing down from confrontation with India and reorienting itself to fight the jihadists, U.S. efforts to contain the crisis will be fraught with difficulty. And it's hard to muster optimism over the prospects for remaking the existential DNA of Pakistan's army, an institution whose centrality to national life has been achieved precisely in the confrontation with India that began at the country's birth. Certainly, the fitful performance of Pakistan's military in response to pressure from the U.S. over Afghanistan is not exactly encouraging. As if to underscore the leverage it retains, Pakistan has also declared that escalating tension with India over the Mumbai terror could prompt it to move troops fighting the Taliban near the Afghan border to the frontier with India — a disastrous prospect for U.S. efforts to contain the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

India's leadership, for its part, is well aware of the fragility of Pakistan's civilian government and of the danger that military action —like possible air strikes against LeT camps inside Pakistan — can prompt a very dangerous escalation between the nuclear-armed neighbors. At the same time, the Indian public is incensed at its government's shoddy security performance. With the Hindu nationalist opposition exploiting the national-security failures ahead of next year's election, the Indian government is likely to discover that showing patience and moderation in response to Mumbai will come at a high cost.

So, to keep a lid on this potentially very dangerous situation, Rice, Admiral Mike Mullen, and other U.S. officials have to come up with a formula that does several things at once. First, it would have to satisfy India's need to be seen to be responding to the Mumbai atrocities; at the same time, it has to prevent a confrontation with Pakistan that jeopardizes the U.S. effort in Afghanistan; and finally, it must avoid provoking a domestic political crisis in Pakistan that could bring down Zardari's civilian government. President-elect Barack Obama has made clear his desire to resolve the India-Pakistan conflict as a basis for stabilizing democracy and eliminating terrorism in Pakistan. The Mumbai massacre, however, may make crisis-management, rather than resolution, the order of the day for quite some time to come.