The Mumbai bombings have once again changed the narrative on terrorism. By attacking soft targets associated with wealth and Western tourism-and not immediately blowing themselves with explosives-the suicide squad of Islamic fanatics, almost certainly from Pakistan, held the Indian government at bay for over three days and assured themselves a worldwide audience on twenty-four-hour cable TV. These events demonstrated the exceptional vulnerability of open cities to this type of violence and the extreme difficulty of preventing such actions. Israel was able to dramatically reduce Palestinian suicide attacks by literally building a wall around its borders. Large countries can't do this.
The incident highlighted the incompetence of the government of India in its response and the complicity of the government of Pakistan in its failure to deal with its own terrorist networks. Once more the specter of an Indo-Pakistan war has surfaced at the very time the United States is desperate to have better Pakistani cooperation to stem the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Fortunately, Pakistan's new democratic leaders have taken some sensible confidence-building initiatives to mollify India's government and Indian public opinion. Yet they cannot be too accommodating given Pakistan's own public rage at accusations leveled by India and the Pakistani army's continued suspicions of India's long-term intentions.
Pakistan's elites continue to harbor three intense grievances that influence their behavior toward India. First, they still see India as an existential threat and regard New Delhi's position on Kashmir to be intransient and unacceptable. Second, they fear the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan and see this as an effort by India to weaken Pakistan's access and influence over its northern neighbor. Third, they believe that U.S. overtures of friendship are primarily based on Pakistan's critical role in fighting the Taliban. They resent the fact that the Bush administration has made better relations with India a long- term priority and they fear that, over time, India's size and its economic reach will put their own relationship with the United States on the back burner.
In turn, the Indians themselves suffer from continued paranoia about Pakistan's intentions and its influence on India's huge Muslim population, which is the second largest in the world after Indonesia. India's border disputes with China have not yet been resolved and its leaders know it cannot exert its full weight in southwest Asia and Indian Ocean until and unless it resolves the crisis over Kashmir. This comes at a time when Indian domestic politics is in a state of turmoil and the left-wing political parties use all pretexts to undermine the government and demonize India's close ties with the United States.
The multiple crises in the India-Pakistan-Afghan triangle will have to be one of the highest priorities of the incoming Obama administration. It would make sense to appoint a special envoy to deal with these complex problems in view of the huge stakes involved in Afghanistan and the ultimate nightmare of nuclear confrontation on the subcontinent.
Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.