In the wake of the Mumbai blasts, the governments of India, Pakistan and the United States acted in familiar ways. New Delhi expressed its outrage and struggled with poor choices in dealing with Pakistan. Islamabad sent condolences and hoped that the composite dialogue with India would resume without too great a delay. And Washington expressed solidarity with India in the fight against terrorism, only to quickly turn its attention elsewhere. These ritualistic statements serve to clarify that India is in a bind. But so, too, are Pakistan and the United States.
Acts of horrific violence that punish India also reflect poorly on Pakistan. In addition, every terrorist act clarifies the vulnerability of a normalization process on the subcontinent that consists only of modest steps. Small, positive steps are obviously welcome, but sooner or later they get trumped by big explosions. Not surprisingly, the Mumbai strikes have led to the suspension of the normalization process. This suspension, in turn, leaves New Delhi and Islamabad wide open for another crisis sparked by subsequent acts of terrorism directed against India.
If or when the limits of India’s tolerance are reached, the Bush administration will find itself poorly positioned to act as a moderating force. The administration is knee-deep in the Iraq quagmire and beset by other crises. After wholeheartedly endorsing Israel’s ill-advised military campaign against terrorism in Lebanon, the Bush administration is poorly positioned to counsel New Delhi to exercise restraint against new provocations. After all, a key, unstated part of the nuclear deal was to secure for New Delhi a special status on Capitol Hill like that accorded to Israel.
Moreover, the diplomatic device used by the State Department to end the subcontinent’s last crisis in 2002 – a pledge extracted from President Musharraf to “permanently” end cross-border terrorism — cannot plausibly be recycled. Far more strenuous efforts by Musharraf would now be needed to prove his bone fides against terrorism – actions that he declined to carry out when he was at the peak of his powers, when he was the object of assassination attempts, during brief periods when he was under severe pressure from Washington, or when the normalization process with India showed promise. All of these moments are now in the rear-view mirror. A crackdown on militant groups supported by the religious parties Musharraf now colludes with does not seem to be in the cards.
After Mumbai, the binds that constrict India, Pakistan and the United States are tighter and mutually reinforcing. The most obvious exit strategy from the next crisis in South Asia that is looming beyond the horizon is a reinvigorated peace process. But the Mumbai blasts make it harder for India’s coalition government to endorse major initiatives to revive peace making with Pakistan. Similarly, new initiatives by Musharraf at this stage would lack credibility and invite fierce domestic criticism. In the absence of a major, new impulse in bilateral relations, crisis prevention will rest on the absence of another well-coordinated act of terror at a symbolic or sensitive venue in India. But the prolonged absence of another such act would merely confirm the skeptical view that sees Pakistan’s hidden hand behind the workings of Islamic extremism. Many in Pakistan also see India’s hidden hand in Balochistan’s troubles.
The diplomatic deficits now facing New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington should come as no surprise. There is no steady-state equilibrium during this transitional stage of India-Pakistan relations: bilateral ties either will improve or backslide. Hedging strategies and an abundance of caution have tipped the scales in the direction of backsliding. New Delhi’s caution when dealing with Pakistan is completely understandable, but caution merely reinforces Rawalpindi’s well-established, bad habit of using unconventional means to keep India off balance.
In South Asia, the political context in which acts of terror occur matters almost as much as the symbolism and loss of life associated with the attacks. Since the political context of India-Pakistan relations preceding the Mumbai attacks was almost entirely negative, the damaging repercussions of the bomb blasts were compounded, and the presumption of Pakistani guilt was heightened. Before Mumbai, there were bomb blasts in Bangalore, Delhi, and other sensitive sites. Seasonally-adjusted infiltration across the Kashmir divide was up. Acts of violence in Kashmir, especially acts directed at tourists that are particularly injurious to Kashmir’s economy, were also up. Not surprisingly, these upticks in violence appeared to coincide and follow Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s roundtable initiative, which excluded the participation of Pakistan and its favored Kashmiri groups.
Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has become a huge burden that is exceedingly hard to change. Every terrorist attack that now occurs in either India or in Pakistan clarifies that the “core issue” on the subcontinent has become terrorism, not Kashmir. And because of Pakistan’s choice of a Kashmir policy that relies so heavily on proxy violence to leverage India, Islamabad has lost the presumption of innocence whenever horrific acts of well coordinated terror are directed against India. Whenever India gets hit, Pakistan looks bad – even when Pakistan is not complicit in the violence. Musharraf further weakens Pakistan’s standing by relying on the A.Q. Khan defense — give us evidence and we’ll get back to you — to fend of questions of complicity in cross-border terrorism.
This presumption of guilt is unfair, but it comes with the territory littered by almost two decades of violence in Kashmir abetted by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. There can be no doubt that Musharraf has made significant changes to his country’s Kashmir policy, but the follow through on his initiatives has left much to be desired. Musharraf and his backers argue that if New Delhi were more imaginative and less slow-footed in responding to Pakistan’s initiatives, they would be more able to shift domestic support behind peace making. There is some validity to this argument, but it would be more persuasive if Pakistan’s opponents of reconciliation with India were actually amenable to majority opinion.
The only credible way for Islamabad to gain the presumption of innocence when acts of terror occur in India is to continuously crack down on those who support such operations from safe havens on Pakistani soil. These steps have been repeatedly promised in the past, with half-hearted or ephemeral implementation. As a consequence, Pakistan’s professions of innocence continue to be suspect. Nor can plausible deniability be gained by outsourcing terror to cells based in Bangladesh or Nepal, if shadowy links remain to groups or handlers in Pakistan. Pakistan’s best defense is to go on the offense against Islamic extremists.