By Michael Krepon and Polly Nayak – A terrorist incident of extraordinary scale and duration occurred in Mumbai, India’s largest city and commercial hub in late November 2008. Over
three days at multiple Mumbai tourist and cultural landmarks, 172 people were
killed. The attackers were members of Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT) who had come by sea
from Pakistan to conduct the attack. The Mumbai crisis is now part of the long legacy of violent
incidents short of full-scale war between India and Pakistan.
The Unfinished Crisis: US Crisis Management after the 2008 Mumbai
Attacks, a new monograph examining this incentent
co-authored by Polly Nayak and Michael Krepon, gives new insights into the
conflict-management efforts in multiple capitals around the world during and
after this crisis. This detailed assessment of US
diplomacy was informed by interviews with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Ambassadors David Mulford and Anne
Patterson, and many other US officials.
Findings in The Unfinished Crisis, include:
- The 2008-2009 Mumbai crisis remains unfinished. Ignited by terror attacks in late-November 2008 that were demonstrably launched from Pakistan, Indian grievances remained unresolved, while Pakistani policies remain dangerously subject to miscalculation. Further attacks in India by extremists trained, equipped, and based in Pakistan can be expected, making another crisis likely.
- Senior officials in the outgoing Bush administration had prior experience in crisis management on the subcontinent. They executed a crisis management plan – “Plan A” – that included familiar elements: top-level diplomacy, high-level official visits, playing for time, and close cooperation with British officials. There was no Plan B.
- US crisis management in 2008-2009 also gave unprecedented weight to sharing evidence with India and Pakistan. A related innovation in managing this crisis was US forensics and intelligence assistance to Indian authorities investigating the attacks. Institutionalizing law enforcement ties to India-and expanding them to Pakistan-could help resolve future crises and bolster US relations with both sides.
- US crisis management was helped by improved US-Indian ties, but hampered by strained ties to Pakistan and poor civil-military relations within its leadership. A continuation of these trends could reduce Washington’s efficacy as an “honest broker” in future crises.
- Despite the spectacular nature of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and considerable loss of life, most US officials saw this crisis as less dangerous than the 1999 Kargil and 2001-2002 “Twin Peaks” crises. The Mumbai crisis carried risks of escalation, but the challenges facing US crisis managers were smaller in scope and duration.
- US and Indian leaders had very little leverage on Pakistani officials to take serious, lasting steps against Pakistan-based groups and individuals linked to attacks on Indian soil. The aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks confirmed anew that Pakistan’s military, political, and judicial authorities could not-or would not-take punitive action against the perpetrators.
- The mid-crisis presidential transition from the George W. Bush to the Barack Obama administration had little effect on crisis management moves open-or not open-to Washington. The constraints on US leverage and diplomatic options were common to both White Houses.
- US crisis management after the Mumbai attacks was exemplary-but it was effective largely because Indian political leaders did not wish to risk an open-ended war that could lead to uncontrolled escalation and jeopardize other equities. New Delhi’s costbenefit calculus could change.
- A key question will be how confident Indian officials are of Washington’s ability to influence Pakistan’s security establishment in a crisis, and how willing they remain to lean on Washington’s good offices. If they lose faith in US diplomatic clout, Indian officials may be more inclined to respond militarily in the event of a future attack linked to Pakistan.
- Even if Washington has increased difficulty playing the role of an “honest broker” on the subcontinent, there is no obvious substitute on the horizon for the US as crisis manager.
- US crisis management will always pivot on a few individuals in Washington, but all plays in the US crisis management playbook require periodic re-evaluation and updating in advance of the next crisis. Successful strategies must take account of changing contexts and trends.
- Thoughtful contingency planning based on scenarios-not forecasts-can help sharpen preventive diplomacy and US crisis readiness by identifying emerging actors and developments in the region. Senior US officials would be well-advised to participate in contingency planning for high-level crisis prevention and management.
- Potential game-changers for US crisis management include an attack on the US homeland that could be traced back to Pakistan; the withdrawal of most US and NATO forces from Afghanistan; domestic political changes within Pakistan and further deterioration in US-Pakistan ties; changes in Indian political leadership; and strengthened Indian conventional military capabilities.
- US crisis management works best when ties between India and Pakistan are improving. Attempts to improve bilateral relations could prompt crisis-generating spoiler attacks, but such attacks could occur regardless of normalization efforts. Postponing efforts to improve bilateral ties merely guarantees more unfinished crises, any of which can fuel future escalation.
This study is the latest in a series of works by
Stimson co-founder Michael Krepon and collaborating authors on South Asian
security topics, from works on how to strengthen deterrence stability and
prevent nuclear war between India and Pakistan, to a more recent focus on
terrorism and crisis management. Co-author Polly Nayak was the
Intelligence Community’s most senior expert and manager on South Asia from