Thinking about Mumbai: India’s test

A well-informed friend who has been following events in Mumbai this past week offers the following reflections:

If Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies wanted to serve a reminder that they declared World War IV on the civilized world (to borrow Norman Podhoretz’s formulation), they did so this week when they brazenly attacked the epicenter of the world’s fastest-growing economy, targeting Westerners and assassinating key enforcers of the anti-terror law enforcement network in Mumbai, India.

The terrorist attacks on India’s commercial center, the bustling 19 million person city of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), must serve as a wake-up call to a lethargic and infighting Indian government that has thus far failed to respond aggressively to a series of deadly attacks on Indian soil. Indeed, in over a dozen attacks on India over the past four years, no nation except Iraq has lost more of its people to terrorist attacks. And no less than the battle for Iraq, the battle for India must be won if civilized, democratic, free market economies are to triumph over terrorists.

Sadly, the Indian government has failed its own people in this battle because of infighting, political corruption, and a failure of courageous leadership. But given India’s exploding economy — with an astonishing average growth rate of 8% over the past four years — in a nation that is soon to be the most populous country in the world, Indian leaders can no longer underestimate the threat terrorists pose to India’s security and prosperity. The Indian government must take aggressive action to ensure security on the ground, develop a legal framework to prevent future attacks, and create regional alliances to be a true global partner in the long-term war on terror.

The failure of security on the ground was tragically evident in the three days it took for Indian security forces to reclaim authority over their own streets. With nary a word of authority or assurance from the Indian government in the critical first day of the attacks, terrorists were able to project to the world searing images of an international city under siege — in some ways, the terrorists’ most potent weapon. India is woefully underprotected from even the most rudimentary attack.

Indians have only 126 policemen for every 100,000 nationals (about half the United Nations average), the thousands of miles of Indian coastline on the Indian Ocean are guarded by mere hundreds of security forces (local authorities have pleaded for an infusion of many thousands), and the Indian navy has no large-scale presence in patrolling the country’s coastlines. Indeed, initial reports suggest that the terrorists entered India by sea, at one point using inflatable rubber rafts to casually float through the historic Gateway of India, undetected and undeterred by any security forces. India must enhance its military and police presence throughout the country, but especially along its borders.

The war on terror is first and foremost a war of intelligence-gathering. With a plot as methodical as the one executed in Mumbai, Indian intelligence should have intercepted terrorists’ communications and operations. No such thing happened, in part perhaps because India, famously bureaucratic, has no legal or intelligence framework with which to deal with the terror network.

There is no national agency to address the terror threat; competing smaller jurisdictions do the best they can with local information. There is no central database via which Indian authorities may share information with each other and allied nations. And there is no national law that gives police and prosecutors the basic tools to use innovative techniques (including national wiretap authority and investigative detention) to root out terrorist plots.

Several attempts to create central and national authority have been rebuffed by Indian politicians. Yet, Indians have emerged as the world’s leaders in information technology and software engineering. The Indian professional class is intellectually sophisticated, multilingual, and industrious. The government should tap into the human resources their own rising people provide in creating the legal, intelligence-based framework to protect their homeland, and this work must be the first priority in the days and weeks ahead.

Finally, India has no strong partners in its war against terrorism. The world’s largest democracy is surrounded by hostile neighbors, including Pakistan (with which it has fought three wars and continues to engage in a war of words regarding the Indian territory of Kashmir), Sri Lanka (home of the Tamil Tigers, whose operatives assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991), and Communist China (which invaded Indian territory in 1962, sparking war). Strategic alliances are in India’s long-term interests. After its independence and throughout the Cold War, India famously took a position of non-alliance; more currently, India has flirted with Iran’s reckless dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Such feckless foreign policy is not in India’s long-term interest. Instead, India should look to other democracies with which it can create regional alliances and information-sharing networks — notably the United States and Israel, both countries with which India has sometimes been chilly — who can together exert pressure on the epicenter of the problem — namely, the world’s most infamous terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, who is in all likelihood hiding out in the mountains of Pakistan.

Which brings us to the most serious and threatening aspect of the delicate tightrope New Delhi must walk in shutting down terrorism in India: Pakistan. Already, reports have surfaced that some of the captured terrorists are Pakistani nationals, were in communication with individuals in Karachi even as the attacks were unfolding, and had been trained in Pakistani war camps. American counterterrorism officials have been quoted saying that Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that carried out the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, was behind the Mumbai attack. Lashkar-e-Taiba has in the past received training and support from Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-services Intelligence (I.S.I.).

Meanwhile the government of Pakistan shows no sign of controlling its own army or I.S.I, which the Indian government has also fingered as fomenting terrorist plots against India. This situation is most worrisome of all, and the anger on the streets on India is palpable and rising. This energy should be quickly harnessed to create a sense of unified purpose in fighting a common enemy lest it degenerate into mass unrest.

Here, the United States can and should take leadership. Pakistan’s government is propped up by American money and support (as well as International Monetary Fund financing) as a “reward” for what in fact has been Pakistan’s largely nominal help in the war on terror. It is high time for the Pakistanis to take responsibility for the terrorist breeding grounds in that highly unstable country, or lose the American and international support that is keeping it on life support. Such a course would require the demonstration of American backbone as well, as this country too, is walking a tightrope in dealing with an Islamic nation that possesses 90 nuclear weapons.

And it is well past time for the Indian government to take the internal and external steps to reforming its own lackadaisical response to the terror machine. For the sake of a great people who have the potential to be a tremendous power for good, as well as for the civilized world, we hope the Indian government is up to the challenge.

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