Are Al Qaeda's fingerprints on the Mumbai attack?

The consequences could definitely be in their favor.

Even before Barack Obama's foreign-policy team has been sworn in, an ugly new problem has been added to the president-elect's international "to do" list.

It is the deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the violent assault on India's commercial capital, Mumbai (formerly Bombay). At least five intelligence services – of the United States, Britain, Israel, India, and Pakistan – are trying to determine the originators of the attack. If, as seems possible, they prove to be of Pakistani origin and direction, recent promising overtures to ameliorate longstanding hostility between India and Pakistan would be blown off the negotiating table.

There are more serious possible consequences. Public sentiment in India is demanding strong retaliatory action against Pakistan. President-elect Obama has said India has the "sovereign right" to go after the terrorists who attacked it. The New Delhi government is facing strong criticism from its citizens for alleged incompetence in handling the assault. Officials have resigned. Elections loom.

If this crisis, and its attendant politics, should trigger new warfare between India and Pakistan, Pakistan would be distracted from its military action against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces who operate from sanctuary along the rugged Pakistani-Afghan border. Pakistan's military would regroup to meet the threat across its border from India. This would be a welcome scenario for Al Qaeda and some of its Taliban allies, and a setback for American and NATO-nation forces in Afghanistan at war with them.

So far, the finger of suspicion about the Mumbai attackers has been pointed at Lashkar-e-Taiba, a jihadist militant group ostensibly banned in Pakistan, but once enjoying the support of Pakistani intelligence forces for action against India in disputed Kashmir. Interrogation of the sole known survivor of the small Mumbai attack group suggests that the attackers were youthful foot soldiers who must have been trained and directed and supported by more sophisticated officers. This was an operation long in the planning that required reconnaissance, training, money, and excellent communications.

Questions linger. Were there positioned aides who reported that some security measures at hotels had been relaxed? How could the attackers carry in enough weaponry, explosives, and provisions to hold off security forces for three days? How could the attackers locate so swiftly, and simultaneously, widespread targets in a city of 13 million people? How could they pinpoint a Jewish community center of which most citizens of the city were unaware?

Over the years there have been reports of Al Qaeda and Taliban cooperation with elements of the Pakistani intelligence service and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Are Al Qaeda's fingerprints on the Mumbai operation? The hunt by the gunmen specifically for American, British, and Jewish victims smacks more of an Al Qaeda agenda, than that of a bunch of militants dabbling in the politics of Kashmir. An operation that would torpedo rapprochement between India and Pakistan, and maybe draw Pakistani soldiers away from hunting down Al Qaeda and Taliban elements along the Afghan border, would surely win the approval of Osama bin Laden.

The attack on Mumbai, killing more than 170 people, has at least temporarily halted the efforts of Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, to put hostility between Pakistan and India behind the two countries. He has been urging better relations between the two nuclear-armed nations and recently proposed a "no first nuclear strike" policy with India.

President Bush has sent US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region to calm tempers, but the best she can likely do in the immediate future is to dissuade the two nations from going to war. Indians are likening the Mumbai assault to the 9/11 attack in the US. Their prime minister, Manmohan Singh has been increasingly sharp, warning that there would be a "cost" to "our neighbors" (read: Pakistan) if it turns out the attack was launched from their territory. An accord on Kashmir, which has eluded India and Pakistan for decades, is thus unlikely. So, in this climate, is an early resumption of confidence-building between the two governments.

Clearly, the Obama administration will handle a continuing crisis. India is an important ally of the US, a democracy emerging as a powerful economic force. Pakistan is a delicate democracy, a pivotal force in the war against Al Qaeda. Both have nuclear weapons. Both must be nurtured by the US. Pakistan, a non-Arab Muslim country, and India, a Hindu, non-Arab country that contains more than 150 million Muslims, can be significant examples for the spread of freedom in the Arab world.

Both must be added to the incoming president's "to do" list. Both must be treated with urgency.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.

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