Both India and Pakistan have a lot of nonreacting to do after a three-day siege in Mumbai (Bombay) that left nearly 200 dead. It is easy to forget that the primary goal of terrorists is to evoke fearful reactions that will further their aims. Fortunately, these longtime rival nations have so far shown restraint as well as resilience.
The vibrant city of Mumbai, the commercial and cultural capital of India, has already seen much of its business life return quickly to normal amid the mourning. Its stock market reopened Friday, for instance, midway during the ordeal. And Pakistan's foreign minister, who was on a four-day visit to India when the attack began Wednesday, wisely didn't cancel his trip.
India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, called for calm to keep the majority Hindus from rising up against his country's 140 million Muslims. In Pakistan, where democracy was restored earlier this year, President Asif Ali Zardari warned, "We should not fall into the trap of the militants."
It is at a larger, strategic level that the leaders of both South Asian nations know they cannot repeat the nationalist overreaction that happened after a 2001 attack on India's parliament by militants with suspected ties to Pakistan. Then, the two nuclear-armed countries nearly went to war, held back mainly by US diplomacy.
Although a detailed picture of their backgrounds has yet to emerge, the terrorists who stormed 10 sites in Mumbai probably sought to evoke a similar response in hopes of ending peace offerings between India and Pakistan, especially over disputed Kashmir.
In addition, the many terrorist groups that operate inside Pakistan may want to reverse President Zardari's crackdown on them. He's also trying to rein in suspected elements of Pakistan's intelligence service that have supported terrorists in Kashmir, as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Both India and Pakistan know their abilities to uplift their poor would be hurt by another distracting confrontation. And with so many recent terrorist attacks within each country by a range of groups with grievances, the two nations need to find common ground. India now sees that a majority of Pakistanis are against global jihadists. And after this latest attack, it has every right to ask for information from Pakistan's military about likely groups behind the Mumbai assault, which may include Lashkar-i Tayyaba. If Pakistan's military does not cooperate with their civilian leaders, the US needs to use its leverage over that military and help India gain the reassurance that all Pakistani forces will not condone any sort of terrorism.
The last thing the world needs now is a unilateral attack by India on suspected terrorists inside Pakistani-held territory. While such an attack may seem morally similar to US attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan, the history of war between the two neighbors – three since 1947 – would argue against such provocative action that could lead to nuclear war.
From Afghanistan to Sri Lanka (now engulfed in a horrific civil war), the region needs a broad response that rises above ethnic or religious nationalism to face the common enemy of terrorism. Often, that means not reacting in ways that terrorists would like.