During the recently concluded American elections, vice president-elect Joe Biden made the widely criticized point that president-elect Barack Obama would be tested very soon after ascending to the job. It appears from recent events that his particular prophesy has been fulfilled, and rather earlier than even he had imagined, namely, even before Obama takes on the job of president. It may be no exaggeration to point out that much like September 11, 2001, charted the course of the George W. Bush administration, the Mumbai massacre on Thanksgiving 2008 could well chart the course of the Obama presidency.

Firm evidence with respect to the participation of Pakistani government agents in the latest terrorist outrage in Mumbai that left nearly 200 people dead is still unavailable as I write this article; however, the apparent presence of a naval vessel carrying the terrorists to the city’s shore as well as the targeting of patently Western and Jewish people in Mumbai points outside the pattern of terrorism that Mumbai has witnessed thus far; namely that of killing locals in mass numbers through the use of explosive devices planted on taxis and trains. I return to the failures of the Indian government in the second half of this article, after first dealing with the immediate consequences for Pakistan should the involvement of its citizens be proven over the near term.

There is a second possibility that I discussed with my Asia Times Online colleague Spengler, namely that the attacks on Mumbai were a response to the anti-piracy actions of the Indian navy that resulted in the sinking of a Somali pirate mother ship last week. The mother ship was a Thai fishing trawler that the pirates had seized a short while before. It is not much of a secret that Somali pirates are well aligned with al-Qaeda for their training and weapons; it is also possible that an important al-Qaeda functionary was killed in the Indian attack.

Based on the complicated set of facts in front of us, it seems logical for now to conclude that the Mumbai operations were the product of meticulous planning and action taken almost exclusively by non-locals to prevent the risk of information leaking to Indian police if locals had been taken into confidence. The most logical source of such people would be the Islamic terrorist continuum operating under the auspices of al-Qaeda and loosely aligned with renegade elements of the Pakistani government itself, namely the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI; the notorious state-within-state.

Much as everyone discusses the carnage in Mumbai, I cannot escape the feeling that execution was hurried along; the use of even a slightly larger force with more deadly weapons could well have created a multiplication of damage and casualties in Mumbai. That suggests that the operation was executed prematurely: precisely what one should expect if planners had somehow suspected being exposed and their carefully planned actions aborted entirely. It is for this reason that I suspect the Pakistani government’s actions against the ISI as the primary trigger for this terrorist attack.

This was coming, and obviously so

From a longer-term perspective, it shocks me that more Western agencies including the US and UK governments do not take full cognizance of the size of the challenge in Pakistan. US neo-conservatives for example highlight Iran as the major threat to the planet, despite the fact that its 60 million people are relatively well-off, demographically in decline and most importantly a Shi’ite people surrounded by inimical Sunni groups.

In contrast, Pakistan is a country possessing nuclear weapons and hosting over 150 million people skewed towards the young. Its share of young, unemployed and restless people with a penchant for religious extremism since the early 1980s has steadily risen to the point where calling the country the leading breeding center for terrorism globally wouldn’t be too far-fetched. All of these factors have led to the undermining of civilian government, while the country’s elite slide into accommodation with religious fanatics from al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

A few weeks back, I wrote an article (Triangulating an Asian conflict Asia Times Online, September 6, 2008 ) that discussed the potential for Pakistan slipping deeply into the Taliban sphere of operations, in turn imperiling its neighbors, including most urgently India and less probably China over the longer term. What looked like a thesis has now come fully into the realm of probability.

The article’s main thrust was explained in the last part:

Thus, the indomitable force of Islamic fundamentalism that emerges from Pakistan will have to confront the immovable objects of Han and Hindu resurgence. It is well likely that the first course of action will be against the well known enemy of India rather than the scarier opponent in China, but that is a relatively minor detail in that it only applies over the relative near term.

Of course, the primary thrust of that article was not so much the existence of these threats, but the regional media’s casual disregard for the security situation with column inches being devoted instead to the wardrobe choices of the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. In that article, I juxtaposed the emerging Taliban threat to Pakistan in the context of its worsening economic fundamentals, even as the resurgence of Hindu nationalism made the idea of rapprochement unattainable.

One of the key changes ushered in by President Asif Ali Zardari was the broadening of ties with India, leaving out for now the thorny issue of Kashmir but focusing instead on improving trade and infrastructure while making a common cause against Islamic terrorists. This made sense not only because Zardari owed his ascent to the assassination of his wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, but also because sidelining the army by achieving peace with India would help to secure his own future.

Proceeding in that vein, and acting finally on a key recommendation by the US government that had been made as early as 2006, earlier last week it emerged that the “political” wing of the ISI had been disbanded. Now of course, much of the ISI isn’t supposed to exist in the first place, therefore one uses ground contacts to determine just how serious such changes actually are; in this case it appears that the government’s action was seen as a stinging slap on the face of the ISI by effectively rendering the organization captive to the policies and actions of the government in power rather than being determined by its own senior cadre of advisors and agents as had been done previously.

In effect, disbanding the political wing of the ISI was seen as a move for the Pakistani government to take direct charge of ISI activities, and stop being hostage to the machinations of the ISI itself. In the past, the political wing of the ISI was thought to be responsible for the removal of Benazir Bhutto, the trial by fire of Nawaz Sharif, the removal of president General Pervez Musharraf and most recently the assassination of Benazir Bhutto herself. It was for this reason that the ISI took great pains to ensure that her death was blamed on an accident (head hitting the door handle) rather than an assassin’s bullets because the difference is the one between martyrdom and destiny.

(The existence of such a political organization that in effect polices the government on behalf of a sinister group of senior insiders is something of a puzzle in democracies across the Western world but is a matter of resigned acceptance in many countries including Russia and most communist countries including China and Vietnam. Across the Islamic world such political wings are active in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran under the guise of the religious police.)

For all intent and purposes it appears that the operations against targets in Mumbai were planned months in advance for execution at an appropriate time; the direct action of the Pakistani government against the ISI may have provided just such a trigger. It is also possible that the anger of al-Qaeda at India for the loss of a pirate mother ship in the past two weeks was a factor in pushing the action.

Whatever the reason for the “Go” command, the more disturbing elements are the implications for the Pakistani government itself. It is unlikely that the governments of the US, UK, Israel and India will take the involvement of agents within the Pakistani government in the Mumbai bombings lightly. However, that anger is beside the point because it is not clear to me that the Pakistani government can actually survive any course of action against these embedded agents.

With its credibility badly damaged in the eyes of the world, the government will have to rush towards a compromise position with the very people it sought to dislodge, namely forces friendly to Islamic terrorism within the agencies of the government including the army and the ISI. In return for promises of going easy, the government would get nominal visibility in future plans.

Then-president Musharraf came to a similar arrangement in the months following 9/11 and US actions against Afghanistan. In return for face-saving bans on terrorist outfits that gathered funds and hired Pakistanis for their operations, he allowed the outfits to expand their soft programs, including Islamic education, pushing back women’s rights and broadening the run of the Taliban in border areas with Afghanistan. This worked for a reasonable period of time until finally the US government lost patience with the foot-dragging on operations against al-Qaeda/Taliban fighters nesting within Pakistan. That in turn caused the Americans to act against Musharraf, and bring in Bhutto, albeit with unimaginable consequences for the latter.

In all this, there was also a history lesson that was completely missed, namely the events of 1999 when then prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, proposed peace; this led his then head of the army Musharraf and a handful of top officers to plot the onset of a war with India by using irregular units of the Pakistani army in the guise of Islamic militants that attacked a forward Indian army unit in Kashmir; the resulting battle led not only to a threat of a nuclear strike by Pakistan but also eventually to the replacement of Sharif by Musharraf, after Sharif was forced to settle for peace by the US and other countries for the illegal actions of the army.

What is different this time around is that instead of the army being at loggerheads with the government, a small group within the ISI appears to have achieved the ability to destabilize both the government and the Pakistani army. For security experts, this was an obvious conclusion to reach when Musharraf was pushed out of power, and when Zardari started his peacemaking routine with India. My discomfort stems from the fact that no one in power across the US and India saw it coming.

To any dispassionate observer, it is easy to conclude that Pakistan is now a failed state on the lines of Somalia and Afghanistan where the government writ runs only in limited areas while everywhere else in the country is dominated by warlords. The only national institution in Pakistan is its army, although the push against Musharraf and the actions of the Taliban against specific army units point to cracks within that could well result in final breakdown of its command structure. It goes without saying that only the al-Qaeda/Taliban combine stand to take advantage of such a breakdown of the army command structure, using the opportunity to seize control of nuclear weapons.

Now, just to state the obvious from my perspective, there isn’t anything particularly bad about people belonging to a particular religion or ethnic group securing nuclear weapons capability. The problem with al-Qaeda and the Taliban taking control of these weapons of mass destruction though are that the groups put the survival of their own people second to the achievement of longer-term principles. This casual disregard for the lives of their own people – well witnessed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters of al-Qaeda/Taliban operations – is what makes the idea of them seizing nuclear weapons so much more of a strategic nightmare.

As for India …

Seeing the events of the Thanksgiving massacre unfold in Mumbai, I was reminded of an awful joke from Israeli television during the first Gulf War in 1990, after Saddam Hussein launched daily Scud missile attacks on the Jewish state. Told that the wild targeting and the inbuilt inaccuracy of the Scud missiles meant that the chances of anyone actually dying from such an attack were broadly the same as winning the national lottery, one comic deadpanned, “Yes, but you didn’t tell me there were so many draws every day.”

That sick joke must have gone through the minds of more than one person in Mumbai over the past few days as the latest attacks add to the recent history of terrorism against people in the city that started with the serial bombings of 1993 that killed more than a thousand people. More recently, there have been sporadic attacks using bombs in taxis and trains that have killed over 500 people.

