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Such an outcome is not as implausible as it sounds. Rarely has a Pakistani government been more inclined to pursue peace with India. Zardari has been pushing for greatly expanded trade and commercial links and the liberalization of the restrictive visa regime between the two countries. Indeed, his Foreign Minister was in New Delhi for talks on these issues when the terrorist assault occurred. Zardari had also begun winding down his government's official support for Kashmiri militancy and had announced the disbanding of the ISI's political wing. When he went so far as to propose a "no first-strike" nuclear policy--matching India's stance but violating his own military's stated doctrine--Indians began to believe that at long last they had found a Pakistani ruler who understood that normalizing relations would be of great benefit to Pakistan itself. But the Mumbai terrorist assault seemed to confirm that the peacemakers in Islamabad are not the ones who call the shots.
Zardari, for example, stated on Nov. 28 that Pakistan "will cooperate with India in exposing and apprehending the culprits and masterminds" behind the attacks. But this is not an objective unanimously shared in Islamabad. The terrorists and their patrons clearly wish to derail any moves toward harmony between the two countries, as it would thwart their destructive Islamist agenda. They enjoy the sympathy of elements in the military, whose disproportionate share of Pakistan's national budget would be threatened by peace with India. And Islamabad's civilian government dares not cross the red lines drawn by the military for fear of being toppled. Every civilian Pakistani government, without exception, has been overthrown before the end of its elective term of office. (See pictures of terror in Mumbai.)
Pakistan has denied any connection to the attacks in Mumbai, though their meticulous planning, coordination and precision imply a level of direction that no ordinary militant group is capable of. But this time the terrorists may have gone too far. The murderers of Mumbai made special efforts to single out American and British nationals among their hostages, and killed the Israelis running Mumbai's Jewish center. This was clearly not just an attack on India; the assailants were taking on the "Jews and crusaders" of al-Qaeda lore. If it turns out that the massacre in Mumbai was planned in or directed from Pakistani territory, the consequences for Pakistan are bound to be severe. In such circumstances, there would be a "cost" to "our neighbors," Prime Minister Singh said, and India would be likely to find sympathy and practical support from the countries of these other victims.
Before the attacks on Mumbai, the U.S. had been eager to see a reduction of Indo-Pakistani tensions in the hope--openly voiced by President-elect Barack Obama--that such changes would free Pakistan to conduct more effective counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its northwestern tribal areas. Washington fears that Indo-Pakistani rivalry will make its own task in Afghanistan more difficult. Obama therefore called a rapprochement between India and Pakistan a key objective of U.S. foreign policy. But he will find few takers in India for continuing a peace process with a government that does not appear to control significant elements of its own military. India will weary of being exhorted to talk to a government that is at best ineffective and at worst duplicitous about the real threats emanating from its territory and institutions.
Ironically, Zardari had proved to be a useful ally of the U.S. In addition to lowering the temperature with India, he was cooperating tacitly with Predator strikes against the Islamic extremists in the Afghan borderlands, much to the resentment of pro-Islamist elements in his military. This cooperation has now been jeopardized by the assault on Mumbai. As tensions with India ratchet up, the hard-liners in Islamabad's army headquarters will have the justification they need to jettison a policy they dislike and move their forces away from the border with Afghanistan, where the U.S. wants them, so as to reinforce the border with India instead.
Washington's frustration is understandable. But with Pakistan denying all responsibility for the Mumbai attacks, India has no good options. All New Delhi can do is demand that the well-intentioned but ineffective government in Islamabad crack down on terrorist groups, dismantle their camps, freeze their bank accounts, and arrest and prosecute their leaders. There is little appetite in Pakistan for such action. And the fear remains that expecting Zardari to fulfill even India's minimal demands might be asking him to sign his own death warrant.
So India seethes with impotent rage, Pakistan belligerently asserts its innocence, and Washington despairs that its task in Afghanistan has just gotten harder. Meanwhile, in Mumbai the fires of a hundred funeral pyres shoot their flames up into a glowering sky.
Tharoor's most recent book is The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone