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India's response to attacks lays bare broader failures

Experts doubt that the premier's pledge to improve anti-terrorist tactics can reverse deep-seated troubles.

December 01, 2008|Mark Magnier | Magnier is a Times staff writer.

MUMBAI, INDIA — Facing mounting public anger over the response of his government and security forces to last week's assault on Mumbai, India's prime minister pledged Sunday to beef up anti-terrorism measures, and a top police official more pointedly fixed blame on a Pakistani group for the violence that left nearly 200 dead.

But analysts and ordinary citizens questioned whether the government's promise of reform would lead to serious changes in an approach whose systemic problems were laid bare by the assault.

"I'll be surprised if this is a wake-up call," said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "The government has proven quite adept at making statements after every act of terror and going back to business as usual."

The government promised Sunday to create an FBI-style agency and assign specially trained forces to four cities in addition to New Delhi. Early in the day, Home Minister Shivraj Patil resigned, taking "moral blame" for security lapses.

Police said the only gunman captured -- 10 others were killed -- had told authorities he belonged to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant Islamic group.

Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the assault on the city, Joint Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria told reporters Sunday, giving a high-ranking voice to previous Indian suggestions that the group was to blame.

Pakistan has denied any links to last week's attack. Western and Indian intelligence officials have long charged that rogue elements in Pakistani intelligence agencies used Lashkar and other militant groups as proxies in their conflict with India over the disputed Kashmir region.

Even as Indian officials focused on the possibility that India had been attacked from abroad, public anger raged at the response to the coordinated attacks launched Wednesday night. The assault on two top hotels, a restaurant, a Jewish center and other sites killed at least 174 people, including six Americans. The death toll was revised downward Sunday after authorities said some bodies were counted twice.

Students, Internet groups, social critics and the media have criticized the government for its failure to protect citizens. "Our Politicians Fiddle as Innocents Die," read a front-page headline in Sunday's Times of India.

Many analysts, former police and military officers and citizens said they feared that weak political will, corruption and the shortcomings of the nation's anti-terrorism forces would undermine needed reform. All too often, some observers said, terrorist incidents become political footballs for a variety of reasons.

For starters: With Muslims accounting for 13% of India's population, politicians tend to avoid pushing too hard against militant Islamists for fear of alienating this important voting bloc.

"The issue of anti-terrorism, especially around election time, is radioactive," said Ryan Clarke, a researcher with Singapore's International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, saying areas with large Muslim populations can play swing roles in close elections.

Another problem, others said, is that India's porous borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal and entry points along the coast make it easy to launch militant operations from a neighboring country and then slip away. Last week's attackers reportedly sneaked into the city aboard rubber dinghies launched from a hijacked fishing trawler.

"Mumbai has 15 patrol boats, and none of them are used for patrolling," said lawyer and former Mumbai policeman Y.P. Singh. "There's such complacency."

Security experts say individual police officers and national guard personnel performed bravely during last week's standoff. And some of the targets chosen by the militants, such as the vast Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, would challenge most security organizations. But these factors were far outweighed by deep structural problems, poor intelligence, inadequate equipment and limited training, they add.

Anti-terrorist operations ideally need to quickly and decisively respond. The longer officials wait, the more time terrorists have to wreak havoc and hole themselves up in defensive positions, experts say.

Mumbai lost three of its top anti-terrorism officials almost immediately when the violence began; they were gunned down as they rode together in a van. The three should not have been in the same vehicle, experts said, nor should they have exposed themselves to danger. Their loss badly handicapped the early response.

Mumbai has no equivalent of a SWAT team. It took hours to decide to send in the nation's rapid-response National Security Guards, based in New Delhi. The capital is three hours away by air, but no military aircraft were available and the unit evidently lacked authority to requisition a commercial plane. Military transport was flown in from elsewhere.

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