Q&A: South Asia security expert discusses terrorist attacks in Mumbai

Paul Kapur

Paul Kapur

The small band of terrorists who attacked Mumbai last week killed nearly 200 people, wounded several hundred more and stoked tensions between India and Pakistan. The attacks have brought attention to the countries' long-simmering dispute over Kashmir and the diplomatic balancing act the United States must play between the nuclear-armed neighbors. They also expose major flaws in India's national security and highlight Pakistan's ineffectiveness in dealing with terrorist groups.

Paul Kapur, a faculty affiliate at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and an associate professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, is an expert on international security in South Asia. He's the author of Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia, and his work has appeared in journals such as International Security, Security Studies, Asian Survey and Asian Security.

In an interview with Stanford Report, Kapur discussed the group that was likely behind the attacks and how he expects the situation to unfold.

American and Indian officials say there's evidence linking the attacks to members of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Who are these people, and what would be their motivation for hitting Mumbai?

Lashkar-e-Taiba is one of a number of militant groups that have been fighting against Indian control of Kashmir. India doesn't control all of Kashmir but controls part of it, including the Kashmir valley, which is especially prized.

These types of groups have been active since the late 1980s. There was a spontaneous—and mostly indigenous—uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir as the result of Indian ineptitude and malfeasance. The Pakistanis took advantage of the situation and got involved with the insurgency and started backing militant organizations with arms and training and financial and logistical support. It was an opportunity on the Pakistani side. By supporting the insurgency, they could potentially get the territory from India and bleed Indian resources.

What does that say about Pakistan's responsibility for the attacks?

There does seem to be strong evidence that Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved, and the attackers did come from Pakistan. But that doesn't mean the Pakistani government was directly involved with this operation. My guess is they probably weren't.

Events like this show that the Pakistani government is either unable or unwilling to quash militancy within its territory and to stop terrorists from using Pakistani soil to launch attacks on its neighbors.

Even if the Pakistani government now is not directly pulling the strings of these groups, the groups exist largely because of Pakistani support in the past. So now the genie is out of the bottle. The big danger is that a group like this could trigger an Indo-Pakistani crisis and conflict without the direct involvement of the Pakistani government.

What does this mean for relations between India and Pakistan? Do you expect India will launch a military response?

It's certainly possible. If you think about the last time there was a major Indo-Pakistani militarized crisis, it was after a failed attack on the Indian parliament—also involving Lashkar-e-Taiba—back in 2001. That attack failed. About five people died, and it was over in the space of a morning. Nonetheless, the Indians were so outraged that they mobilized about 500,000 troops along the international border, and there was a major standoff that lasted almost a year.

That was—in my view—a lot less provocative than Mumbai. This attack killed almost 200 people, wounded hundreds more, lasted almost three days and targeted the financial hub of India. There's going to be a lot of pressure domestically for the government to act in a forceful way.

The unfortunate thing is that things were getting better between the two sides. Since that last crisis in 2001-2002, a peace process had begun and there was really a thaw in Indo-Pakistani relations. Kashmir had actually gotten more stable, and the general sense was that the regional trajectory was a positive one. Ironically, it may be that some of that progress is what motivated the Mumbai attacks. Part of the goal of an operation like this would certainly be to derail improving relations in the region.

Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. How will that factor into how the countries deal with each other?

Nuclear weapons will create incentives for the two countries—even in the event of a crisis—to behave somewhat cautiously so the situation doesn't spin out of control. But the problem is that nuclear weapons also greatly reduce the margin for error. In the event of a miscalculation, the cost could be catastrophic.

America is an ally of both these countries and has relied on the Pakistanis to combat the Taliban along the border with Afghanistan. What's at stake for American diplomacy in this situation?

It's very tricky. The U.S. relies on Pakistan as a major ally in the war on terror. We've been pressuring the Pakistanis to pay attention to the northwest frontier and the border with Afghanistan and get that area under control. One thing the United States does not want to see is an Indo-Pakistani conflict, which draws Pakistani forces away from that mission in the northwest and back to the east to combat the Indians. From the standpoint of U.S. goals in Afghanistan, it would take resources away from that struggle, and so the United States very much wants the current situation to be resolved in a way that doesn't involve a major confrontation.

The problem is that it's going to be hard for the U.S. to say to the Indians, "Hey, you shouldn't retaliate against these guys," because this is exactly the argument that the United States makes in justifying its own retaliation against terrorists. If a country is unable or unwilling to keep its territory from being used to launch terror attacks, then U.S. leaders have claimed to have the right to go in and deal with the situation.

There are reports that India received warnings about the possibility of terrorist attacks on Mumbai. What did government officials do with that information, and why wasn't more done to beef up security and counterterrorism measures?

It's not clear that they did anything. They may have ratcheted up security for a short time and then let it return to normal levels. One of the things that's going to come out of this in the weeks and months ahead is an examination of the effectiveness of the Indian security services. Obviously, there's a huge intelligence failure here. But at a tactical level, it took almost three days to get a handful of terrorists out of three or four buildings. It wasn't a shining moment. The Indian security forces bravely did their job. But in terms of their effectiveness, my sense is that there were some pretty serious shortcomings.