A New Alliance

The Mumbai attacks should strengthen the bonds tying India and the United States together.


Last Nov. 26, a year ago this week, I sat huddled with my family in a hotel room in Mumbai, India, planning our escape from the terrorists we believed were roaming the building. My parents had flown to India’s financial capital during the Thanksgiving holiday to visit me while I was working there. We were in our room at the J.W. Marriott when live news began showing armed militants striking a series of targets across the city, including the main train station, a major hospital, a popular café, and two of its most upscale hotels.

The anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks serves as a reminder that the front lines in the "war on terror" lie not only in New York and Washington, DC, but as far afield as Karachi and Mumbai. The 10 attackers who perpetrated the heinous acts were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani Islamic extremist group responsible for several previous attacks across India. Subsequent investigations revealed that the attacks were planned and directed by LeT militants within Pakistan. While Pakistan denies any official involvement, the 11/26 attacks were a clarion call that the United States should take a stronger stance toward Pakistan’s military and intelligence services in cracking down on Islamic fundamentalist groups that promote violence – not only directed at the United States but against India as well. Furthermore, the Mumbai attacks highlight the need to promote closer cooperation between the United States and India in combating terrorism in the region.

The 11/26 attacks lasted a mind-numbing 72 hours. The initial response consisted of a motley force of local Mumbai police lacking adequate body armor or night-vision equipment, carrying antiquated rifles and generally appearing confused and disorganized. After hours of bureaucratic hand-wringing, the National Security Guards, India’s elite commando unit tasked with counter-terrorism response, were deployed. Their efforts were laudable though late. After a three-day siege, the hair-raising showdown on Nov. 29 led to the death of the remaining militants, albeit at significant human cost. Though news coverage initially reported gunfire at the J.W. Marriott, the hotel was never attacked and my family escaped unharmed. Many others did not: 138 Indians and 26 foreign nationals, including 6 Americans, were killed in the attacks.

Like Sept. 11, the Mumbai attacks were an assault on national symbols intended to deliver a political message of terror. They also powerfully demonstrate that extremist Muslims do not see their enemies as solely "American" or "Western." The United States represents a primary – but not the only – target in the fundamentalist jihad. India, which is equally threatened by the fanaticism unleashed in the Mumbai attacks, is an important potential ally in combating extremist Islamic terrorism. Historically estranged, the two secular democracies have enjoyed warming relations in the past decade. Both nations are promoting closer engagement on a range of issues, including the expansion of trade and investment, managing climate change, and sharing civilian nuclear technology.

Counterterrorism is one key area where the United States and India should push for broader and deeper cooperation. Initial efforts are promising. In 2000, the U.S.-India Counterterrorism Joint Working Group (CJWG) was established to coordinate strategies to fight global terrorism. These discussions deepened in the wake of 9/11. Yet they remain limited: the CJWG only meets once or twice a year and provides for dialogue between mid-level policymakers from both nations.

The United States should elevate this framework to include regular high-level official discussions between the two nations’ national security, intelligence, and counterterrorism policymakers, as with other key allies such as Israel and the United Kingdom. This will signal to skeptical Indian officials the importance which U.S. officials place on this relationship. The United States should also take concrete steps to deepen its partnership with India by expanding intelligence sharing, providing equipment and technology, and imparting training through joint counterterrorism training exercises. Specific efforts should be made to expand cooperation on issues such as maritime security and cyber terrorism, where the initial groundwork has already been laid.

Indian officials may hesitate to admit it, but the shortcomings evident in India’s response to the Mumbai attacks — an overwhelmed intelligence network, inadequately prepared counterterrorism personnel, and fragmented administrative process — highlight the benefit that closer partnership with the United States could provide for India. America could use India’s help, too. In light of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States stands to gain from Indian intelligence capabilities, linguistic resources, and cultural familiarity with the region. Learning from India’s decades-long experience combating Islamist violence in the region will strengthen U.S. efforts to do so as well.

A key challenge will be Pakistan. U.S. policy toward India’s western neighbor is complicated by the dangers posed by a regime that is weakening by the day. Mindful of this, the United States should nonetheless adopt a tougher stance with its allies in Pakistan concerning Islamic fundamentalist groups in that nation, particularly those that target India. It won’t be easy or painless to pressure Pakistan’s military and intelligence bureaus into changing their long-held strategy of coddling — if not funding and organizing — jihadist groups, but doing so is essential for building trust and deepening engagement with Indian officials across the border.

This Thanksgiving let us pray for the victims of terror and give thanks to those fighting to safeguard democratic values in the United States and abroad. Let us also resolve to seek out new allies in preventing such acts in the future.

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