MUMBAI ATTACK: Why South Asia Matters to America

December 17, 2008

Student readings and discussion questions address some basic questions about the attackand describe the interconnected problems in South Asia that will confront President Obama, including the conflict over Kashmir and the war against the Taliban.

We have become used to hearing about terrorist attacks. But the attacks on Mumbai, India, in November 2008 were particularly horrific, with three days of indiscriminate murders. Many of us respond with a shudder and go on with our lives.

But we need to understand Mumbai's context and interconnections with events elsewhere, why it happened, and why, beyond our horror and sympathy for its victims, it matters to Americans and the United States.

The first reading answers some basic questions about the event, including the likely reasons for it. The second presents some historical background with special attention to the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir and the U.S./NATO war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The third provides an overview of the interconnected problems in South Asia that confront President Obama.

Discussion questions and other activities follow.

Students will need a map showing South Asia, including Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India and Kashmir, as they discuss this issue.


Student Reading 1

Mumbai Attacks: Who, what, why?

The people of Mumbai, India, lived and died in terror during a carefully planned murderous rampage through hotels, a Jewish center, a café, a hospital, a railroad station. Over three days (November 26-29, 2008), ten men killed indiscriminately 171 men, women and children and wounded hundreds of others.

Who were these men?

They were almost certainly Pakistani members of Lashkar-e-Taiba ("army of the pure"). It was originally founded to combat Indian rule in Kashmir, a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. In 2002 the Pakistani government banned Lashkar, after the U.S. pressured it to do so. But Lashkar has operated openly anyhow through affiliated groups in Lahore, Pakistan.

What evidence supports this Pakistani origin?

After the attacks, Indian officials collected evidence from various sources—cell phones and markings on weapons, both of which were abandoned by the terrorists, as well as information from the only surviving terrorist, Azam Amir Kasab, 21, a Pakistani.

Why did the terrorists assault Mumbai?

India's investigation of the Mumbai attacks continues, but a consensus has emerged on why the attacks occurred. As Paul Woodward wrote in his article "Strategic Terrorism" (, 12/7/08), they were intended "to provoke a confrontation between India and Pakistan." Says Woodward: "Who wants to see such a confrontation? Lashkar and its allies who have been getting pounded by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas and anticipate the heat being taken off if Pakistan's army redeploys to the east (and the Pakistan-India border)."

Times of India analyst Ahmed Rashid largely agrees with Woodward's analysis. "The group that attacked Mumbai may well include some Pakistanis, but is more likely to be an international terrorist force put together by al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, who are besieged by the Pakistan army on one side and a rain of missiles being launched by US forces in Afghanistan against their hideouts on the other....What better way to [distract the Pakistani army] than by provoking the two old enemies-India and Pakistan—with a terrorist attack that diverts attention away from the tribal areas? (, 12/4/08)

Why would Lashkar and other terrorist groups want to create such a diversion?

An assault on Mumbai, says Rashid, "would force Pakistani troops back to the Indian border while simultaneously preoccupying U.S. and NATO countries in hectic diplomacy to prevent the region exploding." This diversionary strategy worked in December 2001 after Lashkar attacked the Indian parliament (in New Delhi) and killed ten people. "The Pakistan army moved away from the Afghan border to meet the Indian mobilization, thereby allowing al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban to escape from Afghanistan and consolidate their positions on the tribal areas."

The global Islamic jihad is now focused on Afghanistan. Jihadist groups in Pakistan's tribal regions that border Afghanistan, over which the government has little control, include:

  • The Afghan Taliban
  • Al Qaeda
  • Lashkar
  • The Pakistani Taliban

They have mounted attacks from what has been a safe haven against U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan itself.

The Afghan Taliban now control significant areas in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban were responsible recently for blowing up the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, killing dozens of people and wounding more than 200. Under pressure from the Bush administration to eliminate attacks from tribal areas, the Pakistani army recently moved against the extremists. Forcing an army shift to the Indian border would obviously give them freer rein for attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan itself.

What has been the Indian government's reaction to the Mumbai terrorist assault?

It has acted cautiously. Its U.S. ally opposes even a limited cross-border Indian attack, for Pakistan would then do what Lashkar and other terrorist groups want—remove troops confronting them and threatening Afghanistan on its western border and send them to its eastern border with India.

But, writes Tony Karon in Time magazine, the Indian government is "justifiably skeptical of the extent of [Pakistani President] Zardari's control over the military and intelligence institutions that have been responsible for cultivating the jihadists, and would be responsible for eliminating them. Nor would it easily believe that Pakistan's security establishment, despite its promises to Washington, has entirely renounced jihadist proxy warfare against India." (Tony Karon, "After Mumbai, Can the U.S. Cool Indian-Pakistan Tension?", 12/4/08)

What has been the Pakistani government's reaction to the Mumbai terrorist assault?

