26/11 Mumbai attacks: Three structural flaws make it likely that India will suffer more such elaborate assaults

The 10th anniversary of the 26 November, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks has brought tributes, commemorations and hashtags galore but not enough introspection on whether India has learnt the right lessons from one of the biggest terrorist attacks on its soil. The fickleness of collective memory has already relegated the tragedy to a moment in history, to be remembered occasionally as one more topic of public debate.

The possibility of terrorists planning another such audacious, elaborate attack on India has not reduced. There is no shortage of motivation from across the border to bleed the country with a thousand cuts. Pakistan's low-cost asymmetric war against India and use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy won't end soon. India has made some gains in drawing global attention to terrorism and spearheading the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan. There has been some progress in intelligence-sharing with other nations on terrorism and interoperability between counterterrorism assets.

But there has been a failure so far in developing a rational and consistent approach towards terrorism. Consequently, the resolve to prevent another 26/11 has faded into institutional apathy. This lacuna is guided by three structural flaws:

File image of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. Reuters

File image of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. Reuters

First, there is not enough political will to treat terrorism as a policy issue and build bipartisan consensus on developing a coherent counterterrorism strategy. Second, there is policy paralysis on Pakistan — the nerve centre of global terrorism and the chief source of India’s troubles — where New Delhi's initiatives fluctuate perennially between the 'outreach-outrage' model. Third, strengthening the country's security apparatus by investing in police reforms or developing institutional capacity is deemed as either too costly or politically inexpedient.

The weight of this combined apathy hangs heavy on a nation that spends more time praying and hoping to avoid another 26/11 than working towards reducing the chances of such an attack. The police — first respondents in any crisis — remain under-equipped and ill-trained. The politicians cannot decide whether to make peace with Pakistan or hold it accountable for failing to bring to justice even one perpetrator of the crime despite sharing volumes and volumes of 'dossiers'. And the intelligence agencies are busy undermining each other in a perpetual, internecine war, creating wide gaps in security apparatus for actionable intelligence to slip through.

As Adrian Levy, author of The Siege (a highly acclaimed book on the Mumbai terror attacks) writes in Strategic News International, there was no shortage of intel on the Mumbai attacks (ostensibly provided by the US), but not enough will or competence to act on it.

Levy writes, "Numerous intel feeds — derived from foreign-provided humint (human intelligence) and techint (technical intelligence) — described the oncoming attack with clarity rarely seen in these kinds of operations… (But) The mistrust sown between R&AW and IB, and between IB and police… meant that intelligence that was passed along the line arrived at its resting point in a piecemeal fashion, extraordinarily slowly, with reports continually trimmed and tailored, until the senior inspector (30 years in service who was really doing front line work) received single lines of instruction that did not reflect the building gravity of what was coming, or its context and timescale."

The intelligence failure is a symptom of the third structural flaw where institutional capacity-building or implementation of reforms ranks quite low on the priority list. In the chapter titled 'Reforming Intelligence', former R&AW chief Vikram Sood in his book The Unending Game, warns against episodic reforms that usually follows a debacle of the likes of which during Mumbai attacks.

Sood writes that such piecemeal efforts "do not really address core issues like strengthening confidence, increasing professionalism and making intelligence collection an attractive career opportunity in today’s context to produce a sharp and smart outfit".

The fossilisation of intelligence agencies into leaden-footed bureaucratic units is compounded by lack of police reforms. If the first responders are not well-trained on counterterrorism measures, then it leaves too much for special operatives to do. An effective response to a terror attack becomes subsequently more difficult.

The trouble with police capability in India is, as Paul Staniland writes in his paper Improving India’s Counterterrorism Policy after Mumbai, India’s "federal political system leaves most policing responsibilities to the states, which usually possess their own counterterrorism and intelligence units. These forces, especially local police, are often poorly trained and equipped. Local personnel are frequently hired on the basis of political patronage and are notorious for high levels of corruption".

Toon by Manjul.

Toon by Manjul.

When we add the lack of coordination (and even palpable hostility) between state and Central agencies and their endemic problems of being under-equipped and under-trained and short on personnel to this mix, the challenge becomes greater. These, however, are the symptoms of a deeper malaise — lack of political will to treat terrorism as a policy issue than subjecting the fight to vote-bank politics.

Staniland identifies it as an "enormous challenge for a political class focused above all else on the cut-throat electoral competition that characterises Indian politics", but no meaningful counterterror strategy can be developed if there is no consensus between parties on what constitutes terrorism. On this, ORF fellow Harsh Pant writes, "Partisan politics has created an environment in which political and religious polarisation has been so complete and embedded that an effective action against terrorism becomes virtually impossible to accomplish."

Another arm of this structural flaw is the policy paralysis on Pakistan. On the day the US announced another $5 million under its Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program seeking information "leading to the arrest or conviction of any individual who was involved in planning or facilitating the 2008 Mumbai attack" and called upon Pakistan to uphold its UN Security Council obligations "to implement sanctions against the terrorists responsible for this atrocity, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates," India warmed up to Pakistan.

Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab chief minister laid the foundation stone for the Kartarpur corridor — a project that involves Pakistan’s cooperation — sending mixed signals about a country that has steadfastly refused to bring to book even one of its nationals responsible for plotting the Mumbai attacks.

To top it all, Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu chose the 10th anniversary of 26/11 to applaud Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan for his role in initiating the corridor. "The real credit for the corridor goes to Imran, and also to the people, who prayed for several years for its construction," Sidhu was quoted as saying by News18.

The Kartarpur corridor and 26/11 attacks might seem like two different issues, but to praise the prime minister of a nation that uses terrorist proxies against India to undermine its sovereignty on the very day India is remembering the victims of the ghastly terror attack sponsored by Pakistan, speaks of a special kind of insensitivity.

As long as vote-bank politics (the chief reason behind India’s Kartarpur move) shapes India's response on terrorism and internal security, India will remain underprepared to tackle the scourge of terrorism. The lack of premium that India places on the lives of its citizens should outrage us.

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Updated Date: Nov 29, 2018 14:56:02 IST

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