Preventing Another Mumbai Attack: Sumit Ganguly

For four days last November, 10 heavily armed young men affiliated with the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, wreaked havoc across Mumbai, leaving some 160 people dead, scores wounded, and much property damaged. The brutality of the attacks caused understandable popular outrage across much of India. Yet the official Indian response to the Pakistan-based attacks was remarkably restrained. Unlike America after 9/11, there has been no Indian war on terrorists, either at home or abroad. So as we approach the anniversary of this tragic event, it is worth asking why.

The reasons behind India's muted reaction are manifold: first, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is an econ-omist and a scholar. Befitting that background, he is inherently cautious and deliberative. So despite widespread calls for swift retaliation against Lashkar training camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, he chose to avoid any action until the siege had been brought to a close. Such restraint, however, came at a price: it gave Pakistan time to brace for an attack, which essentially foreclosed the possibility of a subsequent strike on Pakistan's military assets along the border because it eliminated the kind of element of surprise that would have been required.

Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that even if Singh had given the order to carry out a strike, it is far from clear that India's armed forces had the military capability to do so. Despite brushes with Pakistan-based terrorist groups as early as Dec. 13, 2001—when members of Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked the Indian Parliament building—India has still been unable to develop an effective counterterrorism strategy, or to build up the kind of defenses necessary to strike back. In the aftermath of the 2001 attack the government embarked upon a massive exercise in coercive diplomacy—a slow turning of the screw to get one's adversary to desist from hostile actions—designed to end Pakistan's support of a host of Islamist terrorist groups. The results, though, were ambiguous at best. Pakistan-sponsored terror abated but hardly came to a close.

Indian military planners then tried to fashion a new military strategy known as Cold Start, which called for coordinated assaults on targets within Pakistan without provoking a wider conflict and thereby invoking the risks of a nuclear war. Unfortunately, long after the initial efforts to forge such a strategy and pre-position appropriate forces, at the time of the Mumbai attacks India still did not possess attack helicopters stationed near border areas or troops with adequate training or firepower. Consequently, it had few viable military options even if the political leadership had chosen to act.

In large part, this problem is rooted in the organizational culture of Indian institutions, which can respond decisively in a crisis but have a habit of lapsing into lethargy the moment it has passed. For instance, India's 1991 economic reforms were downright impressive, but India's follow through was lackluster. This slackness ill suits a country still facing the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, India has undertaken some small steps to tighten domestic security. It has created a National Investigation Agency, an organization loosely modeled on the lines of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Its organizational mandate is sweeping, and it has jurisdiction across India, but for the first couple of months it did not even have a proper headquarters from which to operate. Along with this new agency, Indian officials have also located units of the elite National Security Guard commandos in the major metropolitan areas of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and New Delhi.

These institutional changes do not do enough to address the terrorist threats India faces nationwide. Local police forces remain woefully underequipped in terms of forensic and investigative capabilities, electronic surveillance, and even adequate firepower. During the initial phase of the Mumbai crisis, police constables arrived on the scene armed with bolt-action, single-shot, World War II-vintage rifles. Tackling the menace of terror will require India's policymakers to fill these critical gaps on a war footing. The lethargic approach that the country has long taken to addressing critical issues of domestic security simply invites the possibility of yet another disaster.