NEW DELHI, India — India has so far refrained from blaming Pakistan for the three serial blasts that struck Mumbai Wednesday.
But the apparent terrorist attack will harden New Delhi’s stance in upcoming peace talks with Islamabad, not to mention the next round of so-called “strategic dialogue” with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday.
Pakistan’s newly appointed foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is slated to visit New Delhi to meet with Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna on July 26.
Islamabad responded immediately to Wednesday’s blasts by issuing a statement of condolence.
“President Asif Ali Zardari, prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, the government and the people of Pakistan have condemned the blasts in Mumbai and expressed distress on the loss of lives and injuries,” the statement read.
But however carefully politicians tread on both sides of the border, the danger these bombings pose to peace in the region — not to mention successful U.S. negotiations of the issues surrounding India’s and Pakistan’s competing visions of their roles in post-war Afghanistan — can hardly be exaggerated.
On Wednesday, three nearly simultaneous explosions rocked India’s financial and film capital, killing 21 people and injuring more than 100. All three bombs were planted in garbage heaps in some of the most congested parts of the city.
Government officials immediately said that the explosions bore the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, and local police named two notorious terrorist groups, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Indian Mujahideen. Officials called the Indian Mujahideen, which has used similar methods in the past, the prime suspect. Most often described as an indigenous Indian terrorist group, the Indian Mujahideen also receives support from Pakistan, according to India-based terrorism experts.
Though nearly three years have passed since the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, and the two nations have made progress in re-establishing so-called confidence-building measures designed to prevent a shooting war, India’s anger toward Pakistan remains intense, and Mumbai, a beloved city, is an extremely sensitive flashpoint.
Immediately following the killing of Osama bin Laden, for example, the more hawkish media outlets here pumped army officials about India’s own ability to conduct a similar commando raid on Pakistani soil. And it has been said countless times through informal channels that India cannot guarantee it will respond with the same stoicism it showed after the November 2008 attacks if confronted with another terrorist attack clearly linked to Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
Yet however desirable they might seem, nobody expected much from the most recent round of talks, or any in the near future, between India and Pakistan. It’s India’s strategic dialogue with the United States where the damage might be done.
The U.S. decision to halt some $800 billion in aid slated for Pakistan’s military — much of it reimbursement for costs incurred in the fight on that country’s border with Afghanistan — has pushed Islamabad into a position where it will be tempted to respond forcefully to further condemnations from New Delhi or Washington.
Presumably, the timing of that slap on the wrist was no accident. And announcing immediately before Clinton’s visit to New Delhi that Pakistan’s army has to fight for the right side if its generals want to keep cashing American checks was intended to add weight to the message.
To avoid granting terrorists undue sway over the content of the India-U.S. dialogue, Clinton and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot blink. The danger of escalation, or of squandering any small progress that may have been made in ironing out a plan for post-war Afghanistan, is strong.
But the risk of missing the moment is even stronger. Washington’s recent signals that it is willing to play hardball with Islamabad have the potential to be a game changer in south Asia, but only if the United States holds fast.