Praveen Swami: One year after the Mumbai bomb attacks, the threat is as great as ever

Roundup: Talking About History

[Praveen Swami is a journalist based in New Delhi.]

"I have been warning Pakistan," announced Palaniappan Chidambaram, the Indian minister of home affairs, this month, "not to play games with us. If terrorists from Pakistan try to carry out any attacks in India, they will not only be defeated, but will be retaliated against very strongly."

In the spectacular attacks in Mumbai a year ago tomorrow, 10 terrorists despatched by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist Muslim organisation based in Pakistan, killed at least 173 people, including five British nationals.

Ahead of the anniversary of the atrocities, Mr Chidambaram's words have been understood – both in New Delhi and Islamabad – to mean that any similar attack will prompt India to use force against jihadist bases in Pakistan. The government there responded to the attacks by promising to act against terrorists based on its soil. But India believes the implementation of that promise has been less than serious.

The threat of Pakistan-based terrorism has been at the top of the agenda during Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington this week. In one interview, Dr Singh said: "Every day I receive intelligence reports saying that terrorists based in Pakistan are planning other similar acts."

Should another attack take place, it will have enormous consequences. Indian strikes and Pakistani counter-strikes could conceivably escalate into a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. The prospect alone could give the Pakistani military a reason to divert troops from its unpopular campaign against Islamist insurgents in the border areas with Afghanistan, which would free up Taliban forces and undermine a crucial part of the West's strategy.

How serious, however, is the risk of another major terrorist attack on India? And how likely is it that such an attack could precipitate a regional crisis?

First, there is a mass of evidence that jihadist groups in Pakistan are indeed planning operations. Last month, the FBI detained two men of Pakistani origin, Tahawwur Rana and David Headley, on multiple charges, including plotting attacks against India. Police in Bangladesh have arrested three Lashkar operatives who they say were planning to blow up India's diplomatic mission in Dhaka.

Second, infiltration by jihadists across the volatile Line of Control in Kashmir has shown signs of escalation, sparking off repeated skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani troops. More than 40 violations of a ceasefire put into force in November 2003 have been reported: no great imagination is needed to see that a renewal of hostilities over the region could precipitate a repeat of the 2001-2002 crisis, when a jihadist attack on India's parliament took the two countries to the edge of war.

Third, even as Pakistan battles Islamist terrorists on its soil, it has shown little interest in dismantling the jihadist infrastructure directed against India. Lashkar's offices, like those of other anti-Indian groups, are still open. In December 2008, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions against Lashkar's parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Pakistan's ambassador to the UN promised that his country would proscribe the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. A year on, that hasn't happened...

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