Two years ago, on Thanksgiving, as American families sat down to dinner, their TV screens came to life with a macabre spectacle. Ten terrorists, trained to numb their emotions, went on a killing spree in Mumbai unparalleled in modern history.
There have been commentators who’ve pointed out that after all, there are terrorist attacks on a daily basis in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia etc. So why should the Mumbai attacks raise so much consternation? And yet the Mumbai attacks stand out neither for their scale nor the murder – but for their modus operandi and intent. And it wasn’t just the fact that the attackers seemed unmoved by the horror of murder – the slow and calculated shooting of scores of unarmed people. It was also the fact that unlike in other terrorist attacks in the region, the terrorists in Mumbai were neither domestic insurgents nor disaffected citizens of the country. Instead, in Mumbai, the attackers were foreign nationals…Citizens of another country who had crossed an international border explicitly for the task of carrying out an essentially military action during peacetime. The causes cited by the Mumbai attackers were hardly personal. Given the legacy of relations between Pakistan and India the ten terrorists’ action could have been a causus belli. But, India chose not to respond with any form of military action and gave Pakistan an opportunity to deracinate Lashkar-e-Taiba from its soil. And yet the Lashkar, as much a nationalist group as it is a religious extremist group, has thus not been smashed by the strong arm of the Pakistani state. Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, despite being proscribed by the UN, continues to be in public life and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa continues to make news, most recently through its fund-raising drive during Eid-ul-Adha. Ajmal Amir Kasab’s confessions and David Headley’s testimony prove that Lashkar-e-Taiba’s plans are far from over.
Some Pakistani analysts say that deracinating the Lashkar-e-Taiba is impossible because Pakistan’s establishment fears the repercussions of opening up another front by taking on Lashkar-e-Taiba which has powerful patronage networks in the country. Others aver that Pakistan’s military establishment needs such groups for the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir and that they serve as a “strategic reserve” to achieve the strategic goals of the establishment vis-à-vis India. These reasons are anything but reassuring for anyone that believes in peace between the two countries.
It is clear that should a terrorist attack such as the Mumbai attacks recur, India would not be able to show restraint against the groups. Public opinion is often a strong factor in democracies as was seen in the U.S. response to 9/11. Unsurprisingly, a recent Pew poll indicated that most Indians would support military action against Lashkar-e-Taiba and other extremist groups if they conducted another terrorist attack in India. The only question for India is to determine when its red lines have been breached.
The response by India would be anything but vindictive. India’s objective would not be about destabilizing Pakistan. India recognizes the far-reaching consequences of such a scenario for India’s and international security. Instead, should another such terrorist attack occur, what India is likely to do is target the cogs and wheels of the “terror machine” – the complex web of non-state actors who are willing to cross an international border to execute military actions – inside Pakistan.
India of course would have costs to bear. Indian policymakers understand that there are no reliable patterns to be drawn from the history of military response to cross-border terrorist attacks. The attack and India’s response could alleviate tensions in the region enough to have an impact on the India’s economy. There would be costs in terms of human casualties. There may be no guarantees against future attacks. And yet… should a terrorist attack by a Pakistani national or a terrorist attack traceable to Pakistan recur on Indian soil, all the above costs for India would be overshadowed by the cost of doing nothing. India also remembers the adverse impact of the Mumbai attacks on the Indian economy. In short, the cost of doing nothing would have such a serious impact on the political-economy of India that it would have no other option but to respond and strike.
The onus of preventing a future attack therefore, lies as much with Pakistan as with India. The latter would of course have to strengthen its anti-terrorism institutions and structures. Pakistan, on the other hand, has to be resolute and come down hard on Lashkar-e-Taiba and its allies, and extend India the kind of security cooperation that it has extended to other countries such as Iran.
The Mumbai attacks will forever be remembered as one of the most brutal assaults ever perpetrated. Allowing another attack to happen would be just as grave a crime.