The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lessons From and For Mumbai

The lesson for the United States from Mumbai India is that the specter of terrorism never rests, even during a world economic crisis. Yet contemporary U.S. history regarding terrorism holds valuable lessons for both India and Pakistan in their immediate crisis.

Some are already calling these attacks the “September 11 of India” and with good reason. A mere nine or ten men, armed with automatic weapons, carried out a rampage that lasted three days and ended with one hundred seventy-two dead and two hundred thirty-nine wounded.

The one terrorist captured by India police, Pakistani national Azam Amir Kasab, claimed he and his comrades received commando-style training in a camp run by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group. Kasab further claimed the group launched their operations, via boat, from the Pakistan port city of Karachi.

These revelations led to heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, despite recent concord between the two nations following a long-standing bitter dispute over the border province of Kashmir.

India has three lessons to learn from the United States. The first is that terrorists do not succeed because homeland security cannot prevent attacks by a well-prepared commando cell. Al-Qaida succeeded on September 11 because the U.S. was ill prepared, not the least of which was the inability of most citizens to even imagine a crime of such magnitude.

Likewise, the lack of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since then has less to do with wars in Afghanistan or Iraq and more with better homeland security. This includes significant security restrictions for commercial airline flights as well as general increased vigilance by most Americans, albeit sometimes at the cost of (unintentional) racist profiling against young Arabic-looking men.

Granted, the attackers of Mumbai clearly knew what they were doing. Upon entering the city, they quickly fanned out in small groups of two or three. They attacked numerous secondary targets as diversions, in order to allow them to converge on their three primary targets – a Jewish center and two luxury hotels.

Yet much of the relative ease with which they struck Mumbai was due to the woeful lack of preparedness among its security forces, sometimes shockingly so.

The terrorists infiltrated the city not by land but by sea, along India’s poorly guarded coast. Their landing spot at a fishing colony near Badhwar Park was well chosen. “It's a slum area. We didn't think to protect it,” admitted a police officer.

Once the shooting began, city police, the first responders, had mainly batons or antiquated rifles as weapons. They wore ill-fitting bulletproof vests, improperly fastened, that terrorist bullets easily penetrated. Few had two-way radios to communicate.

Despite a population of eighteen million, Mumbai lacked a SWAT team. The nearest such unit, the National Security Guards in New Delhi, took nearly ten hours to reach the scene once contacted. Even these commandos lacked proper equipment, such as night vision goggles and thermal sensors that would have allowed them to locate the hostages and gunmen inside buildings. As a result, their sorties against the terrorist strongholds were arduously slow and costly, rather than swift and effective.

The bottom line – “These guys could do it next week again in Mumbai and our responses would be exactly the same,” said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. India must fix its home defenses before going on the offense.

The second lesson for India from recent U.S. experience is to understand the terrorist’s true motivations. Al-Qaida did not pick its targets on September 11 for reasons so simplistic as “they hate our freedoms.” Instead, Washington D.C. and New York, in particular, were selected because they represented the epitome of what Islamic fundamentalists see as the worst of the West’s vices and excesses.

Similarly, terrorists have targeted Mumbai frequently because, like New York, it is a highly cosmopolitan city, in which people satisfy and indulge their wants and needs both openly and with little remorse. This does not excuse the terrorists for their crimes but it is foolish to believe we can combat the sources of extremist-inspired violence and reform its (potential) practitioners without correctly understanding the true nature of their discontents and motivations.

The third lesson for India from the U.S. is to avoid confusing threat containment with a desire for vengeance. Terrorists trained in Pakistan are a serious situation that warrants further investigation and possible response. However, they are not necessarily synonymous with state-sponsored terrorism against India by Pakistan.

It is common knowledge the Pakistani intelligence service first created Lashkar-e-Taiba to help fight India in Kashmir Province. However, Pakistan also banned the organization in 2002 after the U.S. and Britain listed it as a terrorist group.

Although subsequently emerging under another name, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, this faction has denied links to the Mumbai attack. The possibility of a splinter group, separate from Pakistan control or proxy is not beyond question.

What is more, even in its grief and outrage, India must look hard within during its investigations. As the subway bombers in Great Britain demonstrate, foreign extremists may be the catalysts but terrorists are all too often homegrown creations. India has a population of 140 million Muslims, many of whom suffer from under-representation at economic, political and social levels, leaving them disaffected and vulnerable to manipulation.

The fact that at least some of the terrorists spoke Hindi suggests they may have lived in India for some time at a minimum.

There are lessons for Pakistan too. The first comes from Iraq and involves the need for candidness and cooperation. Despite public outcry, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has so far shown gratifying restraint by not formally connecting Pakistan’s government to the attacks or launching retaliatory measures against it.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, dispatched by President Bush to help mediate the situation, warned Pakistan to provide complete cooperation with India’s investigations. Pakistan’s initial response was equally gratifying, promising to send the new chief of their powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, to India.

Unfortunately, Pakistan quickly withdrew their offer and announced a lower-level intelligence official would go to India “at some point.” Since then, they have taken to sputtering defensive denials. “We have demanded evidence of the complicity of any Pakistani group. No evidence has yet been provided,” said a spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Zardari.

Pakistan may be as innocent as it claims but that only increases the need for its openness, no mater how hostile India’s posturing. Failure to assist investigations, regardless of where they may lead, will only cause the international community to look upon Pakistan skeptically and perhaps even provocatively.

The second lesson for Pakistan comes from the U.S. and involves not losing sight of the real enemy through the diversion of a second (unnecessary) war. Despite ongoing efforts there, the U.S. practically deserted Afghanistan in order to divert troops to Iraq. If Pakistan increases troop levels at their border with India, it only comes at the cost of weakening the troops attempting to root out and destroy Taliban and al-Qaida forces on their border with Afghanistan.

In the high emotions of coming days following the Mumbai massacre, India must shore up its defenses as well as practice fairness and restraint, while Pakistan must practice transparency and cooperation. The United States and Iraq both failed in our own practice of these roles during UN weapons inspections, at great cost to both nations.

If investigations reveal the Pakistan government had a formal, official role in these attacks, a very new situation will emerge, requiring a very different type and level of response by India and the U.S. as it’s ally.

However, while such worse-case scenarios remain speculation rather than proven fact, it is better to proceed with the model put forth by Princeton professor and former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach, who holds we must consider the Mumbai attack “not as an act of war but as an act of barbarism.” These two long-standing adversaries now share a common enemy. They must team up to defeat it rather than fight among themselves.

There is no better example than the lesson of the U.S. in Iraq to demonstrate that obliterating even a genuinely evil regime results in few gains, dearly paid for, when it causes us to lose sight of the core battle.

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