By Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III, Center for Strategic Research
When does an international sporting event double as a highly plausible prelude to major state war? When the event is in India, when Islamic radicals in Pakistan have declared the event a coveted target for terrorism, and when already high tensions between India and Pakistan have risen precipitously over the course of a long, hot and exceedingly wet summer. Welcome to the 2010 Commonwealth Games – beginning in New Delhi, India on October 3rd!
Despite their obscurity in America, the Commonwealth Games are truly a major international sporting spectacle. They are the fourth largest quadrennial sporting event in the world, behind only the Summer Olympics, the Soccer World Cup, and the Asian Games. More than 4000 world class athletes along with tens of thousands of supporters and spectators from 54 countries that once comprised the British Empire will compete in a mixture of seventeen summer Olympic sports and several ‘uniquely British’ sporting events. The Games of 2010, held in New Delhi from October 3-14, are the first event of such magnitude hosted on the Indian subcontinent; and, more critically, in a nuclear armed state on high alert against its nuclear armed neighbor.
Those now gathering in New Delhi, therefore, are at grave risk.
The risk of a terrorist strike at the 2010 Commonwealth Games is real, and has metastasized severely over the past few months. Militant Islamist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayibbah (LeT) of Pakistan and Indian Mujihaddin (IM) in India have promised an attack of the Commonwealth Games for some time. Last February, longtime LeT leader Ilyas Kashmiri (now believed hole-up in western Pakistan’s tribal areas) threatened the Games with a dramatic strike. The violence between Indian paramilitary units and Muslim youth in Kashmir that has killed more than 60 young Muslim protesters and injured hundreds of others over the course of the summer has fed a stream of anti-Indian propaganda in Kashmir and across Pakistan. Passionate editorials in Pakistani newspapers and Friday sermons from many Deobondi Muslim mosques cry out for retaliation against India for taking innocent Muslim lives, inspiring young Pakistani radicals to volunteer for the attacks promised by Ilyas Kashmiri and championed by many more extremist groups. Ominously, the massive civil relief effort demanded from the Pakistan military and intelligence agencies since the beginning of historic flooding in August has diverted resources and constrained resolve to closely monitor, much less effectively disrupt, covert preparations for a terrorist strike against the Commonwealth Games just as such preparations are likely to be culminating.
Despite massive security preparations by an Indian anti-terrorism paramilitary and police establishment believed competent in many ways, but stung deeply by the carnage of Mumbai in 2008, the prospect for a catastrophe attack of these Commonwealth Games looms large. On September 16, India’s indigenous IM movement took credit for the terrorist attack by two men on a motorbike that opened fire injuring two Taiwanese journalists in front of the Jama Masjid Mosque in New Delhi. Should India’s security preparations fail and a strike against the Commonwealth Games traceable to Pakistan occur, historic Indian restraint would be at risk. India has staked huge national pride in these Games, and the blow from a successful Islamist terror strike would be enormous. Legendary Indian restraint – exercised in 2002 after the Islamist terror attack in the New Delhi parliament and after the 2008 Mumbai attacks – would be at risk. Indian frustration with Pakistan’s ongoing failure to make good on its promise to successfully prosecute even one conspirator in the Mumbai attacks would amplify almost certain nation-wide cries to retaliate against Pakistan for its history of terror group support. Groups from across India’s political spectrum would view any Indian retaliatory strike – even a limited conventional one against selected Pakistani targets – as overdue; and, the specter of uncontrollable escalation in retaliatory strikes between two nuclear armed neighbors could fall quickly into place.
Where does this leave outside observers, to include American policymakers? Given that India’s security preparations are complete, and Delhi’s historic aversion to outside assistance in matters of its security business has minimized external involvement – without many options. However, there are a couple of political and information-sharing actions that might help avert a worst-case scenario. President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Hu Jintao should each call Prime Minister Singh to extend best wishes for a successful Commonwealth Games and to pre-commit the rapid deployment of any resources the Indian government might need in the event of a tragedy. They should also call Pakistani President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to remind them – and Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment – that any terrorism activity against the Commonwealth Games traceable to Pakistan is hugely unacceptable; and, that Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment should immediately and completely share information of potential plots with the Indians directly – or through western interlocutors – in a timely manner that foils terrorist plans before they can occur in Delhi . These steps taken, those of us from nations without athletes in the 2010 Commonwealth Games need beware and keep our fingers crossed. A most dangerous moment is at hand, but a positive outcome can yet be written.