|India's counter-terrorism apparatus suffered a spectacular body blow in the Mumbai attacks in November. The system desperately needs emergency intervention.|
The Mumbai carnage of November 2008 was certainly by far the most dramatic terrorist attack ever to be staged on Indian soil. While it is not the country's deadliest terror strike - 257 died in the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai - this latest incident, which endured for over 60 hours of relentless fighting, and left at least 183 dead and some 300 injured, was remarkable for its sheer audacity, its unprecedented protraction, and the unwavering murderousness of its executors - all of this covered 24x7 in the most macabre reality TV show since 9/11. Worse, the personal courage and commitment of Security Force personnel notwithstanding, the attack exposed the utter inadequacy, inappropriateness and incompetence of Indian security responses.
There has been a great deal of speculative commentary regarding the diverse motives that provoked this eventually spectacular attack, and a rising consensus appears to be that elements within the Pakistani establishment were eager to find a credible excuse to withdraw forces from the NWFP and FATA regions, and heightened tensions with India would be the best pretext for such action. Others suggest that this was intended to undermine 'increasingly warm' relations between the new 'democratic' dispensation at Islamabad and New Delhi, and to sabotage the 'peace process' between India and Pakistan. One American commentator notes that the terrorists "almost certainly sought to provoke an Indo-Pakistani crisis, much like the 2001-02 military standoff that nearly brought the two nuclear-armed nations to war". Much of this 'analysis' is of the 'blind men and the elephant' variety, and follows a pattern that is manifested after each major attack in India. The argument that Pakistan is looking for an excuse to vacate the NWFP/FATA region - knowing full well that this could lead to an irreversible radical consolidation, and a possible and permanent loss of these territories - merely in order to spite the US or undermine the war on terror in Afghanistan, seems deeply flawed. Further, in any ongoing war - and the carnage in Mumbai is part of a protracted war of terror against India - there is little reason to ask why the enemy is attacking you after each new assault. Crucially, planners of the Mumbai carnage simply could not have imagined the sheer scale and success it would eventually achieve. The impact of the attack, executed by as few as 10 terrorists armed with no more than assault rifles and grenades (and RDX packs which they inexplicably failed to use, despite ample opportunities over nearly 60 hours of the operation), and dispersed across three principal locations, was immensely magnified by the sheer incoherence of response - an incoherence that was not dissipated to the very end of the operation.
Indeed, perhaps the most effective and economical response came from the hideously ill-equipped, ill-trained and unprepared personnel of the Mumbai Police in the early stages of the attack, when they successfully neutralized two terrorists (one killed, one taken alive, and now the principal source of much of the evidence in this case) in the first minutes of the operation. Perhaps the most remarkable index of the state of this Police Force (thought of as one of India's best) is that the weapon used by many of those who were confronting the well-armed terrorists was the 'very old faithful', a .303 Lee Enfield rifle, which dates back to 1895, and which was first used in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) - a weapon more suited for display in a museum than for issue to an active Police Force in the 21st Century.
The counter-terrorism response went all the way downhill after this. Once the surviving terrorists had made their way into their target structures - the Taj Mahal Hotel, Nariman House and the Oberoi-Trident Hotel - someone decided that this could not be handled by anyone but 'crack commandos'. The result of this decision was that these locations were cordoned off by the Police, reinforced - hours later - by local Army units, with the terrorists trapped, but given complete freedom to commit mayhem, within each of these. Not till the arrival of the Navy's Marine Commandos (MARCOS), more than five hours after the commencement of the attack, was any determined effort made to engage with the holed up terrorists. The MARCOS team, however, failed to neutralize even a single terrorist, till it was replaced by the National Security Guard (NSG).
Delays in decision-making and inherent structural fractures - including the fact that the NSG is based at Manesar in Harayana, 50 kilometres outside Delhi, and was not provided with immediate access to aircraft to transport it to Mumbai - ensured that the NSG was eventually deployed nearly 10 hours after the incident commenced. What followed, however, must certainly be a blemish on the NSG's record as an effective CT force - another fifty hours of often aimless shooting and explosions, before the last of the eight terrorists could be neutralised. It is impossible to understand what precise mission objective was provided to the NSG commandos - it could not have been simply to go in and 'try to kill the terrorists in whatever time it takes'. Containment, the immediate isolation of the terrorists in as small a part of the structures as was possible and the protection and evacuation of civilians should have been the first imperatives. And yet, these did not appear to be the priorities, as the commandos seemed to be chasing the tail of the terrorists for those many, long and agonising hours. Clearly, just 200 NSG commandos could not be expected to have effectively carried out the tasks of containment and evacuation - but there were thousands of other Force personnel who could have backed these actions, instead of standing paralysed in a cordon outside the target structures.
