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Retrospective… introspective

On this day last year 10 gunmen from Lashkar-e-Taiba launched coordinated attacks in the city of Mumbai. I first heard about it when a friend called to say Mumbai was under siege. He also follows South Asian militant groups and we both came to the same conclusion pretty quickly – this was a Lashkar attack.

At the time, a lot of people in the West were suggesting AQ must have been responsible. This is understandable. LeT had managed to keep a somewhat low-profile and had never launched a terrorist spectacular of this magnitude, even though it had been behind a number of major attacks in the past. A year later that is no longer the case.

Foreign Policy asked me to contribute a retrospective for the anniversary. For those interested in analysis of the attacks and the [limited] crackdown Lashkar faced afterwards, you can find the article here. In this space, I’d like to put analysis aside for a moment.

I made my first trip to India and Pakistan two weeks after the Mumbai attacks – a trip I’d been planning for months – to conduct extended field research on Lashkar. In both countries I met with people who have become all-to-familiar with the costs of political violence. The overwhelming majority of them were patient and gracious in terms of sharing their time, their knowledge and their experiences. Like most researchers, I took more than I could hope to give back. I’m sure many of those who constitute this blog’s readership are familiar with this dynamic.

In about six months time I’ll publish my first book – on Lashkar. It’s troubling for me, as I imagine it is for many researchers who write about political violence, that other people’s pain has in some way enabled my gain. But like many of my colleagues I do the work I do in the hopes of putting myself out of a job, even as the realist in me knows that won’t happen.

Again, I’m sure this sentiment is familiar to those who follow this blog. And most people outside of the field understand it as well. Yet when I tell people the subject of my book and explain that Lashkar was responsible for Mumbai [the easiest anchor for those unaware of South Asian militancy], there are those few who invariably will say something along the lines of “so at least the attacks were good for you.”

No. No they were not. 166 people died. Over 300 were injured. And the group responsible continues to operate relatively unimpeded. Not to seem ungrateful, but if I could trade a book contract for those ten gunmen never making it out of port in Karachi I’d make that trade in a heartbeat.

The sad truth is that the chances of my being able to bend the universal laws of nature to make that trade happen are only slightly lower than the prospect that more attacks like Mumbai won’t take place in the future.