James M. Dorsey: Mumbai bombings could prove to be a blessing in disguise
The details of the Mumbai bombings are still sketchy and authorities are still sifting through the rubble, but it won’t take long for India to lay the blame at Pakistan’s door.
No matter that initial reports suggest that the multiple explosions involved small-scale and relatively crude bombs that could point to local perpetrators, but even that does not preclude that they are linked to Pakistani groups. Pakistan’s president and prime minister were quick to condemn the attacks.
For sure, attacking multiple targets inevitably sparks memories of the November 2008 simultaneous assault on hotels, a train station, a police station, and a Jewish center in Mumbai by operatives of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba that closed the city down for three days. The terrorists killed 166 people during the siege in which Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) intelligence agency was implicated.
While there is no evidence yet of responsibility of Pakistan-backed groups, they would have every reason to want to strike.
For starters, Indian and Pakistan have in recent months been working to stabilize their often problematic relations. Improved Indian-Pakistani relations pose an existential threat to Pakistani terrorist groups who thrive on tension between the two countries. Tensions serve as a counterweight to US pressure on Pakistan to focus on the struggle against jihadists on its territory as well as the Taliban rather than its rivalry with India.
The 2008 Mumbai attack prompted Pakistan to withdraw thousands of troops deployed against the Taliban on the border with Afghanistan and move them to the border with India.
One immediate outcome of Wednesday’s bombing is certain to be that the Pakistani military’s inclinations will be to stay focused on India rather than the militants, who maintain close ties to segments of the Pakistani armed forces and the intelligence service.
The bombings are likely to also put a further strain on already tense relations between the United States and Pakistan. Relations hit a new low this week after the Obama administration announced that it had cut $800 million in aid to Pakistan.
The cut was intended to pressure Pakistan to stay focused on the fight against the militants and the Taliban. In response, Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar warned that Pakistan might withdraw troops from the Afghan border.
If Pakistani militants are proven to be responsible for Wednesday’s bombings, they will have succeeded in driving a further wedge between Pakistan and the United States, whose relations have been rapidly spiralling downward since the US killing in May on Pakistani soil of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Initial reports suggest that the Indian Mujahideen are a prime suspect. India’s Intelligence Bureau asserts that the group is little more than a decoy to distract attention from the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which has provides logistics support for past attacks. SIMI is widely seen as a front for Pakistan’s feared Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is believed to be supported by elements within Pakistani intelligence.
Pakistani militant involvement in Wednesday’s bombings three years after the 2008 Mumbai assault could bring Indian-Pakistani relations to a breaking point, spark intense pressure on Pakistan to clean up its act and once and for all break its ties to militant groups, increase calls in the US Congress for further punitive measures against Pakistan and complicate US efforts to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
For the militants, it would constitute a significant achievement albeit one that could well generate the kind of pressure on Pakistan in which it no longer has the ability to play both ends against the middle.
If so, the militants will have done themselves less of a favour than immediately meets the eye, but initiated a process that would ultimately serve the interests of stability in South Asia and lay the ground for improved US-Pakistani relations.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)