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After Mumbai > Letters

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The attacks in Mumbai were inexcusable. A strong response is certainly warranted, however, it should be an intelligent one. The desire for vengeance, even if justified, must be tempered by a deliberative policy debate. Indians might take heed of the mistakes America made following September 11.

Those calling for war with Pakistan should look to the lessons Afghanistan or Iraq offer. The days of total war are past, especially when nuclear weapons enter the equation, and even a "successful" limited war with Pakistan would entail dealing with a post-war Pakistan. As we see in Afghanistan and Iraq, this is not a fun job.

There are those who suggest airstrikes on the terror camps, as the US often carries out. This is also a risky strategy. Without permission from the Pakistani government, which it will almost certainly never give, India may just spark a full-scale conflict with Pakistan--and as mentioned above, this seems like a bad idea. The US can get away with these strikes because it essentially funds the Pakistani government, is way out of missile range, and is not a historic enemy of Pakistan. Furthermore, it is not clear the US airstrikes have really achieved much.

Moreover, Pakistan is effectively a failed state at this point, and destabilizing it further is not likely to help anyone. Failed states are tar pits for foreign interventionists. The true costs almost always exceed expectations, and most states find their own populations unwilling to bear the full expenses. Look at the flagging support for interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Congo etc.--and all of these are arguably worse off than before outside intervention.

Using economic sanctions to force Pakistani action is also likely to fail. Unfortunately, Pakistan's current condition is the result of decades of poor governance, and it will likely take decades for it to be fully stable. The military (and its intelligence agency) has effectively run the country into the ground over the past sixty years, and has not built much except nuclear weapons, an inefficient patronage system and a bigger military. Reforming Pakistan means transforming the military class, and no one seems to know how to do this. Many Pakistani civilian political leaders have tried, and none have succeeded. What would economic sanctions achieve, but to take power away from any civilian actors capable of marshalling enough resources to challenge the military class?

Attempting to deal with Pakistan is beyond complex, because Pakistan negotiates by pointing a gun at its own head--paraphrasing Stephen Cohen, from his enlightening book The Idea of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the consequences of destabilizing Pakistan any further may be disastrous, but so might leaving Pakistan to its own devices. There are few good military or diplomatic options, only equally bad ones.

So what should India do? This is a difficult question, but the initial Indian government responses seem to be heading in the right direction. The government was probably wise in sharing intelligence with the world showing evidence of the people behind the attack, demanding that the Pakistani government deal with them, and taking advantage of friends (the US) who actually have a working relationship with Islamabad (such as it is) to pressure them to act. Pakistan does not want to be an international pariah, and needs foreign investment badly. Shame could be more effective than some might think, and even if it does not work it costs nothing. Further, these initial actions are not provocations.

Perhaps the best thing the Indian government did, however, was to acknowledge its own security problems. Absolute security is a fantasy, but certainly improvements can be made. Domestic police forces can be bolstered, intelligence capabilities enhanced, and borders and shorelines more effectively monitored. All of which can be done inside India, and with far more predictable results. Monitoring and containment of Pakistani terrorists is far more realistic than transforming Pakistani society and government.

Another suggestion for India also happens to be one for the incoming Obama administration: end the "war on terror" and begin the international policing of terrorist groups. Treat them like extremely violent organized crime families, and rely on Intel instead of bombs. Disrupt their financing and arms networks, instead of blowing up the villages and countries they operate from. Monitor and contain, instead of intervention and occupation. It is far less costly, and may have less unforeseen consequences. Preventing another attack will still be difficult, maybe even impossible, but at least you are not actively creating more enemies through collateral damage.

Finally, and perhaps most important, I hope that Indians do not demonize other Indians. There may be enemies from within, but they should be ferreted out in a judicious and effective manner. Alienating 150 million while searching for small groups of ten or twenty is not a good idea. Giving in to some of the more extreme sectarian impulses of those on the far right of the BJP will likely only lead to greater problems. Pragmatism is needed, not oppression. All of the above suggestions apply almost as equally to American policymakers, and if India hopes to avoid our mistakes they might take note of them.

grant marlier

Boston, MA

Dec 7 2008 - 2:02am

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