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If Pakistan played role, U.S. strategy on Afghanistan is at risk

The coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, have horrified the world. They also have evoked memories of a series of deadly bombings in the same city 15 years ago that were blamed on a terrorist leader now said to be hiding in Pakistan.

That is just one of the reasons India suspects its neighbor's involvement in the latest carnage. And if Pakistan, or any group traced to it, did play a role, it could reverse the recent thaw in relations between the longtime enemies — and hurt President-elect Obama's hopes of stabilizing Afghanistan with Pakistani help.

"The last two years we've seen India and Pakistan sort of gingerly negotiate some sort of rapprochement, so (Pakistani involvement) could be a very grave setback to relations,'' said Farzana Shaikh, an expert on Southeast Asia at London's Chatham House.

"But more importantly from the U.S. point of view, the president-elect is very keen that there should be some easing of tensions between India and Pakistan in order for the Pakistani military to concentrate more fully on meeting the militants' challenge along Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.''

Pakistan denies it had anything to do with this week's attacks in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), which killed more than 150 people, including a Brooklyn rabbi and his wife, and a father and daughter from Virginia. The attacks paralyzed India's financial and entertainment center.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari — who has urged greater ties between the two nuclear-armed countries — condemned the attacks and is sending Pakistan's intelligence chief to India "to show that Pakistan is keen to cooperate with India in meeting the challenge of terrorism,'' Shaikh said.

The bloody scenes at two luxury hotels, a railway station, a Jewish center and other places are disturbingly reminiscent of March 1993, when a bomb that nearly destroyed the Bombay Stock Exchange was followed by 12 more bombs in hotels, banks and stores.

Those attacks, which killed as many as 250 civilians, were in retaliation for the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu extremists in 1992.

Scores of people were convicted in the 1993 bombings that followed, but among those still at large is the alleged mastermind, Dawood Ibrahim, former head of a Mumbai organized crime syndicate that consisted largely of Muslims. Suspected of ties to al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups, he has been declared a terrorist by the U.S. and Indian governments and is now thought to hiding in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.

If Ibrahim is involved, "his gang members are suspected of having played a local, supportive role in the terror strike,'' the Guardian of London reported. The paper quoted an unidentified Indian security expert as saying the attack on Mumbai "has the stamp of Dawood Ibrahim'' because the terrorists almost certainly included "local guys who know the city very well.''

A previously unknown group called the Deccan Mujahideen has claimed responsibility, though authorities are skeptical. Britain is also investigating whether some of the attackers are British citizens. Britons with family ties to Pakistan, India and the disputed province of Kashmir have been involved in a several terrorist attacks, including the 2005 London subway and bus bombings.

"Pakistan is likely to seize on that as showing it had nothing to do with this (in Mumbai) at all,'' Shaikh said, "and that these radical young Muslim men are being radicalized in Britain and coming to the subcontinent to perpetrate these horrific acts of terror.''

Pakistan also likes to point out that India, a predominantly Hindu country, has its own "Muslim problem'' with a disaffected Muslim minority that feels politically and economically discriminated against.

Ever since the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into the two separate countries in 1947, each has viewed the other as an existential threat. They have fought three wars and nearly went to war in 2001 after 12 people died in the bombing of the Indian Parliament, which India blamed on a jihadist group backed by Pakistan's intelligence service.

A chronic flash point is Kashmir, a largely Muslim region claimed by both countries. Former President Bill Clinton once called Kashmir a "nuclear tinderbox'' and "the most dangerous place in the world.''

The mutual enmity has also spilled over into Afghanistan, where Pakistan supported the Taliban as a bulwark against what it feared to be India's growing regional influence. Renewed tensions between the two countries would again shift the attention of Pakistan's military toward India and away from the Pakistani tribal areas, where resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida forces are staging attacks on Afghanistan.

While distrust between India and Pakistan is great, the United States has some leverage with them because both are U.S. allies.

"If we find that indeed there was some section of the Pakistani state involved in either planning or orchestrating this attack in Mumbai, it would be a very, very serious matter and certainly one which could possibly bring the two countries back to the brink of war,'' Shaikh said.

"But I myself don't think it's going to reach that point of tension because the United States is absolutely determined to ensure that conflict between the two is not allowed to destabilize the effort in Afghanistan.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

If Pakistan played role, U.S. strategy on Afghanistan is at risk 11/28/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 29, 2008 11:56pm]
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