The Pakistani government has denied any connection to the assault. It has ordered raids of some Lashkar camps and properties and reports that it has detained several top leaders of the group and others associated with it. But a larger crackdown seems unlikely because it "would run counter to popular sentiment and would appear to be at the behest of India and the United States, a politically unpalatable perception for Pakistan's government." (Jane Perlez, "Pakistan Arrests 20 With Ties to Militants," New York Times , 12/10/08). After the Lashkar ban in 2002, Pakistan arrested thousands of members, but soon released them.

Pakistan has refused to turn over the detained Lashkar leaders to India unless India presents its proof that they were involved in the Mumbai attack.

India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. Tension of any kind between these two nations always opens the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Explanations for the Mumbai attack focus on the likelihood that Lashkar wanted to provoke a crisis between Pakistan and India. Why?

3. Identify each of the terrorist groups involved—Lashkar, the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban.

4. What is the connection between the Mumbai attack and the war in Afghanistan? In what ways does the attack affect U.S. interests?

5. How has India reacted to the attack? Pakistan? Explain.


Student Reading 2:

Background and blowback

An orgy of killing in India and Pakistan

Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy calls it "Britain's final kick to us." In 1947, and after a long struggle, Britain gave up its huge Indian subcontinent colony. Two independent countries were born on either side of a line drawn by a British official—India and Pakistan-which, says Roy, "tore through states, districts, villages, fields, communities, water systems, homes, and family" and loosed an orgy of killing.

"Partition triggered the massacre of more than a million people and the largest migration of a human population in contemporary history. Eight million people, Hindus fleeing the new Pakistan, Muslims fleeing the new India, left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"Each of those people carries, and passes down, a story of unimaginable pain, hate, horror, but yearning too. That wound, those torn but still unsevered muscles, that blood and those splintered bones still lock us together in a close embrace of hatred, terrifying familiarity, but also love. It has left Kashmir trapped in a nightmare from which it can't seem to emerge, a nightmare that has claimed more than 60,000 lives."

("The Monster in the Mirror,", 12/12/08)

The Kashmir nightmare

After the partitioning of the region, Kashmir, a remote mountainous area between India and Pakistan, was immediately in dispute.

Kashmir's people are mostly Muslim. But the Hindu ruler of two-thirds of Kashmir gave his two-thirds over to India. This section of Kashmir was joined it with the Indian state of Jammu, which is mostly Hindu, to create Jammu-Kashmir. The remaining one-third of Kashmir became part of Pakistan. Pakistan objected to this division. The United Nations called for a plebiscite (a popular vote) on the issue, but India refused. Since then, there have been two wars between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. As for the wishes of the Kashmiri people, surveys indicate that they would prefer independence.

Lashkar was founded in the 1980s with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But according to Western officials, it now uses "camps in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and Pakistan's tribal areas to change from a group once focused primarily on Kashmir into one now determined the join the ranks of a global jihad." (Jane Perlez and Somini Sengupta, "Mumbai Attacks Are Testing Pakistan's Ability to Curb Militants," New York Times, 12/4/08)

The Times reports: "According to American intelligence and counterterrorism officials, Lashkar has quietly gained strength in recent years with the help of the ISI, assistance that has allowed the group to train and raise money. American officials say there is no hard evidence to link the spy service to the Mumbai attacks. But the ISI has shared intelligence with Lashkar and provided protection for it, the officials said.

"American spy agencies have documented regular meetings between the ISI and Lashkar operatives, in which the two organizations have shared intelligence about Indian operations in Kashmir. 'It goes beyond information sharing to include some funding and training,' said an American official who follows the group closely. 'And these are not rogue ISI elements. What's going on is done in a fairly disciplined way.'"

Lashkar and al-Qaeda have a connection but "do not always see eye to eye, terrorism analysts said. While Lashkar strives for the creation of a pan-Islamic state across South Asia, Al Qaeda aims to create an even larger entity."

(Eric Schmitt and others, "Pakistan's Spies Aided Group Tied to Mumbai Siege," New York Times, 12/8/08)

Endless war in Afghanistan

Another area of conflict in South Asia is Afghanistan. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent troops into that country to support a communist government opposed by many Afghans. Two American presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, funneled money to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to help it organize Afghan refugees in Pakistan to fight the Soviets. During that cold war period, the U.S. also supported Afghanistan's mujahideen (holy warriors), including Osama bin Laden, with money, weapons and intelligence.

After the fierce Afghan resistance movement forced the Soviets to withdraw in 1988-1989, the United States lost interest in Afghanistan. The country fell into civil war among competing power-seeking groups, one of which was the Taliban (a word that means "religious students"), another creation of the ISI. The Taliban consisted of young male Afghan refugees who had studied a very strict form of Islam in Pakistani seminaries, trained to become soldiers, and, with the funding and support of the ISI, returned to Afghanistan. In 1996, the Taliban emerged victorious in the civil war.

