How should India respond to the horrendous terrorist attacks in Mumbai? Given the rightly outraged Indian public’s demands for retaliation, doing nothing does not appear a viable option. And failing to retaliate will simply invite new attacks.

But the alternative of a major military confrontation with Pakistan along the shared border has little to recommend it. The hands of the civilian Government of Pakistan seem pretty clean in this case. No shred of evidence has yet emerged that would connect the terrorists with it. True, decades of support for terrorist groups prepared the ground for the attacks, but the current Pakistani Government has been far more cooperative with India than those of the past. Mobilizing its forces on the Pakistani border will yield no benefit to India and could lead to a mutually devastating nuclear war. Besides, both countries’ economies are reeling from the global financial crisis. An armed confrontation of this sort would make things worse by signaling capital to flee the region.

India could, however, adopt another approach that would constitute a highly appropriate form of retaliation. We can call this strategy “Going to the Source”.

Going to the Source

Who was behind the terrorist attacks on Mumbai? Not the unknown Deccan Mujahideen who claimed responsibility. That was clearly intended to mislead. All the evidence thus far points to two culprits: the Kashmir irredentist Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda. And the most likely motive by a wide margin would be to provoke an Indo-Pakistani confrontation that would lead Pakistan to pull back its troops from their offensive against the terrorist facilities in Bajaur Agency along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

While the attackers themselves might have been mainly or solely from Lashkar-e-Taiba, their focus on killing Americans, British, and Jews bears the insignia of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda might also have provided funding and what appears to have been sophisticated planning.

One possible inference: al Qaeda feels itself seriously threatened by the assault by the Pakistani army on its facilities in Bajaur Agency. Indeed, al Qaeda may be in a more desperate situation than appears on the surface. Lashkar-e-Taiba has increasingly used this area as a base and training ground, and for a long time it has been intimately connected with al Qaeda.

So the last thing India should wish is to lessen Pakistani army pressure in Bajaur. Indeed, it can go much farther.

A Modest Proposal

Pakistanis have long feared encirclement by India. Every hint of Indian presence in Afghanistan is taken as encircling. For its part, India has downplayed its role in Afghanistan in order not to provoke the Pakistanis.

But now the chemistry has changed. India has a palpable need to retaliate for the Mumbai attacks. So how better than Going to the Source?

With the permission of the Government of Afghanistan, which has reasons to cultivate a good relationship with India and to reduce the threat of terrorism, India could elect to respond to the Mumbai terrorism by sending an expeditionary force of 20,000 Indian troops to Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, opposite the Bajaur Agency.

India could speak very plainly about its intention to use these troops to clean out the al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists.  It could emphasize that it acknowledges that the Government of Pakistan was not complicit in the Mumbai attacks, that it wishes to cooperate with Pakistan against common enemies, and that it does not covet a single inch of Pakistan’s territory. It could rightly say that it seeks only to motivate the Pakistanis to do the job on the terrorists themselves. If they don’t, India would have the option of launching a cross-border attack, perhaps with stand-off U.S. air support.

How likely is it that Pakistan would not respond by dramatically intensifying its assault on the terrorists in Bajaur? Not very. The Indians could promise that, once the terrorists are finished off, whether by the Pakistan army or by the Indian expeditionary force, they would withdraw every last Indian soldier from Bajaur and Afghanistan.

This approach would convey many benefits. India and Pakistan would avoid a scary, costly confrontation on their mutual border. India would successfully retaliate for the Mumbai attacks. Afghanistan would be rid of a major source of terrorist activity. The U.S. could withdraw from Afghanistan. And the Government of Pakistan would deal successfully with the mortal threat the terrorists pose to its hold on power–or the Indians would do it the favor.

Of course, some terrorists would likely escape, and there are plenty of others. However, al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba would suffer a major defeat.

Kenneth J. Dillon

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