Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to India in the wake of last Wednesday’s multiple bomb attacks in Mumbai is an opportunity to begin urgent high level consultations on how to deal with the problem of Pakistan—the sick man of south Asia—before we confront a major strategic crisis.
No one has yet claimed credit for the attacks that killed 17 and wounded over a hundred. They come after growing calls by Lashkar e Tayyiba’s (LeT) leadership for attacks on both American and Indian targets since the death of Usama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May. LeT’s leader Hafez Saeed was among the first to publicly mourn bin Laden and since then his group, which carried out the 2008 attack on Mumbai, has been very vocal in calling for more attacks on both U.S. and India. He has organized rallies and other events in the last two months to demand Pakistan cut off peace talks with India, shut NATO supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan, halt drone attacks and provide him legal help to fight a court case in New York by the American victims of 26/11 in which he has been named as a mastermind of the attack along with the chief of Pakistani intelligence.
The Pakistani authorities have done nothing to curb LeT’s radical posturing. It would be wise to prepare for the worst and start a quiet dialogue with New Delhi on possible strategic shocks that may be all too likely in Pakistan. This should not be a cabal to gang up on Pakistan. It should be a candid and clear dialogue about what strategic shocks could emerge from Pakistan in the next couple of years, how to minimize their likelihood and what to do if they happen despite our best efforts. The potential strategic shocks that could come out of Pakistan include a successful attack on the American homeland like the May 2010 car bomb in New York City, a successful mass casualty attack on India like a repeat of 26/11 or a coup in Pakistan that brings to power a 21st century equivalent of Zia ul Huq, i.e. a fanatic who supports jihad.
All of these potential scenarios are very real possibilities. In fact at least one is all but certain to happen in the next few years. Washington and New Delhi should talk now about what can be done to minimize their likelihood and how to grapple with them if they happen. The famous Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh dialogue, which I had the honor of participating in, is a good role model for what we need to do to prepare for the future. These would be free-ranging discussions at a senior level held over a prolonged period of time. The goal is not to reach firm decisions on what to do in various contingencies but to explore ideas and conceptualize possible options.