Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the chief minister’s Conference on Internal Security earlier this week was primarily focused on the nuts and bolts of internal security. But it also harshly criticized Pakistan, stating “there is enough evidence to show that, given the sophistication and military precision of the attack it must have had the support of some official agencies in Pakistan.” Although this assertion remains publicly unproven (the dossier about the attacks submitted by India to Pakistan does not support it, and it is debatable whether the attack’s sophistication required state sponsorship) Singh’s statement showed that, beyond the carnage, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s assault on Mumbai had another victim – the Indian-Pakistan peace process. Singh is a pragmatic and capable politician who had been open to improving relations with Pakistan. But Singh faces domestic hardliners (and, given the ISI’s long history of links to LeT and other Islamist groups in Pakistan, their suspicion is not unwarranted.) Now, in the wake of the Mumbai massacre, Singh will be unable to make even the smallest concessions. This is not merely a local problem. Pakistan is a geopolitical timebomb, and key to defusing it is improving relations with Pakistan and India.
Pakistan, which provides the key routes into Afghanistan, is a nuclear-armed state on the verge of a financial meltdown, while fighting a major Islamist insurgency. However, the Pakistani leaders, military and civilian (see this report on a recent interview with the ISI chief), have recognized that a better relationship with India is essential to stabilizing Pakistan. The conflict in Kashmir has vastly distorted Pakistan’s development, and been a driver in the rise of radical Islam (including Lashkar-e-Taiba – which the ISI fostered as a proxy for fighting in Kashmir) in Pakistan.
An immediate consequence of the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan post-Mumbai was Pakistan’s shifting troops away from the Islamist insurgency in the tribal areas to face an Indian troop build-up. (In fairness, Pakistan continued extensive operations against the Islamists in the tribal regions.) But the real impact of Pakistan’s conflict with India is much deeper. Pakistan is outmatched by India in quantity (India is about six times more populous than Pakistan) and in quality as India’s economy is growing faster. Worst, Pakistan has long borders with little strategic depth. In an effort to compensate for these disadvantages, an inordinate amount of Pakistan’s national wealth has gone to the military. This has robbed crucial sectors such as economic development, infrastructure, and education. This has contributed to the growth of radical madrassas, high levels of unemployment, and a creaking infrastructure in which major cities experience regular blackouts.
In this unstable environment, a group like Lashkar-e-Taiba can flourish. While a stable and prosperous Pakistan – which has placed its rivalry with India on a backburner – is an anathema to the radical Islamists. Vice President-elect Biden is currently visiting Pakistan (in his capacity as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – where he spearheaded the Biden-Lugar plan to provide $15 billion in aid to Pakistan over the next 10 years). This is a strong indication that South Asia will be front and center for the incoming administration - as it needs to be.