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After Mumbai Attacks, South Asia Seen As Key Challenge For Obama

  • Ron Synovitz

Barack Obama (right) and his future foreign-policy team, Hillary Clinton and General James Jones, will have much to do in South Asia.

Barack Obama (right) and his future foreign-policy team, Hillary Clinton and General James Jones, will have much to do in South Asia.

With India alleging links between Pakistan and the Mumbai terrorist attacks, relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors are at their lowest point since the two countries pulled back from the brink of war in 2002.

India's government has not directly accused Pakistan's government of having a hand in the Mumbai attacks. But Indian officials and media are pointing to links between the attackers and Pakistan.

Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee has demanded that Pakistan arrest and extradite 20 terrorist suspects that New Delhi claims have settled in Pakistan.

The government in Islamabad denies any connection to the attacks, and has offered to work together with India in a joint investigation. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in Islamabad on December 2 that the offer has been formally conveyed to Mukherjee and that, in response to the Indian government's diplomatic steps, Pakistan is "ready to extend all possible assistance and cooperation" to New Delhi.

"Both sides need to act responsibly and they need to show restraint, seriousness, and sobriety in these delicate times," Qureshi said. "The prevailing conditions do not allow us to engage in a blame game and finger-pointing."

Clearly, relations between Islamabad and New Delhi have soured.

Islamabad has warned that Indian troop deployments along its border would lead Pakistan to redeploy thousands of troops away from its border areas near Afghanistan -- where they have been engaged for months in an offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.

Security experts say that is exactly what the attackers in Mumbai had hoped to do -- provoke a crisis between Pakistan and India that ultimately causes Islamabad to divert attention away from the Islamic extremists its forces have been battling in the tribal regions.

Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based correspondent for "Jane's Defense Weekly," says that the situation has deteriorated to the point that South Asia will be the No. 1 foreign-policy challenge for the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.

"Along with the state of the economy, I think the problems in Pakistan -- and now, by extension, Afghanistan and India -- are going to be Mr. Obama's top priority," Bedi says.

"In fact, I would say economy being No. 1 and then probably Pakistan and Afghanistan and India being No. 2, a very close second," he adds. "Because this is a problem that has the potential to escalate into something much larger. It is really a very dangerous time."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is due to visit New Delhi on December 3, has already spoken about the importance of India and Pakistan working together.

"Obviously, this is a time when everyone in the civilized world needs to be united, not just in condemnation of these terrorist attacks, but also in a commitment to be decisive in following up whatever leads there are and making certain that the people who perpetrated these attacks are brought to justice," she said in London on December 1.

'Preemptive Strike' On Obama Policy

But with just weeks left in office before Obama is sworn in as the next U.S. president, Bedi says Rice could have a difficult time in New Delhi this week trying to prevent tensions from escalating.

"Condoleezza Rice is basically coming here to calm things down and to prevent India from indulging in any adventurism," he notes. "But it is a little bit difficult to see how she can really [achieve anything with] what she brings to the table, because India is very agitated and is very angry over what it is calling its own 9/11. It really is difficult to see what oil Condoleezza Rice can pour on India's agitation and anger."

Indeed, other Indian analysts say the Mumbai attacks appeared to be an attempt by terrorists not just to wreck the India-Pakistan peace process, by also to undermine U.S. foreign policy on India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the chief executive of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, says there is now enormous domestic political pressure on the Indian government to take action against Pakistan.

He has described the Mumbai attacks as a "preemptive strike" against Obama's South Asia strategy.

Obama's proposed plan includes a diplomatic strategy that would encourage Islamabad to attack militants in Pakistani territory. In exchange, Obama has proposed the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to help resolve Pakistan's dispute with India over the divided territory of Kashmir.

Bedi notes that Obama's plan also includes the military component of increasing the number of U.S. troops on the Afghan side of the border. "The U.S. policy is very simple. It doesn't want India and Pakistan to be in a confrontational state all over again because it would impinge adversely on American aims in the region," he says.

"It is a period of time when they feel that the Pakistani Army, along with the American and NATO forces, are making some headway against the Taliban and their associates in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. And they don't want that pressure to be relieved," Bedi adds. "But they cannot stop the Pakistani Army from redeploying [to the border with India if they choose to do so] because that is a national-security problem as far as Pakistanis are concerned."

Creating Political Fissures

Antonio Giustozzi, a South Asia expert at the London School of Economics, agrees that the Mumbai attackers probably wanted relations between New Delhi and Islamabad to deteriorate to the point that New Delhi makes a rash military response against Pakistan.

Giustozzi says he thinks the ultimate aim of the attackers was to compromise relations between Pakistan's new civilian government and the Pakistani military. Any troop deployments by India near its border with Pakistan would lead to a request from Pakistan's military to redeploy troops. He says that would not be easily accepted by the civilian government considering the pressure it is under from Washington to go after militants in the tribal regions.

"It seems that the only reasonable aim was to drive an even bigger wedge between India and Pakistan -- maybe lead to an escalation in the confrontation," Giustozzi says.

"For example, movements of Indian troops around the borders of Pakistan, which, in turn, might push the Pakistanis to withdraw some of their troops from the Northwest Frontier Province and move them back to the border with India," he continues.

"This kind of escalation would certainly compromise the improvements in relations and also, therefore, the efforts of the Pakistani government to wage a more proactive counterinsurgency campaign -- particularly in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies in Pakistan."

Giustozzi says Rice's visit to New Delhi will shed light on the kind of relationship Obama's incoming administration is likely to have with India.

"The Indians will probably push the situation to try to raise the stakes. I think they are already a bit irritated that Obama did not call them after the elections, after his victory, whereas he called Islamabad. So there was already some underlying resentment," Giustozzi says.

"I think the Indians will probably try to strike some diplomatic gains from the situation. They will try to put pressure on Washington to, in turn, put greater pressure on Islamabad or [get] some other gain they can achieve in their relationship with Washington," he adds. "The Obama administration, as they take charge, will have to address this new situation."

Giustozzi concludes that those within India who want New Delhi to retaliate against Pakistan would be playing into the hands of the terrorists.
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