An objective operational assessment of the commando action cannot, of course, be carried out on the basis of open source information at this juncture, but there is little possibility of declaring this operation a 'success' on the grounds that the terrorists were finally killed. Indeed, to the extent that this must certainly be perceived by the terrorist planners as an extraordinary and disproportionate success - in terms of inputs and predictable outcomes - it must stand out as a signal failure of India's security agencies.
The antecedent failures, in terms of lack or loss of actionable intelligence, the failure to act on such intelligence, and the failure to maintain a posture of high alert within the security systems at previously identified target locations, have also been colossal - and their magnitude is still being discovered. Once again, a thorough assessment of these can only be carried out by agencies with full access to the facts. However, the minutiae, both of these prior failings and of operational errors, while enormously significant, are dwarfed by the systemic infirmities that have, once again, been exposed in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. It must be evident to any objective observer that, if another comparable attack was launched anywhere in the country - or even in Mumbai - in the proximate future, the outcome would not be startlingly different.
Worse, most of the 'corrective' measures and policies currently being examined in official circles and in the media discourse appear to be uninformed, potentially counter-productive or wasteful, and in many cases, plain stupid. If national resources are not to be poured into the bottomless pit of bad ideas, it is essential to examine the logic and viability of some of the most visible proposals currently being articulated.
The first category among these includes the imitative institutions that are being recommended, such as a Federal Investigative Agency modelled on the American Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the proposal to set up a derivative Department of Homeland Security
These proposals arise out of an obsession, in India, with form to the exclusion of content. For one thing, solution have to be prescribed within available resources parameters. Simply arguing that America has prevented attacks after 9/11, so we must do what America did, is quite ludicrous. America does not have Pakistan - the epicentre of global terrorism - as its immediate neighbour. America has launched two major wars, purportedly with the objective of containing the 'sources of terrorism' abroad. And, with a GDP of USD 14.14 trillion and a population of just over 300 million, its resources are, in comparison to India, with its GDP barely touching USD One trillion, virtually limitless. More specifically, it is useful to note that the total Union Government's budgetary outlay in India is USD 150 billion, while the US spends as much as USD 650 billion on Defence alone. The annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security is USD 44 billion; that of India's Home Ministry is just USD 160 million. The FBI's budget is USD 7.1 billion; the Government of India's total expenditure on policing amounts to just USD 3 billion.
Crucially, the Union Government already presides over a multiplicity of dysfunctional agencies, including several that have been set up in the recent past to mimic foreign (usually American) institutions - such as the National Security Council, backed by an elaborate secretariat and the National Security Advisory Board; the Defence Intelligence Agency; the Department of Net Assessment; and the National Disaster Management Authority (imitating the Federal Emergency Management Agency). Most of these institutions remain under-manned and under-resourced across all parameters, and operate under ambiguous mandates, with little effective or statutory authority, and every one of them has failed to secure the objectives of its creation. The Centre is toying with the idea of setting up a Federal Investigative Agency to handle all cases of terrorism, organised crime, narcotics offences and money laundering, where inter-state or international linkages are involved, ignoring the fact that this would amount to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of cases every year. This would obviously require entire armies of highly qualified investigators and experts to handle. But the Centre has failed to provide the requisite manpower and resources even for a relatively tiny Central Bureau of Investigation to fulfil its relatively insignificant mandate. The CBI, for instance, has suffered chronic manpower shortages, which are particularly acute at the level of senior officers and investigators. How, then, does the Centre imagine that the FIA will arise, fully formed, functional and efficient, from the womb of the earth, when its own record of institution building has been utterly disastrous?
Another proposal - based on what can accurately be described as the Rambo model - is for the location of NSG units at several strategic and urban centres across the country. The idea is that these small contingents of this 'elite' force would quickly be able to smash up any terrorist group that may have the audacity to attack (though the NSG's present record does not support even such an assessment). Regrettably, it can be anticipated that the terrorists will not do us the courtesy of attacking where we are prepared for them, consequently, delays in actual deployment of the NSG - while they may not be as interminable as was the case in the November attack at Mumbai, will still remain significant.
