The attack on Mumbai makes the world a yet more dangerous place. The terrorists have put a stop to the serious efforts at rapprochement that both India and Pakistan had been making. They were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is nominally banned in Pakistan but operative and visible in the country all the same. Pakistan’s main intelligence service, the ambiguous, crypto-Islamist ISI, has taken the group under its wing on the pretense of controlling it. It is inconceivable that the ISI was unaware of the training and preparations for this attack, and some faction of it may well have provided the funding and the weaponry.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is in his opening months in office, and it appears that he desires to be both a democrat and a reformer. This crisis threatens to overwhelm him and his country, and he veers between apology and wishful thinking. “We don’t think the world’s great nations and countries can be held hostage by non-state actors,” he said, but the ISI, the Islamists, and assorted terror groups hold him hostage. The path to power in Islamabad runs through Mumbai.
At the same time, very many Indians are calling for war as the proper response. Appeals from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for unity and restraint do not satisfy the emotions aroused by the atrocity. These terrorists have brought two nuclear-armed powers into confrontation. To defuse the crisis will require all the diplomatic skills available.
Beyond that, the terrorists very specifically made sure to kill Hindus, Christians, and Jews, many of whom had come to Mumbai from other countries and who were by definition cosmopolitan. The one terrorist who has been taken prisoner claims that the intention was to kill 5,000 people. In plain terms, they granted themselves the right to execute anyone and everyone in their path who happened not to be a Muslim.
Lashkar-e-Taiba supposedly exists to claim divided Kashmir, but this attack had no bearing on any political or local grievance of such a kind. The terrorists and their controllers see themselves at war — not with a particular enemy but with the whole of mankind that is not Muslim. The issue is ideological. There can be no reasoning with it. The issue is also global, and there can be no avoiding it. Some in the West have criticized the war on terror as a phrase too loose or too open-ended to be meaningful. On the contrary, this attack takes that war to a higher and more defined level, and will give shape and significance to it for a long time to come.