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Op-Ed

Memo to President-elect Obama: Heeding the Mumbai Wake-up Call

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Memo to President-elect Obama:

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai just weeks after you secured the White House in November dramatically underscore the dangerous crisis you inherit in South Asia. Thousands of Pakistani troops now shifting toward the Indian border signals the building crisis between India and Pakistan—two nuclear-armed countries. Jihadist terrorism is a serious threat, further fueling these tensions. Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency is becoming stronger; we are not winning the war there.

With current tensions between India and Pakistan threatening to escalate into a direct military confrontation, the world is looking to you for leadership in reversing dangerous trends and building a security framework in a vital region. Most urgently, it is critical that your administration urge the two countries to avoid a military confrontation. Beyond the immediate crisis, you need a broader framework for the region that recognizes long-standing difficult issues, such as Kashmir.

The Mumbai attacks did resonate in Congress and among the general public, offering promising opportunities for action and leaving little doubt of the need for broad, multilateral and coordinated efforts against terrorism in South Asia and globally. The people who voted for you also recognize that the war in Afghanistan needs an infusion of resources and a new strategy.

As a first step, your inaugural address might outline your overall strategy toward South Asia. Americans and leaders across the globe will be listening carefully. The coming NATO summit in April will provide another important opportunity to roll out a new policy for the region.

During the campaign, you identified the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan as the greatest single threat to U.S. security. You promised to refocus resources on the region by, for one, increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. Reductions in troop deployments to Iraq may facilitate your campaign pledge.

Use your political capital and the new national focus on Afghanistan to seek a similar contribution from our allies, who can contribute to success in the region in a productive, sustained way. As their economic development has come to a standstill, the Afghan people are questioning the performances of the government of President Hamid Karzai and the international community.

As you said on the campaign trail, the Afghan government should be pressed to meet more of its people’s needs and to tackle corruption and the opium trade. Your administration’s increased engagement can help urge the Kabul government to act against corruption, especially backed by other countries providing the necessary technical assistance to fight drug trafficking and to improve governance.

You also told voters that you would increase nonmilitary aid to Pakistan while holding it accountable for disrupting Taliban safe havens. The Biden-Lugar bill that would commit $15 billion in development aid to Pakistan over 10 years provides a vehicle for fulfilling this pledge. While beefing up economic assistance, you need to stress to Pakistan that jihadist terrorism now threatens its own security and that combating terrorism is in its own national interest.

A public awareness campaign should also be part of the administration’s plan for South Asia. Many development projects have improved the lives of the Afghan people. Inundated with Taliban propaganda, however, the Afghan people appear mostly unaware of these successes. In Pakistan, the United States—rather than al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan—is blamed for the violence that is ravaging the country. To win local support, the administration should craft and sufficiently fund a campaign that corrects the misinformation.

However tragic and destabilizing, the Mumbai attacks have injected an important sense of urgency into regional deliberations, by showing that terrorism in any form cannot be tolerated and that a platform for multilateral engagement must be constructed.

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