India-Pakistan Thaw Could Face Setbacks After Terrorist Bombings
(CNSNews.com) – Wednesday’s series of bombings in Mumbai sparked the usual questions – who and why – with few early answers for the inhabitants of a city that has weathered numerous deadly terror attacks over the past two decades.
Speculation about the identify of the perpetrators covered a range of interconnected Islamist groups operating in the sub-continent, many linked in some way to Pakistan and specifically its controversial Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
The timing of the attacks, which killed at least 17 and injured more than 100, suggests an attempt to throw into disarray the tentative rapprochement underway between India and Pakistan.
The explosions in a bus shelter, a business district, and a jewelry market occurred a fortnight before India and Pakistan’s foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in New Delhi for the first such meeting since relations between the historical foes were severely strained by the major terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008.
That 2008 attack, a 60-hour assault which left 166 people dead, including six Americans, was blamed on Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a group set up in the late 1980s with the backing of the ISI to fight Indian rule in disputed Kashmir. It is also now active against coalition forces in Afghanistan, and a top U.S. military officer has called it a “global threat.”
LeT was unsurprisingly among the first suspects in the latest bombings. Another was the Indian Mujahideen (IM), a group with close ties to Islamists elsewhere in South Asia including LeT and Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HUJI), whose founder was a signatory to Osama bin Laden’s infamous 1998 fatwa declaring war against America and Israel. Previously claimed attacks by IM have included similar serial bombings.
Among circulating theories about the timing of Wednesday’s attacks was the fact that July 13 is marked as Kashmir Martyrs’ Day. July 13 also is the birthday of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 assault. The Pakistani-born LeT member is on death row after his May 2010 conviction of murder, terrorism and multiple other offenses.
Another objective could be an attempt to upset a scheduled visit to India by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in six days’ time. Clinton said Wednesday she would travel as planned, saying it was “more important than ever that we stand with India, deepen our partnership, and reaffirm our commitment to the shared struggle against terrorism.”
The two-day visit on New Delhi and Chennai will be Clinton’s second as secretary of state, and according to the State Department will cover issues including counterterrorism and defense cooperation, climate change, high-tech trade and scientific innovation.
Whatever the motivation of those behind the attack, the Pakistan-India diplomatic initiatives could take a blow.
The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars since the two attained independence from Britain – two of them, in 1947 and 1965, over Kashmir. The dispute over the Himalayan territory brought them close to another full-out war in 1999.
Numerous acts of terrorism in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir and elsewhere in the country over the past decade has deepened the suspicion between them.
Afghanistan also looms large in both countries’ strategic thinking, with India accusing Pakistan of using proxies there to counter its interests. With a gradual drawdown of U.S. and other coalition forces beginning, that rivalry looks likely to grow.
But, for a variety of reasons, a more optimistic tone has emerged in recent weeks.
In remarks that made headlines across the subcontinent, India’s outgoing foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, who will become ambassador to the U.S., recently acknowledged a change in Islamabad’s attitude towards tackling terrorism, telling an Indian news channel “I think the prism through which they see this issue has definitely been altered.”
“India is our most important neighbour,” Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told a counterterrorism seminar last Friday, saying in the context of peace talks that “India will not find Pakistan lacking in will.”
Several weeks earlier, former Pakistani prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said it was time Pakistan stopped treating India as its “biggest enemy.”
Reasons for the shift pondered
Some Indian analysts see a dawning awareness in their country that India would suffer most should Pakistan collapse.
Bahukutumbi Raman, a former Indian counterterrorism official and director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, attributed some of the shift in tone from Pakistan side to its concerns about the future of its relationship with the U.S.
“Pakistan post-Abbottabad is not the same as Pakistan pre-Abbottabad,” he wrote in an analysis, referring to the U.S. special forces’ raid in early May on the compound where bin Laden was living.
“There is an intense introspection regarding Pakistan’s relations with the U.S.” Raman said. “India has been a conceptual beneficiary of this introspection. Questions not asked in the past are being asked now: Is the U.S. a dependable friend? … Has the time come to have a re-look at Pakistan’s relations with India in order to reduce its dependence on the U.S.?”
Sushant Sareen of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi wondered Wednesday whether the military-led establishment in Pakistan was starting to realize that the country’s interests lay in normalizing relations with India – “or is it the case that the Pakistanis are showing reasonableness to secure their eastern flank [with India] in order to address the existential threat being faced from within and from the western flank [with Afghanistan].”
“There is so far no evidence that the Pakistan army is actually in the process of effecting, much less accepting, a strategic shift in its perception of India,” Sareen continued. “Even so, the unfolding situation has opened a small window of opportunity for India to push the envelope a little bit more and exploit the space that has become available to move forward in areas of mutual interest and benefit.”
A key issue that should be targeted in the thaw is Afghanistan, in the view of Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
As the U.S. begins its troop withdrawal, when the Indian and Pakistan foreign ministers meet “they should place Afghanistan high on their agenda and launch a process to remove Afghanistan as a bone of strategic contention,” Inderfurth wrote this month.
“While many of their interests remain at odds, it is also clear that Pakistan and India have several common imperatives, including a stable Afghanistan, one not dominated by extremist elements that will pose greater security risks to their countries, and a desire to pursue the potential of Central Asian energy and trade routes,” he argued.
Inderfurth said the two governments should work towards a “code of conduct” recognizing each other’s interests in Afghanistan, “pledge not to seek a military presence in Afghanistan or to use Afghan soil to undermine the other,” and seek ways to cooperate through joint development projects.