India's Response to Mumbai Attack

The Mumbai attack — the massacre of hundreds of innocent Indians by Islamists — has succeeded in creating a possible nightmare. India desperately seeks a diplomatic solution to the crisis but might respond militarily because the operation was likely spawned by Pakistan-based Islamists aided by that country’s intelligence service and the civilian government has little ability to affect a punishment against either terrorists or intelligence chiefs.

New Delhi must carefully gauge any response to avoid creating an existential threat for Islamabad that ignites nuclear war or crumbles Pakistan’s government leaving the Islamists empowered.

The public evidence against Pakistan is growing. The lone captured gunman said he belonged to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani terrorist organization. The gunman admitted that he was trained in Pakistan by an army official. There is also a report that a satellite phone belonging to one of the attackers was used to call a number in the Pakistani city of Karachi during the assault.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which is part of the army, has a long-term supportive relationship with radical Islamist groups like LeT. That’s why no one should be surprised by an Asia Times report that an ISI element in Karachi allegedly approved the Mumbai attack.

Another media report quotes a Pakistani army official — read ISI — as praising Islamist fighters. On Dec. 2nd, the Urdu-language newspaper Roznama Jang reported that Pakistani army officials praised Islamist fighters like the LeT as “Pakistani Patriots” for their pledge of support against India’s anticipated retaliation for the Mumbai attack.

Understandably, Pakistani officials are trying to distance the state from the ISI and terror groups. Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, claims the Mumbai terrorists were “nonstate actors.”

Likely, New Delhi has more evidence implicating Pakistan’s ISI, which could be shared with Islamabad. Whether India shares that evidence or not, it’s clear the Indians will act to ensure that an attack like Mumbai cannot be repeated.

India suffered a similar attack — also by LeT — in Dec. 2001 on its parliament. That event triggered a near-war confrontation with Pakistan. But the Mumbai operation was far worse and won’t be ignored by India’s politically vulnerable government because of growing public fury over the incident.

The US played an important role defusing the parliament crisis. American officials won guarantees from Islamabad to clamp down on the cuprits, LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad, whose members stormed India’s parliament. But this time the US may fail to coax New Delhi to backdown because Mumbai is only the latest incident in a wave of Islamist attacks.

Last week, US officials raced to the region hoping to once again defuse an Indo-Pakistani crisis. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen went to Islamabad to press Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to change the primary mission of the ISI from preparing for war with India to actively helping the fight against Islamic extremists. They also pressed Pakistan to crack down on terrorists and then pleaded with New Delhi to show restraint until Islamabad responds.

But Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee conveyed to Rice “…the feeling of anger and deep outrage in India.” He said that his government was convinced that the attackers and their “controllers” came from Pakistan but India’s actions “…will depend on the response we have from the Pakistan authorities.”

New Delhi expects Islamabad to respond by reining in the ISI and Islamic radicals but many Indian officials expect Pakistani promises will be insufficient. The Indians demand tangible proof that Islamabad is serious. They are unlikely to get it.

Unless Pakistan quickly and convincingly shows that it is serious the Indians will proceed with military action. Mukherjee said “[e]very sovereign country has its right to protect its territorial integrity and take appropriate action as and when it feels necessary.”

There are three likely military courses of action. New Delhi must weigh each option’s chances while avoiding full-scale war with Pakistan and averting the collapse of Islamabad’s democratic government.

First, New Dehli could bloody the Let and ISI via air power. India could launch air attacks using cruise missiles or sophisticated jet fighters like its Russian-built Su-30MKI “Flanker” against LeT camps in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the disputed terrority of Kashmir which is home for many LeT terrorists or the town of Murdike, the LeT’s new headquarters near Lahore.

India might also consider targeting ISI facilities such as the spy headquarters in Isalambad but that’s likely too dangerous because India lacks reliable precision munitions and the potential for collateral damage is high.

Expect Pakistan to respond to India’s air assaults. Islamabad might launch its old F16s which would quickly lose to India’s sophisticated Su-30 fighters. Pakistan might pound Indian territory with artillery fires or worse, it might unleash Islamist groups committed to suicide attacks inside India.

Second, the Indians could conduct a naval blockade of Pakistani ports. A blockade would be economically painful for Islamabad pressuring that government to make a serious effort to clean house. Unfortunately, this time-consuming option would also impact US and NATO reliance on the Pakistani port of Karachi for resupply of Afghanistan operations. America would lobby to dissuade New Delhi from this option.

Third, ground action is the most effective tool against terrorists but it also presents the greatest risks. But some form of ground confrontation is inevitable even if the main effort is by air or sea. As a minimum, expect both armies to rush forces to the Indo-Pakistani frontier which is referred to as the Line of Control (LOC). However, it’s unlikely either party will cross the LOC because such an action could quickly escalate into war.

A less risky ground option would involve Indian conventional or Special Forces units attacking into the disputed Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir to target the LeT. Assaulting jihadists inside Pakistani-Kashmir focuses the ground effort on those directly associated with the Nov. 26 operation and communicates to Pakistan, LeT and other terrorists that India will no longer tolerate a terrorist sanctuary in the disputed territory. Of course, this option leaves the ISI untouched.

India will respond to the Mumbai attack. We can only hope that New Dehli’s response will be diplomatic pressure that compels Islamabad to take seriously its responsibility to rein in the ISI and crack down on Islamist extremists. But failing evidence that Pakistan takes the appropriate action, like US operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s FATA, India has every right to take military action against those inside Pakistan it considers culpable in the Mumbai operation.

And if — more likely, when — diplomacy fails the US could share intelligence and targeting information with the Indians to ensure their response does not escalate out of control. Our conditions for helping might be that India knocks out a few al Qaeda operatives as it punishes both the LeT and ISI.