Pakistan is likely to loom large in the meetings between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week. Partly that’s because Thursday is the first anniversary of the Mumbai hotel attacks that claimed 173 lives, including four Americans—attacks perpetrated by terrorist groups based in Pakistan. More broadly, there is a growing realization that Washington and New Delhi have many common security interests in Pakistan, which is a key country both to US efforts in Afghanistan and to the fight against Islamist terrorism.

So amid the fanfare of the Obama administration’s first state visit, both sides will quietly focus on how they can best protect each other from the terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan. Americans are now more aware than ever of the threats India faces. Before the “26/11" assault, few Americans had ever heard of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist group operating largely, but not exclusively, in India. Though the attack was not India’s deadliest—that was the 1993 attack on Mumbai’s stock exchange—it changed the world’s understanding of terrorism in India as real-time television footage streamed into US and European living rooms. It catalysed discussions in Washington and Delhi about Lashkar-e-Taiba and the danger that group and its fellow travellers pose not just to India but to other countries.

Since 9/11, Delhi has watched warily as Washington enlisted Pakistan’s help against Al Qaeda by providing conventional military assistance and other allurements such as aid for Pakistan’s participation in the war on terrorism. In total, Pakistan has received at least $15 billion since 9/11. Washington had applied only episodic pressure on Pakistan to shut down militants operating in and against India, especially in Kashmir. Washington has wanted to encourage Pakistan to fight those militants that it can and will fight, even if Islamabad opposes actions against groups such as Lashkar and the Afghan Taliban.

The 26/11 attack has changed regional and international dynamics, ultimately to Pakistan’s disadvantage. First, Pakistan’s inaction toward Lashkar and its front organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa puts to rest any doubt about its commitment to retaining the organization as a strategic reserve to do the state’s bidding in the region. Pakistan’s failure to take meaningful action against Lashkar came to the fore in April when the organization, with the tacit assent of the government, provided high-visibility assistance to Pakistanis displaced by military action in Swat. It is now obvious, despite Islamabad’s recent efforts to pursue the Pakistan Taliban and the sanctuaries it provides to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, that the Pakistan government is part of the problem of international terrorism.

Second, whereas Lashkar was previously a “niche speciality" for counterterrorism experts in the US government, now nearly every policy, law enforcement, intelligence and military agency has dedicated resources to protect the US, its friends and its assets from Lashkar. The Mumbai attack lent increased urgency to deepening US-India cooperation centred on joint law enforcement and counterterrorism concerns. While less “sexy" than military-to-military engagements, this kind of Indo-US cooperation is vital to securing both nations against future terrorist threats.

Third, the proximity of Lashkar to Pakistan’s intelligence and security services, along with continued revelations about those services’ assistance to the Afghan Taliban, reminds the US and others that the Pakistan government continues to fight a selective war on terror, preserving those militant groups that serve the state’s foreign policy goals. This has forced many analysts and policymakers to acknowledge that Pakistan is unlikely to ever abandon terrorism as a tool of foreign policy even while domestic terrorists tear at the fabric of the state.

Singh’s visit reminds us all that while India and the US have come a long way since 2000, there is much work to be done in jointly securing the safety of their citizens from groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. Whether both states will rally to the challenge remains to be seen.


Edited excerpts. C. Christine Fair is an assistant professor in the security studies programme at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Comments are welcome at