Commentary

If Islamabad’s Accountable, Is ISI to Blame?

Indian officials suspect that Pakistan’s government had a direct role in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which claimed almost 200 lives and injured hundreds more. The captured militant, Ajmal Amir Kasab, has implicated Pakistan’s Navy in providing assistance and training to the assault team. The militants reportedly began training in camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir more than a year ago. Indian intelligence also identified links between the militants and Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmiri terrorist group with long-standing ties to al Qaeda that operates out of Pakistan.

We may never know who gave the final order for the assault on Mumbai. Given recent calls by Pakistan’s new president for rapprochement with India, the attack may not have been desired by Pakistan’s new leaders. If the Mumbai attack was indeed supported by Islamabad, then the operation was almost surely a deliberate attempt by elements of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to revive tensions with India.

Right now, there is a clear alignment of interests between Pakistan’s government, its military and intelligence services, and organized insurgent groups on the country’s eastern and western fronts — all of whom would benefit from heightened tensions with India. The people of Pakistan will not.

Pakistan’s leadership is likely concerned about President-elect Barack Obama’s intention of amassing more US troops to counter growing al Qaeda strength around the Afghan-Pakistan border. Additional US forces would intensify pressure on Pakistan’s military to devote more troops and resources to eradicate al Qaeda and Taliban elements from within Pakistan. These and other militant groups, however, are organizing among large groups of Pakistani sympathizers. A significant escalation of army operations could inflict heavy civilian casualties, alienate the population, and spark a civil war. With the country already on the brink of bankruptcy, more social and political instability might well be intolerable for the new democratically elected regime.

Ratcheting up tension with India would relieve pressure on the government itself to re-assign troops from the eastern front to the west. This, in turn, would provide breathing room to ISI-supported Islamic extremists in the west, undermining American and NATO interests in Afghanistan. Kashmiri separatist militants may have willingly carried out the Mumbai attacks because any reduction of resources from Pakistan’s eastern border could dilute their support structures within Pakistan’s army and intelligence corps. Given the historical rivalry between India and Pakistan, an Indian military response to Pakistan’s involvement cannot be ruled out. But the assault on Mumbai was a risky gamble based on the restraint displayed by India to date: In December 2001, after Pakistan’s ISI allegedly backed an assault by another jihadist group against the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, both countries amassed troops along their international border for nearly a year, but no large-scale hostilities ensued.

Pakistan’s national security strategy is still driven by its perceived existential threat from India. Pakistan pays lip service to the goal of eradicating radical insurgents from its soil, while using their presence to bargain for more military and economic aid from the West. Despite a counter-insurgency campaign being waged against other Taliban elements at home, Pakistani officials continually request dual-use weapons systems from the United States that are more suited for conventional warfare with India.

Pakistan’s national security strategy is still driven by its perceived existential threat from India.”

Continuing with an India-obsessed policy orientation will sacrifice more innocent civilian lives to a bloody and pointless regional campaign. This approach has diverted most available resources toward maintaining a prosperous military establishment, leaving very little for economic development, trade, social welfare, and education. It has left the rest of the population mired in poverty—a perfect incubator for religious fundamentalism and militancy against social and economic progress.

If the Mumbai assault was indeed a deliberate policy move supported by hawkish elements within Pakistan, U.S. and Indian policymakers must emphasize to Pakistan’s leaders that periodically stoking a rivalry with India is futile. The conventional balance of power on the subcontinent will remain with India, given its enormous supply of manpower and fast-developing economic potential. Improved India-Pakistan relations are possible only if Pakistan’s government and military establishments refrain from incorrectly inferring an aggressive intent on the part of India.

Pakistan’s new leadership has recently displayed awareness of the shortcomings of past military-dominated thinking. It should be encouraged to convert that awareness into action—to offer a better vision of stability and economic progress that its people—and their neighbor—desperately need.

Jagadeesh Gokhale is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.