A security expert on television made the point that the terrorists had chosen soft targets such as hotels and hospitals, but this comment only caused me to laugh mirthlessly. For it appears to me that the Indian government long ago beat the terrorists to that job, by making not just Mumbai but other big Indian cities also soft targets for terrorism.

In the months after 9/11 in the US, as well as the terrorist attacks on Madrid it became clear that the ultimate objective of al-Qaeda and its related groups was to destabilize multi-ethnic democracies everywhere. Being the only one of its kind in Asia, it would have been foolhardy for India not to see itself as a target even before taking into account specific issues such as the simmering Kashmir insurgency, its relative proximity to the US and lastly the large Muslim population that lives in its secular rather than theocratic framework that directly challenges the orthodox ideology of al-Qaeda.

Yet and almost alone among all such democracies, the Indian government refused to change its homeland security apparatus in the months following the terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament in 2001, as well as deeper provocations such as the attacks on Mumbai in later months.

There is no national body coordinating counter-terrorist intelligence across state lines; this would be tragic in a monolingual country like the United States but completely unfathomable in a multi-ethnic multilingual country like India. There is no apparent infrastructure to enable responses to crisis situations that aren’t conventional military attacks such as the Kargil war mentioned previously in this article.

Much has been made of the commercial importance of Mumbai, a fact that even economists like me only understand when looking at the domicile of India’s largest companies and its richest people. An overwhelming majority of India’s richest 100 people live and work in Mumbai, a journalist friend recently pointed out that over a quarter of the country’s revenue from taxing salaries arose from companies domiciled in this one city.

In any other emerging market leave alone democracy, Mumbai would automatically have been accorded protected status with governments bending over backwards to improve infrastructure and ensure security. None of these things have happened though, due to the curious and illogical domination of the Indian political spectrum by communists. As I wrote in another article for Asia Times Online (India’s real terrorists May 17, 2008), the role of communists in pushing back efforts to modernize and protect Mumbai cannot be overstated.

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak made the point on Friday that India’s special forces unit that dealt with the siege at the top hotels in Mumbai did not appear to be well prepared, nor could they be considered sufficiently well trained for such complex operations. This is a matter not just of concern for Indians, but also an invitation to question the absence of coordination with security experts from Israel and the United States. Interestingly, while India is one of the largest buyers of defense equipment from Israel, it has thus far failed to secure much training in anti-terrorism from Israeli and American experts.

The reason isn’t hard to find – efforts to enlarge such cooperation with Israel and the United States inevitably run into opposition from a motley crew of communists across the country. While their opposition to the US on ideological grounds is well known (as shown by the recent blocking of the nuclear deal with the US even though the positive effects of securing safe power stations running on nuclear fuel is obvious to any industrialist), it is interesting to note that protests against “Zionism” are usually led by the same communists. The arguments were first aired by the USSR at the height of the Cold War, and India’s communists are the only ones in the world to still subscribe to that world view.

Driven as much by envy of the industrious people of the city as by its relative prosperity and ability to attract the best talent from around the country, communists have steadily pushed against infrastructure improvements. Much of the security ills of the famously diverse city arise from the under-investment on infrastructure and inability to corral the criminal groups that operate openly in the city.

On the heels of this attack, India has once again made some cosmetic changes by replacing its most senior politician in charge of security with Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram. Given that I have not been impressed with the country’s ability to manage its finances over the past five years, it is unlikely that the government will do much to improve.

There are only two courses of action open to the Indian government; firstly to launch a strike against Pakistan-based training camps for Islamic terrorists such as those belonging to the banned Laskhar-e-Taiba and the Jaish Mohammad; this course of action risks opening up a full scale war with Pakistan. The second course of action would for the government to do precisely nothing but to passively sit around awaiting another terrorist attack on the country’s citizens.

While I fear the first course of action, I am well inclined to believe that it is the second course of action that will most likely emerge. In terms of protecting the well-being of its citizens as I have noted previously on many occasions, India is not China.

Spengler comments:

As Chan Akya observes, Pakistan’s military age population is far greater than those of other Muslim military powers in the region. With about 20 million men of military age, Pakistan today has as much manpower as Turkey and Iran combined, and by 2035 it will have half again as many.

Half the country is illiterate and three-quarters of it subsists on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank. That is to say that Pakistan’s young men are more abundant as well as cheaper than in any other country in the region. Very poor and ignorant young men, especially if their only education has been in Salafi madrassas (seminaries), are very easy to enlist in military adventures.

The West presently is unable to cope with a failed state like Somalia, with less than a tenth as many military-age men as Pakistan, but which nonetheless constitutes a threat to world shipping and a likely source of funding for terrorism. How can the West cope with the humiliation of Pakistan’s pro-American president and the inability of its duly-constituted government to suppress Islamist elements in its army and intelligence services? For the moment, Washington will do its best to prop up its creature, President Asif Ali Zardari, but to no avail. The alternatives will require the West to add several zeros to whatever the prevailing ceiling might be for acceptable collateral damage.