Pakistanis, and Pakistan itself, have emerged as the unsurprising culprit of the Mumbai massacre, and experts are ascribing broad regional repercussions to the human calamity, with dangerous troop buildups expected along the Indian-Pakistani border. But while some of the perpetrators are apparently of Pakistani origin, U.S. and Indian investigators should also look closer to ground zero.
"The groups that are attacking [in India] are increasingly composed of Indian nationals and many fewer Pakistani nationals. The Islamists also work with a major Indian Muslim organized crime group which gives them cross-country reach," said Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's al-Qaeda division.
The perception that the Mumbai attacks were predominantly carried out by Pakistanis could indeed fulfill expectations of a ratcheting up of tensions along the border. President-elect Barack Obama on Monday even obliquely suggested, in response to a question, that India would be within its rights to carry out counterterrorism operations within Pakistan, in wake of the violence in Mumbai. "I think that sovereign nations obviously have a right to protect themselves. Beyond that, I don't want to comment on the specific situation that's taking place in south Asia right now," said Obama during a press conference in Chicago on Monday.
But it is not only Scheuer's conclusion regarding the extensive involvement of Indian common criminals and terrorists in the Mumbai violence that conflicts with common perceptions. The prevailing narrative on Mumbai revolves around the idea that Indian democracy itself has come under attack by Pakistani terrorists. And while it is true that India has developed some impressive democratic institutions and traditions, greatly outpacing the gains made by neighboring Pakistan, the Indian reality is a bit murkier than U.S. officials suggest.
"Add to [India's crime and Islamist groups] a very corrupt and fairly incompetent security/police establishment and a Hindu elite that detests India's 190 million Muslims and you have the environment that has made Islamist terrorism flourish," said Scheuer. Given these circumstances, the most worrisome aspect of the Mumbai violence is the near certainty that another attack of its kind will occur again. Scheuer pointed out that the "Mumbai attack is really just the latest in a five-year series of attacks against major Indian cities: Ahmedabad, Jaipur, New Delhi, Bangalore, Surat, Hyderabad, etc. India in fact has been the nation with the most and most damaging attacks since 2003."
The dangers posed by India's alienation of its Muslim citizens are rarely commented upon by U.S. officials. On Monday, Obama predictably praised India's democratic evolution: "And I am confident that India's great democracy is more resilient than killers who would tear it down." But those killers, and their accomplices, may have been motivated not by a hatred of democracy, but rather a seething resentment of the treatment of the Muslim faithful in India.
Some Pakistani scholars, such as professor Akbar Ahmed of American University, have long warned of the dangers of alienating India's sizeable Muslim population. Ahmed noted that India's Muslim population is so disparaged that it does not even fit into the caste system. "They are below the untouchables," he said. "They are subcaste." And he observed that since India has only identified ten gunmen, and the scale of the attack was so broad and clearly premeditated, the numbers do not add up, suggesting that other collaborators have yet to be identified.
Ahmed points out that if Indian-Pakistani hostilities flare up, a Pakistani redeployment of troops from the Afghan to the Indian border would be only part of NATO and America's problems. Ahmed said that the sentiment in the tribal-border region would become focused on the Hindu/Western and Muslim rivalry. U.S. and NATO officials would be harder pressed to sow divisions between the tribal community and the militants that reside within it.
In this regard, the United States and India share a common problem, given the safe harbor that terrorists are able to find in the areas both nations are trying to secure. Indeed, as long as the militants can find refuge within a society, they appear to be virtually undefeatable, even with a substantial surge of troops and hardware.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.