CIA map of the disputed Kashmir territories, 2003
There has been a great deal of talk recently about the need for a broader regional strategy to defeat the Taliban, al Qaeda and other Islamist radicals in Afganistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. President-elect Obama, Secretary Gates, General Petreaus, and Secretary-designate Clinton seem to be on the same page about this, all agreeing that engineering an India-Pakistan detente would free up the Pakistani army.
The jihadists who attacked Mumbai may have made this impossible, underscoring the limits of American influence and extraordinary strategic danger presented by the various, loose-knit and overlapping radical Islamist groups active in Pakistan.
The Mumbai death toll stands at 183. The authors of this carnage almost certainly are connected to, if not controlled by, Islamist militants based in Pakistan, conspicuously the Kashmiri separatist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Indians are angry and want action from the ruling Congress Party, which has customarily taken a less hawkish line than the opposition. With an election set for May, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has demanded "strong action" from Pakistan to back up its expressions of support and cooperation by handing over 20 of India's most wanted fugitives. These include Lashkar-e-Taiba's leader, Hafeez Sayeed, Maulana Masood Azhar, chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Dawood Ibrahim, a Mumbai underworld chieftain wanted for helping engineer the 1993 bombings in Mumbai that killed 250. Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has offered cooperation in investigating the Mumbai attacks, but replied to India's demand that he needed proof before turning over the 20.
The issue for India is not the guilt of these individuals but Pakistan's good faith. With prodding from the U.S. and the West, India and the newly elected civilian Pakistani government have been groping for ways to improve relations between their two frequently warring countries. The American interest lies in easing Pakistan's primary strategic anxiety -- the ease with which India's far larger and more powerful armed forces could march quickly across the Punjab. For decades, the Pakistani Army, which regards itself as the guarantor of Pakistani nationhood, and its intelligence arm, the ISI, have marshaled their forces in the east facing India across the line of control in Kashmir. And they have enlisted the help of Kashmiri militants whose terror tactics can keep a large Indian force tied down within Kashmir.
As the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda grows more difficult, the U.S. is counting on increased Pakistani help to police the Afgan border and crack down on Taliban and al Qaeda elements within Pakistan. So far, the new Pakistani regime has seemed responsive to this as a priority, but that would change overnight in the event of an Indian build-up in Kashmir.
Under pressure from the U.S. to act with restraint, India seems to have found a clever way to make a significant demand on Pakistan -- to turn over the wanted men -- without mobilizing or provoking Pakistan's military leadership by holding the ISI responsible. (The U.S. may have sent a message to Singh that it holds some cards by leaking the story, potentially very damaging to his government and his party to the effect that U.S. intelligence passed along very specific warnings about imminent Mumbai attacks.) Still, Pakistan may reject the demand or simply stall, pushing Singh to stiffen India's stance.
One hopes there will not be a fourth Indo-Pakistani war. Such a conflict would greatly complicate the tough challenge we face in Afganistan, run the risk of a nuclear exchange, and further destabilize Pakistan internally. But we need to recognize that American interests may not prevail in this situation, however creative or tough our diplomacy.
India and Pakistan have long been at odds over an issue, Kashmir, that has nothing to do with the U.S. or the West and about which we may be powerless to do anything. The Kashmir dispute is not a minor border squabble, as the map above shows. Kashmir is an huge area of 222,000 square kilometers, divided as a result of the India-Pakistan and India-China wars, prized by all three powers for its strategic value, and claimed by India and Pakistan based on ethnic, religious and historical ties.
The most likely outcome is that India and Pakistan will avoid any direct military clashes but shelve any interest in detente. The road ahead for the U.S. and the West in Afganistan will be a rocky one, but then, it always was.