Monday, March 02, 2009
The United Progressive Alliance government’s recent approach to terrorism has been both muscular and active. A great deal of credit must go to the man who was appointed as the single-point counter-terrorism leader in the wake of Mumbai — Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram.
Things are still happening in a command fashion — orders going from top to down. But that is because for a long time nothing was happening. Everything was being dissolved into committees and task-forces. Hopefully, after the emergency surgery, the government will have the foresight to grow durable institutionalized arrangements.
A new National Investigation Agency has been created to deal with terrorist crime and a draconian legislative framework to deal with terrorism approved. Actions frozen for the past four years were unfrozen. In response to a question in Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Chidambaram noted that the country’s “level of preparedness is higher than it was three months ago.” He added that “by March 31, there will be better coordination between Multi-Agency Centre and its subsidiaries, and also between MAC and special branches of state police and various data centres.”
He also spoke of better equipment for the armed forces and the paramilitary, and observed that the country had strengthened its coastal security in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
These are brave words, but necessary, given the trauma the country faced when Mumbai was attacked. For sixty hours, a gang of gunmen fought off India’s elite National Security Guard and we had to witness the agony of thousands who lost their near and dear ones in the carnage and of the hundreds who had been injured.
The NSG cannot be blamed-— neither through doctrine, training or equipment were they in a position to deal with the situation effectively. The overwhelming sense that came out of the traumatic days was of helplessness and humiliation, compounded by the fact that no one seemed to be in-charge, either in Mumbai or in New Delhi.
There is a real and present danger of a recurrence of a Mumbai-type event. A great deal depends on whether the recent steps taken to heighten our security work, and the extent to which the promised Pakistani actions against the terrorist masterminds and handlers on their soil disrupt their activities.
The transcripts of conversations between the terrorists and their handlers released by the authorities reveal the almost puppet-like control that was exercised by the handlers in Pakistan. Because this had to be done over unsecured communications networks, this could not have been a preferred situation but one mandated by the circumstances.
And what were they? The Lashkar leadership had a bold and ruthless plan, and they had a set of well-trained and motivated killers. The problem was that most of them —carefully nurtured within Pakistan for security reasons — were semi-literate and not very capable of functioning autonomously. For them to understand the layout of a modern hotel, or function in a modern city, would be difficult. Whatever independent thinking they may have had was wiped out by systematic brainwashing to make them into effective and remorseless killing machines.
If Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, Zarrar Shah & Co are truly out of commission, then it should make it difficult for the Lashkar to mount a similar operation in a hurry. If not, we can anticipate another strike. But we do not know where it will be, or what it would involve.
Having failed in their mission to provoke war between India and Pakistan in November, the masterminds will strive to carry out a more horrific attack, one that would make it difficult for the government to display the kind of restraint it did in the wake of Mumbai.
Given the Indian way of doing things, the biggest danger we confront is complacency. Having put a number of key measures to secure the county’s land and maritime boundaries, to get more effective intelligence coordination and unblocked money held up for vital defence and security needs, the government may well feel satisfied. But we are far from being home and dry.
New institutions and arrangements require time and training to become effective. The new maritime arrangements, the MAC and all the other good things the government has done have to not just be there as new signboards but must be made battle-worthy and battle-ready through training and retraining and tested on the ground.
Then, in pushing new measures Mr. Chidambaram has knocked a great number of heads. The normal tendency is that once the political ankush (goad) is withdrawn, the bureaucratic worms again crawl out of the woodwork and things soon return to normal. After Kargil and the Parliament House attack — the two defining national security disasters of the National Democratic Alliance period — the government carried out an unprecedented and long-overdue exercise to overhaul the country’s defence management system. But the incoming UPA put everything into the deep freeze.
It was declaratively allergic to stringent counter-terrorist legislation and was not particularly eager to have an NIA, and it had a somnolent Shivraj Patil as its Home Minister. Worse, with M.K. Narayanan, an old spook appointed the national security czar, all steps towards restructuring and reform died out.
The MAC should have been functioning by 2004. Narayanan did nothing about it, nor did he permit the National Technical Research Organisation to constitute itself in a manner it should have to carry out its high-tech surveillance mandate. The R&AW reached a nadir of sorts, and the government simply looked the other way.
Mr. Chidambaram’s timetable of March-end is determined either through the habit of a finance minister, or it is politically driven by the fact that the government will more or less end its term by then. But the country cannot afford to go by that timeline. An effective and agile counter-terrorist machine cannot be built in a matter of months; given our past sloth it could take years. And we need to take several other longer-term steps to be able to put up impregnable defences.
First, reconstruct our relations with Pakistan by resolving outstanding disputes and building international pressure on Islamabad to make the paradigm shift away from using terrorism as an instrument of state policy.
Second, draw out the poison out of our inter-communal situation, especially in Gujarat and Maharashtra. This needs active intervention by the state and central government in building bridges with the Muslim community.
Third, overhaul the armed forces so that the enormous treasure we spend on their upkeep is justified by having a balanced and powerful military, one that can provide more options than were available to the government this time.
Fourth, create new centre-state compacts to promote greater synergy in the functioning of not just their intelligence agencies, and home and police departments, but in the joint working of the central and state governments as such.
Fifth, encourage inter-governmental, community and citizen participation in intelligence-gathering and analysis. Sometime bits and pieces of information are floating around at various levels, but it takes a clever intelligence service to pull all the strings together. In 1965, when the Army moved towards Lahore, they had no maps of Pakistan’s Icchhogil canal; the maps were available — with our Punjab state’s irrigation department.
Sixth, put in place a culture of leadership. Wars are fought by generals in a command fashion, and not by committee. Crisis management groups sound impressive, but they are usually ineffective.
Seventh, unlearn the “indigenous” mantra that has led to the police-bureaucracy-technocracy complex believing that they can do everything at home; they can’t. And their failure has led to countless problems ranging from the lack of a good Indian fighter and battle-tank to an inadequately equipped and trained counter-terrorist force.
Eighth, abandon belief that an announcement is tantamount to an achievement. We have announced the creation of the NIA, MAC, etc. What we now need is to make sure they work, and work well.
Everything must be subordinated to one goal: There must never be another Mumbai again.
This article appeared in Mail Today February 28, 2009