November 27, 2008 [LINK / comment]

War spreads in South Asia

Even though the news from Iraq continues to be very favorable, as evidenced by the Iraqi parliament's ratification of the U.S.-Iraqi security pact for another three years (see Washington Post), the security situation elsewhere in the region has deteriorated sharply. Over the course of the last several weeks, the conflict has spilled across borders, raising the possibility of a much wider and even uglier conflict. This, of course, is the only hope for the Islamic radicals.

Assault on Mumbai

At first, the terrorist attack on Mumbai (formerly "Bombay") yesterday seemed to be a typical spasm of mindless violence -- dreadful but all too commonplace in that part of the world. But the shooting has persisted for nearly 24 hours, leaving over 125 fatalities, and this episode may be something entirely different. Bombs were set off at several luxury hotels, while well-trained squads with automatic rifles took out the police headquarters, leaving much of the city without any protection. It reminds one of the 1968 Tet Offensive across South Vietnam, a surprise insurrection by suicidal guerrillas. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed foreign groups for the Mujaheddin assault, but as usual in these cases, it will be hard to pinpoint responsibility. See Singh is a member of the centrist Congress Party, which is generally more tolerant of Muslim activists than the other major party, the Baharatiya Janata Party, which draws support from Hindu nationalists. (India has also suffered several bloody terrorist attacks perpetrated against Muslims by Hindu extremists in recent years.) This attack may discredit the moderate forces in India and create a polarizing dynamic that might allow the BJP to return to power.

Pirates menace ships

From India's perspective, this attack on Mumbai constitutes a big blow to the country's status as a regional hegemon, or as a budding major power on the world stage. Just a few days ago, the Indian Navy sank a Somali pirate vessel in the Gulf of Aden, which has been plagued with a rising tide of piracy over the past year. The U.S. Navy is apparently preoccupied with maintaining security in the Persian Gulf and nearby part of the Indian Ocean to deal with the pirates further to the west. Just last week, pirates seized a Saudi Arabian oil tanker, demanding a huge ransom. Somalia has not had an effective government since the early 1990s, when the United States tried but failed to help them stabilize, as dramatized in Black Hawk Down. In the chaotic power vacuum that prevails there right now, banditry and piracy are predictable consequences, and there is no reason to assume that those attacks on international shipping have any political motivation. Nevertheless, it is only logical that the Islamic radical movement -- Al Qaeda, etc. -- would seek to exploit Somali piracy for their own strategic purposes.

Missiles hit Pakistan

Over the past few months, American Predator missile strikes against targets inside Pakistan have occurred with greater frequency, although sometimes the Pentagon will not confirm that it was an American missile. (Who else, Israel?) Just a few days ago, such a missile strike killed Rashid Rauf, responsible for a plot to blow up British airliners in 2006. He held dual Pakistani - British citizenship. See Washington Post. These missile attacks are apparently being coordinated with Pakistan, but it is hard to tell for sure. In September, the United States and Pakistan reached tacit agreement on a don't-ask-don't-tell policy; see Washington Post. Unfortunately, the United States has little choice but to pursue the Taliban forces across the border into Pakistan with small-scale attacks, even though that carries a big diplomatic risk.

Tying things together

In counter-insurgency wars, the rebel forces often try to seek refuge in a safe haven across the border, usually in rough terrain where it is easy to hide. That was the case in Vietnam, when the North Vietnamese Army established bases and supply lines in Laos and Cambodia (the "Ho Chi Minh Trail"), hence the controversial cross-border raids ordered by Nixon. The same thing happened when the Hezbollah using bases in Lebanon to attack Israel, when the FARC used bases in Ecuador and Venezuela to attack the government of Colombia, or when the Shiite insurgents used bases in Iran to attack U.S. forces in Iraq. In each case the defenders are faced with the dilemma of whether to root out the tormenters and risk a wider war, or just to put up with indefinite low-level warfare. That is precisely the situation which the United States (and its Western allies) face in Afghanistan at present, as the Taliban guerrillas exploit the rugged Pakistani border region as a sanctuary.

In recent years, the U.S. government has built stronger ties with India, whereas relations with our former Cold War ally in Pakistan have cooled. We do share certain common interests with the Pakistanis, nonetheless, and the challenge to our diplomacy will be to maintain cooperation as long as it proves useful. At this point, we can't afford more enemies in that part of the world, so the option of large-scale unilateral intervention in Pakistan (as President-elect Obama has suggested) should be avoided if at all possible.