After 9/11, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan. They killed or captured some Taliban troops and officials, and drove the rest out of the country. After the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq, the Taliban reconstituted itself in the Pakistani tribal areas (along the border with Afghanistan), and has recently regained power in large swathes of Afghan territory. They have also demonstrated the power to disrupt American and NATO supply lines. On December 7, 2008, militants in Peshawar (a Pakistani city that is the final staging area for supplying American and allied forces in Afghanistan) destroyed more than 100 trucks loaded with supplies and burned 50 military vehicles ready for shipment.

"It's an ugly situation, and one the United States had a part in creating," editorialized The Nation magazine. "In the 1980s America and Saudi Arabia poured billions of dollars into ISI to underwrite the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, helping to create the same extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, that plague Afghanistan, Pakistan and India-and the United States-today. In the 1990s the United States and Saudi Arabia looked the other way as Pakistan created the Taliban as a tool to establish a radical Islamist regime in Kabul. And in the past several years the United States has poured $11 billion into the Pakistani military, with little or no oversight, in its ironically misguided 'war on terror.'" ("After Mumbai," The Nation , 12/22/08)

ISI support for the development of the Taliban and strict fundamentalist Islamic rule in Afghanistan was intended to counter Indian support for moderate, secular government through other Afghan groups, including the Northern Alliance. Like the 9/11 "blowback," (unintended consequences) of U.S. support for the mujahideen, Pakistan suffers blowback from its support for the Afghan Taliban, which created the Pakistani Taliban to overthrow Pakistan's secular government and replace it with a strict Islamic regime.

As Middle East historian Juan Cole points out, a basic problem for the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is that "To some extent, Pakistan's powerful national-security apparatus has been divided against itself for much of the past decade. Even while the army is engaged in intense fighting against the Pakistani Taliban, it appears to be backing other Taliban groups that have struck at targets inside Afghanistan. Last June, when U.S. forces engaged in hot pursuit of these Taliban staging cross-border raids, they came under fire from Pakistani troops who sided with the Taliban."

Immediately after the Mumbai attack, Pakistan's civilian government announced that it would send its spy chief to India for consultations. A few hours later, the government changed its mind.

In short, the civilian government of Pakistan has limited control of its military and even less over its own intelligence service, the ISI. Writes Juan Cole: "The contradictory agendas of various parts of the Pakistani government and of its shadowy networks of retired or ex-officers have created policy chaos."

("Does Obama Understand His Biggest Foreign Policy Challenge?

For discussion

What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

For writing

The historical context for the Mumbai massacre covers at least six decade, and would require a lengthy book to treat with any adequacy. The reading necessarily omits a good deal. To gain insight into what students do understand, don't understand, understand in part, or misunderstand, the teacher may find it helpful to have students respond to such questions as the following (and any others the teacher thinks would be useful) in writing and then discuss their responses.

Answer each of the following questions briefly, clearly and in your own words. Students may refer to the reading.

1. What was the immediate result of Britain's partition of India?

2. What is the origin of the Pakistani-Indian dispute over Kashmir?

3. What are the aims of Lashkar?

4. Why has Lashkar had support from Pakistan's ISI?

5. What has been the blowback from U.S. support for the mujahideen's conflict with the Soviet Union?

6. Who created the Taliban and why?

7. Why did the U.S. invade Afghanistan after 9/11?

8. Why are U.S. and NATO troops still in combat there?

9. Why do you think the Pakistan government changed its mind about sending its spy chief to India immediately after the Mumbai attack? What does Juan Cole mean when he refers to "the contradictory agendas of various parts of the Pakistani government"?

For discussion

Have the class hear and consider a sampling of answers to each of the questions for clarity, accuracy, and completeness as well as for additional questions that arise from each reading.


Student Reading 3:

President Obama's Challenges in South Asia

An Obama strategy for South Asia will probably include sending more troops to Afghanistan. Robert Dreyfuss writes in The Nation that the new president's policy will also include "a repudiation of the strident 'global war on terror' rhetoric that marked President Bush's years and that only inflamed Muslim attitudes toward the United States...

"He'll slow down, if not halt, the provocative cross-border attacks into Pakistani tribal areas against insurgent bases, even as he reserves the right to hit bin Laden. The incoming administration will take steps to strengthen the fledgling civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan against the machinations of the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which maintains covert ties to a wide range of extremist groups, including the Taliban. And it will support a major boost in economic aid to both countries."

According to Dreyfuss: "Nearly all of Obama's advisors...insist that a central part of a new U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan must be to facilitate a peace process between Pakistan and India."

