The view from my room in the Oberoi Hotel was beautiful at dusk, with the sun setting over the blue Arabian Sea while down below the traffic flowed on Marine Drive, which curves along the beachfront in Mumbai. As the lights came alive in the late afternoon sky, the streets of the financial capital of India throbbed with activity. Mumbai, formerly Bombay, the most populous city in India and the sixth most populous in the world, has more than 20 million inhabitants, from some of the world's richest billionaires to some of the world's most destitute poor.
I was there in advance of the coming visit of my boss, William J. Clinton, the forty-second president of the United States. It was my job as special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asia issues on the National Security Council to oversee Clinton's March 2000 visit to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Oman, and Switzerland. It would be the first visit by an American president to South Asia in a quarter-century. The Oberoi and its great rival, the Taj Mahal Palace, were competing to host the president during his visit to the city. Both were trying to explain to me why the president should stay in their hotel.
Just over eight years later both the Oberoi and the Taj would be the targets of the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11. The two hotels would be attacked by teams of terrorists from Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), along with the city's train station, a restaurant that catered to foreign visitors and the rich, a Chabad house for visiting Israeli and American Jews, and the city hospital.
Between November 26 and 29, 164 people would die and more than 300 would be injured by the ten terrorists. In India the horror is known as 26/11 and the battle to kill the terrorists is known as Operation Black Tornado.
LeT had carefully chosen the targets and meticulously researched them over several years. It received considerable assistance in doing so from two sources, the Pakistani intelligence service, called the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and al Qaeda. Each had its own agenda for the operation. But the targets were the same—Indians, Americans, and Jews, the targets of the global jihad started by al Qaeda in the late 1990s. Although the attack was in India, America was among the targets, and al Qaeda was a common enemy. I pointed that out to President-elect Obama at the time in several briefings by e-mail and telephone. The attack was intended to change the future of South Asia dramatically, perhaps even by provoking a war between India and Pakistan, the two nuclear powers rising in the subcontinent.
Understanding the Mumbai terrorist attack and its consequences is critical to understanding the challenges that America faces in dealing with the rise of India and Pakistan. Simply put, the United States cannot manage one without managing the other. Ensuring the political stability of both states and easing the rivalry between them is an American national security interest of the highest importance in the twenty-first century. The crisis in Mumbai, the first foreign policy crisis for President Obama, demonstrated dramatically how the rise of India and the rise of Pakistan will challenge America in the century ahead.
The Rising Tiger as Target
In a sense, India itself was the terrorists' target on 26/11, and Mumbai was chosen because it represents India's ascent over the last two decades. The simplest measure of India's importance is population. Its growth has been phenomenal. At the time of the Indian revolt against England in 1857, India had 200 million people; at independence in 1947, it had 325 million.
But according to its latest census, today, only sixty-five years later, India has 1.1 billion people—one-sixth of humanity. It is now the second-largest country in the world, after China, but by 2030 it will be larger than China. And it is a young, amazingly diverse, country. Sixty percent of Indians today are under thirty years of age. There are 22 official languages, 216 ethno-linguistic groups, and an estimated 1,500 dialects in India. The population is 80 percent Hindu, 14 percent Muslim, 2.5 percent Christian, and 2 percent Sikh. India's 140 million Muslims make it the third-largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. India is also the second-largest Shia Muslim state in the world, after Iran.
The pace of change in India today is staggering. While in 1985 there were only 2 million phones in the country, by 2011 there were 600 million cell phones and 15 million more were being added every month. Poverty remains a huge problem, but that also is changing rapidly. According to a 2011 Brookings Institution study, the poverty level in India is dropping very quickly. In 2005 about 41 percent of Indians were living below the poverty level—defined as living on less than a $1.25 per day—but by 2015 only 7 percent will be living below the $1.25-per-day line (amounts adjusted for inflation). From 2005 to 2010, 230 million Indians escaped poverty; by 2015 another 137 million will have done so. The graduation of 360 million Indians from abject poverty in ten years is more than the rest of the world's progress in poverty alleviation combined; not even China has reduced poverty levels as fast as India has today.
While India has had the dubious honor of hosting the most-poor people on Earth since 1999, when it overtook China, by 2015 it will have relinquished that distinction to Nigeria.
The change has not been easy. In August 2012, when an estimated 640 million people lost power at the height of summer, India had the largest electrical blackout in history. Next door in Pakistan, the blackouts were just as severe and they lasted longer. To produce power, between 2002 and 2012 India doubled its consumption of coal and increased oil consumption by 52 percent and natural gas consumption by 131 percent, but even that was too little to provide enough energy. India's urban population will have increased from 340 million people in 2008 to almost 600 million by 2030, when it will have 68 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants and 6 cities with more than 10 million. In 2030 two of the world's five largest cities will be in India — Mumbai and New Delhi.
From Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back by Bruce O. Riedel. Copyright 2013 by Bruce O. Riedel. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.