US President-elect Barack Obama’s comments on the carnage in Mumbai must be viewed in a wider context and not merely that of India-Pakistan relations. It’s important that India stops reading, re-reading and interpreting what was a single statement—one that was the result of a reporter asking him an uncomfortable question.

While announcing his foreign policy team on Monday, Obama said that sovereign nations “obviously have the right to defend themselves" and that India had the right to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice. He refused to go into the specifics of the case. He could not, for what are now obvious reasons.

Jayachandran / Mint

As has been argued in these columns before, there is likely to be a change in how US handles the situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan played an important role in this aspect during the Musharraf years and will continue to do so. What has changed is the way the US goes about securing that cooperation from Pakistan. It’s here that Kashmir enters the picture.

There is a great deal of resentment and unpopularity in Pakistan over troops fighting terrorists on the Afghan border and in frontline provinces. Unlike the Musharraf years, when domestic unrest could be contained, this is no longer possible. The rulers in Islamabad know that. That’s why they can blithely argue that they will remove troops from the Afghan border and reposition them on the Indian border. They know the changed thinking in Washington and its dependence on them.

What should India do if the US says, “Don’t touch Pakistan"? What if there is a clash between US and Indian interests over Pakistan? India should do what is in its national interest. In case this requires giving the US a rebuff, it should be done. Friendship with the US should not be confused with the clear and present danger to our national security.

Here, time is of the essence. The new US administration is not in; the Bush administration is sympathetic to India. Instead of wasting time in issuing démarches to Pakistan, India must seriously think about military options to take out terrorists in that country. Come 20 January, pressure is likely to be mounted on New Delhi to show restraint. This is something the Manmohan Singh government is unlikely to be able to resist.

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