It is essential to recognize, here, that any terrorist operation can only be contained or neutralized, in terms of its potential, in the first few minutes. Which means that the "first responders" - invariably the local Police - have to be equipped, trained and capable of, if not neutralising, then, at least, containing the terrorists. If the first batches of Police personnel had arrived in sufficient strength at each of the locations of terrorist attack in Mumbai, with appropriate weaponry, communications and transport and immediately engaged with the terrorists, they probably would have been able to isolate the terrorists in small corners of the target structures and would have been able to minimise the loss of life, the material damage, and the operational time.
The reality is that, while 'special forces' such as the NSG (or, better, Quick Response Teams within the Police setup) may play a significant tactical role in counter-terrorism, the strategic success of India's counter-terrorism responses will depend overwhelmingly on the capacities, mandate and effectiveness of its 'general forces'. It is, however, in these that the greatest and most intolerable deficits currently exist. A quick look at these is both edifying and distressing.
The first and greatest of infirmities exists at the level of general policing. India has a police-population ratio of just 125 per 100,000 in 2007, and it is useful to note that, despite so much hysteria and posturing over the 'terrorist threat', this ratio actually fell marginally from 126 per 100,000 in 2006. Most Western countries have ratios ranging between 225 per 100,000 to over 500 per 100,000. Western Police Forces, moreover, tend to confront challenges that are far less acute that those Indian Police Forces are facing, and are, in any event, infinitely better equipped, trained and resourced than their Indian counterparts.
A great deal of noise has recently also been made regarding the 'failure' of the Coast Guard to interdict the Mumbai terrorists despite 'specific intelligence' regarding the threat and, possibly, their initial movement. Once again, an assessment of real capacities of response is necessary. The Indian coastline is as much as 7,516 kilometres long. Reports suggest that as many as 50,000 trawlers are registered in just Maharashtra and Gujarat. To patrol this vast coastline, the Coast Guard has a sanction of 106 patrol boats, of which just 92 are currently operational, and 52 aircraft, of which 45 are presently in flying condition. Even if specific intelligence was available that terrorists had hijacked an unidentified fishing vessel, it is not clear how a fraction of this Force, which would be available on the Western Coast, would have been able to locate and interdict the offending vessel among the tens of thousands of fishing boats that are at sea in the area at any one time.
Finally, intelligence is by far the most powerful CT instrumentality in the State's arsenal, and it is, again, here that some of the greatest infirmities exist. Apart from the entire issue of coordination and dissemination of intelligence, it is useful to look at the basic capacities for intelligence gathering. The Intelligence Bureau, for instance, has a total strength of some 13,500 officers and personnel involved in intelligence operations, of which under 3,500 are actually involved in the task of field intelligence gathering. This is for all issues that come under the IB's mandate, not just CT. The dedicated resource for CT intelligence is in the region of about 300 (these figures are fairly reliable but not authoritative). As for the capacities of the State Police intelligence apparatus, these hardly bear mention in a current CT context.
Unless this crisis of capacities is addressed, it must be accepted that terrorists will continue to strike against targets across India with virtual impunity. Terrorism is, in essence, a 'small commander's war' - it is 'first responders', the units immediately located in the field, ordinarily the local Police - who must be empowered to respond effectively. No creation of top-heavy institutions at the Centre is going to alter the capacities on the ground. The necessary capacities have to be created at the most decentralized level - albeit within the context of a coherent and centralized strategy of CT response - and this, in the Indian context, must be at the level of the thana, the chowki and the mobile police units. These may be backed by special force QRTs, but unless the quality of general policing is not enormously improved, the capacities to respond to and contain terrorism will remain ineffectual.
We are constantly casting about for irrelevant 'models of response' across the world, but India has persistently and carelessly neglected its own experience of successful CT, particularly the comprehensive victory in the Punjab and the dramatic reversal of insurgencies in Tripura and Andhra Pradesh. The principal of response in each of these three theatres was precisely the creation of decentralized capacities within a coherent CT strategy - and this alone has real potential for success in India.
(Published in Defence and Security of India, Volume 1, Issue 3, December 2008)