Zakaria: Pakistan Must Choose

If the Mumbai attacks were India's 9/11, then it has responded quite differently than the United States did in the weeks following that horrible event. Much of the debate among Indians has looked inward, focusing on their government's lack of preparedness, poor intelligence and bungling response to the attack. Senior Indian officials have resigned, some evidence links the terrorists to the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, but the Indian government has not rushed to war. Even the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party, traditionally ultrahawkish, is advocating "coercive diplomacy," calling on the world community to insist that Pakistan implement its U.N. treaty obligations to fight terrorism. India is showing restraint for some wise reasons—the two nations are nuclear-armed and a military strike would only inflame Pakistani nationalism. But a democratic government, approaching an election season, can only remain restrained if its restraint yields something. If not, South Asia—and that includes Afghanistan—is going to get a lot more unstable.

Some have argued that India should use its intelligence and air power to go after some of Lashkar's camps in the borderlands of Kashmir. But one would not need spies and airplanes to find the head of Lashkar, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. He lives and works in Lahore. Of course, Lashkar was banned by the Pakistani government in 2002, but Saeed now runs its "charitable" arm, Jamaat-ul-Dawa, a large and growing force in the country. The problem with Islamic militant groups in Pakistan is not that they are hard to find but rather that they are in plain sight. The Pakistani government has never made a fundamental decision to turn its back on the culture of jihad.

When one speaks of the Pakistani government, it's necessary to be precise. The elected, civilian government appears to be something of an innocent bystander in this affair. Initially, President Asif Ali Zardari denounced the terrorists and offered full assistance to Indian investigators. His prime minister offered to send the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to New Delhi to help. Then, after the Army weighed in, the offer was withdrawn. Zardari's statements became more evasive and defensive. If anyone wondered who actually ran the country, it soon became clear.

Whether the Pakistani military was involved in the Mumbai attacks remains unclear. The Indians certainly think so. "The attackers were trained in four places in Pakistan by men with titles like colonel and major. They used communication channels that are known ISI channels. All this can't happen without the knowledge of the military," one Indian official told me. They're not alone in their suspicions. "This was a three-stage amphibious operation. [The attackers] maintained radio silence, launched diversionary attacks to pull the first responders out of the way, knew their way around the hotels, were equipped with cryptographic communications, credit cards, false IDs," says David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert who has advised Gen. David Petraeus. "It looks more like a classical special forces or commando operation than a terrorist one. No group linked to Al Qaeda and certainly not Lashkar has ever mounted a maritime attack of this complexity." Which would be worse: if the Pakistani military knew about this operation in advance, or if they didn't?

The situation in South Asia is very complicated. But one thing is clear. All roads lead through Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani military. For decades it has sponsored militant groups like Lashkar and the Taliban as a low-cost strategy to bleed India and influence Afghanistan. It now faces a choice. Unless Pakistan changes how it conceives of its interests and strategy, the country will remain an unstable place, distrusted by all its neighbors. Even the Chinese, longtime allies, have begun worrying about the spread of Islamic extremism. Pakistan needs to take a civilian, not a military, view of its national interest, one in which good relations with India lead to trade, economic growth and stability. Of course, in such a world Pakistan wouldn't need a military that swallows up a quarter of the government's budget and rules the country like a privileged elite.

The one country that could do more than any other to change the military's mind-set is America. For India to bomb some Lashkar training camps would be to attack the symptoms, not the source of the rot—and would only fuel sympathy for the militants among ordinary Pakistanis. To the contrary, what the world needs is for Pakistan to decide on its own that its prospects are diminished by tolerance of such groups. American diplomacy has been fast and effective so far. But we must keep the pressure on Islamabad, and get countries like China and Saudi Arabia involved as well. President-elect Barack Obama has proposed aid to Pakistan that has sensible conditions attached, meant to help modernize the country.

America also has much to lose if things fall apart in South Asia. If tensions between India and Pakistan rise, distracting the Pakistani military from the jihadists in its tribal areas, it will lead to much greater instability in Afghanistan and a freer hand for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Washington, too, needs to see results.