Mumbai looks like a classic example of SST, or semi-state terrorism, in which a shadowy and deniable arm of government equips, trains and unleashes its human pawns in a vicious attack.
And then the state whose agents were behind the atrocity turns in all innocence toward world opinion and says, "Who, me?"
Or in an even more cunning gambit, the state's political leaders say, "We are so terribly weak and poor and overawed by our military and our intelligence agencies that we cannot control them. We don't know what they do, so you can't blame us. Perhaps if you gave us more money, more weapons, more political support … "
That has repeatedly been the response of Pakistan, after each new terrorist outrage in India. Pakistani politicians confess they have little authority over Inter-Services Intelligence, which has been a state-within-the-state since it ran the arms deliveries to the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s war against the Soviet occupiers.
The evidence that the Mumbai atrocity was hatched in Pakistan is very strong.
The one terrorist who was captured alive, Azam Amir Kasab, 21, caught on security camera at Mumbai's main train station carrying an assault rifle and grenades, told police the operation was the responsibility of Lashkar-e-Toiba, a jihadist group based in Pakistan.
He claimed the 10 attackers had been trained in two separate camps run by Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan, in the border region between Pakistani Punjab and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir where Pakistan's government says it has no authority and where only the army, the ISI and the militants rule.
Phones found on a trawler that is believed to have taken the terrorists into Mumbai Harbor had been in contact with Pakistan, Mumbai police said.
The Indian government seems sure that the plot was hatched in Pakistan. India's minister for home affairs, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, said, "The investigation carried out so far has revealed the hand of Pakistan-based groups in the Mumbai attack."
R.R. Patil, the deputy chief minister of Mumbai's state government, said that monitoring the terrorists' phones provided "proof" that they were talking to someone in Pakistan who was directing their tactics: "They were being instructed from outside regarding their movement inside the hotel, whether to go upstairs or come down or make a move left or right."
As usual, the Pakistani government has denied involvement in the attacks. President Asif Ali Zardari promised to take the "swiftest of action" if there was evidence the terrorists came from his country.
The striking feature of Mumbai is how commonplace this kind of semi-state terrorism has become. Iran is probably the master of the semi-state terror system, with its long support of Hezbollah. But Hugo Chavez of Venezuela tries to undermine neighboring Colombia by arming and supporting the FARC guerrillas, according to very strong evidence from a captured guerrilla laptop.
Indian security officials say they suffer similar low-grade insurgency from hill tribes like the Naga along the border with Myanmar, and seem convinced that both China and Myanmar find it useful to keep pressure on India in this way. The Chinese, in turn, are deeply suspicious of an Indian hand in outside support for China's restive Uighur Muslims and for Tibet.
What can be done about this kind of proxy attack? There are precedents for a robust response. In 1993, when Iraqi agents tried to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait, they were stopped, but the Clinton administration launched cruise missile attacks to destroy the military intelligence building in Baghdad.
Sometimes it can be useful for an attacked country to go along with the fiction that the terrorists were acting on their own, without state authorization. Although Iran's hand was apparent in the Hezbollah attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, successive U.S. administrations decided not to push the accusation.
This is a shadow world, where motives are unclear and official reactions have to be carefully calibrated. Governments have to keep a very close eye on their own domestic public opinion and the demand for revenge. The Indian government, which faces a general election next year, is under strong pressure to make Pakistan pay.
But how? President Clinton tried cruise-missile attacks against terrorist training camps, which meant firing million-dollar missiles at cheap brick structures that could be rebuilt quickly elsewhere. Attacking the ISI headquarters would be a serious escalation, and, like India, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Nobody wants the tension to spiral out of control.
But this is to surrender the initiative to the semi-state terrorists and their shadowy masters, who can turn up the tension between India and Pakistan at will. Ironically, the current Pakistani government seems more ready for compromise and confidence-building measures, like the proposal for an EU-style free-trade area. There is little chance of that developing now.
So what will Obama and his new national security team do about this semi-state terrorism? And how does one deal with a bankrupt and semi-failed state like Pakistan when its secret agents are involved in terrorist outrages and yet the state is protected by its nuclear deterrent?
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