"U.S. military leaders have called for more troops for Afghanistan and doubling the Afghan National Army to 134,000 troops," writes Dreyfuss. But, he adds, "Many Afghan watchers consider the war unwinnable, and they point out that in the 1980s the Soviet Union, with far more troops, had engaged in a brutal nine-year counterinsurgency war—and lost." Dreyfuss quotes Britain's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, who has said that sending more troops would "have perverse effects: it would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets" for the insurgents.

Some U.S. and NATO commanders argue that the war is winnable. But it would require that more troops be sent into Pakistan's tribal areas to kill Taliban and other militants and destroy their camps. American incursions into those areas—a land assault and repeated drone missile attacks—have already made many Pakistanis angry with the U.S., especially when these attacks kill civilians. In public opinion polls, overwhelming majorities of Pakistanis say the goal of the United States is to "weaken and divide the Islamic world." A majority of Pakistanis see the U.S. as a greater threat than Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and most oppose cooperation with the U.S. in its "war on terror."

Since 9/11, ninety percent of the $11 billion in Bush administration support for Pakistan has gone to that country's military and ISI, mainly for combating the tribal area terrorists. Dreyfuss writes that "the military has allowed the ISI free rein to support its network of Islamist extremists" and all the U.S. has gotten for its money is "an occasional Al Qaeda bigwig." Meanwhile, inflation and unemployment keep rising in Pakistan. The government has limited control over its army and ISI. Assassinations and suicide bombings are frequent. ("Obama's Afghan Dilemma," The Nation, 12/22/08)

President Obama faces a formidable array of interconnected problems in South Asia:

  • The festering India-Pakistan conflict between these two nuclear-armed nations over Kashmir. This conflict is linked to competition between the two nations over political and religious influence in Afghanistan.
  • Jihadist groups entrenched in Pakistan's tribal areas that have relationships to Pakistan's army and intelligence service. These groups are well-trained and they have committed devastating suicide and other attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
  • Weak Afghan and Pakistani governments that cannot control their own territories. Both countries suffer from corruption and widespread poverty. And Pakistan's government is divided against itself.
  • Popular opposition in Afghanistan to the continued presence of U.S. and NATO occupying forces. The occupation forces do not provide the security people crave, and their attacks frequently kill civilians.
  • Popular opposition in Pakistan to U.S. attacks in the tribal areas and to the U.S.'s approach to fighting the "war on terror."

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 to prevent Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from again using this country as a base of operations. Al Qaeda still has global ambitions. Lashkar-e-Taiba's ambitions are more limited, but cover South Asia. The Afghan Taliban's ambitions are to recover power in Afghanistan, where, before 9/11, it allowed Al-Qaeda freedom to run training bases. The Pakistani Taliban's ambitions include the overthrow of secular rule in Pakistan.

The U.S. is understandably opposed to the spread of a radical brand of Islam that uses terrorist attacks to further its goals. But if the U.S.'s goals are confined to fighting terrorists, especially in impoverished Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. is unlikely to win the support of the people who live in those countries. Most people in the region resent the presence of American troops. From their point of view, U.S. forces are simply serving U.S. interests and have little or no effect on improving their lives.

Writes Robert Dreyfuss: "Part of the solution, stressed by all of Obama's aides, is more economic support to both countries, targeted toward building infrastructure, improving agriculture, providing microcredit for small business and constructing schools and clinics....But economic development takes a long time to be felt, and the crisis is now. If the wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan aren't going to be resolved militarily—and they won't be—the solution to both crises, now inextricably linked, must be a diplomatic one: first, negotiations with many of the forces opposing the two governments and the U.S. presence in the region, and, second, progress toward a Pakistan-India accord."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How is the Pakistani-Indian conflict over Kashmir linked to the conflict in Afghanistan?

3. Why are the jihadist groups in Pakistan's tribal areas a problem for Pakistan? For India? For the United States?

4. Why do many Afghans oppose the presence of U.S. troops in their country?

5. Why do many Pakistanis oppose U.S. attacks in their tribal areas?

6. Why is the weak government of Afghanistan part of the reason for conflict in South Asia?

7. Why is the weak government of Pakistan part of the reason for conflict in South Asia?

8. What suggestions are advisors making to President Obama about how the U.S. should proceed in Afghanistan?


For future discussion and writing

U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and the wider and predominately Muslim world of South Asia is high on President Obama's list of critical issues.

What does President Obama say about the following in his inaugural address? What does he say and do about each of them as his presidency gets underway?

Consider making student assignments and continuing class discussions about U.S. policy in South Asia.

1. South Asian policy changes

2. Reaching out to Muslim nations

3. American troops in Afghanistan

4. Economic actions to help Afghans and Pakistanis

5. The internally divided Pakistani government

6. Jihadist groups in Pakistan's tribal areas


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: