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Updated: April 5, 2010 23:41 IST

Lessons from 26/11

R. K. Raghavan
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The Hindu

The attack on Mumbai showed that we as a nation are inept when it comes to response to terrorism

The brutal attack on India's financial capital on the evening of November 26, 2008, like 9/11 in the United States, has spawned abundant literature, most of it bordering on the pedestrian and superficial. This book falls in that category. A compendium of talks delivered at a seminar held in Chandigarh within days of the Mumbai horror, it throws up little that is not already known. However, it deserves some consideration because of the eminence of the participants, who ranged from law enforcement officers and Army generals to academicians.

Inept

The attack on Mumbai demonstrated that we as a nation are inept when it comes to rapid response to terrorism. And this, nearly a decade after 9/11, which had been studied extensively over the years by experts the world over and relevant lessons learnt.

The New York City administration, notwithstanding a few minor shortcomings, rose to the occasion and organised quick rescue and relief. Unfortunately, one did not see this level of efficiency in Mumbai on that fateful November evening. Precious young police lives were lost, all because they did not wear quality bullet-proof clothing. Also, the head of the city police, by all accounts, just stuck to a corner and did not move around to take charge of an evolving crisis.

The fire engines were not allowed to approach the Taj Hotel in flames and the NSG commandos could not reach the city until hours after the attack because they were positioned a thousand miles away. And the terrorists holed up in the hotel continued with their defiant presence and held sway for an unbelievably long time, until all but one were killed.

The Home Ministry's decision to open regional hubs of the NSG as a response to the 26/11 fiasco is a right step. The Mumbai Police are also now better equipped in terms of weaponry and training. There is however still a lot of scepticism about how they will react to another terrorist attack, should one occur.

Intelligence failure

What was undoubtedly common to 9/11 and 26/11 was the failure of the intelligence machinery to predict the attacks. Terrorist groups are well aware of the inability of even the best of intelligence outfits, such as the Mossad of Israel, to anticipate an attack. This is so, because infiltration — the surest way of collecting live information on terrorist plans — into terrorist groups comprising motivated and fanatical individuals is next to impossible. Also, terrorists are so technical-savvy these days that they are adroit in using technology for communicating among themselves and executing attacks, taking care at the same time that their plans are not compromised by careless use of unprotected channels of communication.

The focus at the Chandigarh seminar was Pakistan, especially the question, how to blunt the edge of those whom that country protects and unleashes on its neighbour.

One of the suggestions was that India should take the war right into Pakistan. If it means that India should use drones the way U.S does, it is dangerous, and has far-reaching implications. The U.S. can get away with such a strategy, but not India, because of the immense harm it would cause to innocent civilian population and the risk of retaliation from an unscrupulous enemy and also of alienating international opinion.

The seminar participant who made the suggestion perhaps believed that desperate situations called for desperate remedies!

Negotiation

Some others were bitter that India, despite all the evidence of chicanery on the part of Pakistan, continued to engage the latter in negotiations. This criticism, again, is open to question because these are days of transparency, and international reputations are built on a nation's willingness to talk even with adversaries and explore ways of preserving peace. Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is an example, albeit held under the U.S. auspices, that can hardly be ignored.

New Delhi may not entertain Washington as an intermediary. But it can definitely keep talking to Islamabad, without giving up the right to retaliate whenever required. Simultaneously, there is need to keep improving the mechanisms to counter the terrorist activities of the LeT genre. There is no alternative to intelligent investment on security infrastructure. Most fundamental however is to carry civil society along in these efforts, mainly through imaginative sensitisation of citizens on what they can do in terms of making our public places more secure than they are now. In other words, security should become an obsession with them.

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