Monday, December 01, 2008


The attacks on Mumbai last week are depressingly familiar in many respects. Once again, Islamist terrorists managed to sow chaos in a major urban center and to exploit, with determined evil, the liberties held dear by open, democratic societies. Once again, the failure by intelligence agencies to prevent these attacks was primarily one of the imagination. But there is another sense in which these attacks are familiar. They represent a problem, going back at least as far as June 28, 1914, that the international community has been unable to solve until now. 

On that date  a Serbian terrorist assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand. The Habsburg empire at the time ruled over Bosnia-Herzegovina, which the assassin and his colleagues hoped to see united with Serbia proper, the relatively new nation-state of the Serbs. But Gavrilo Princip did not act on behalf of the kingdom of Serbia. He and his fellow conspirators were non-state actors. As Austria-Hungary and many others at the time suspected, however, it was difficult not to assume some kind of link between Princip and the state organs of Serbia. Furthermore, it seemed highly likely that Serbian citizens residing in Serbia had aided in the attack. In order for the killers of the archduke to be brought to justice, Austria-Hungary needed the help of Serbia. Unfortunately, however, relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were extremely hostile. 

My point here is not that India and Pakistan are on the brink of unleashing another world war, although such an outcome takes hard work to avert. I am pointing rather to the problem posed by the non-state actor with deep state connections. The investigations carried out by Indian authorities so far (see The Hindu for the best round-up) have revealed the involvement in the Mumbai attacks of Pakistani citizens, trained in Pakistan. Locked in a long state of war, the two nuclear powers now again appear to be on a collision course. 

India has long complained about the alliances between Islamist terrorists and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Setting aside the links between the ISI and Osama bin Laden, the U.S. is growing increasingly antsy about the threats that ISI-supported Islamists are posing to NATO troops in Afghanistan. But so far, Pakistan's rulers have rebuffed American pressure to get at the roots of the problem inside their country. 

It may very well be true that Pakistan is too weak to purge itself of the al-Qaeda-inspired enablers of terrorism that pervade its state.  Furthermore, the U.S. clearly cannot afford to see Pakistan disintegrate into mayhem. But neither can it turn a blind eye to the Pakistani shipping labels on the attacks in Mumbai and in Afghanistan. In both cases, we are seeing a state incapable of reining in its attack dogs. 

Obama raised eyebrows during the presidential campaign when he  spoke about his willingness to attack targets inside Pakistan "with or without approval from the Pakistani government." A month later, NATO and US ground troops entered Pakistan to attack a Taliban stronghold. Pakistan's ongoing protests about these violations of its sovereignty by outside actors ring hollow when it is unwilling to enforce a monopoly of violence inside its own borders.

We will see how the policy of the president-elect and his impressive national security team evolves in the coming weeks.

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