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Heeding The Warnings Of Mumbai

Candles outside the Taj Mahal Hotel, site of one of the bloodiest attacks

Candles outside the Taj Mahal Hotel, site of one of the bloodiest attacks

If the success of the 1999 hijacking of an Indian commercial aircraft to Kandahar emboldened the international jihad sufficiently to launch the September 11, 2001, terrorist operation against the United States, last week's Mumbai attacks may give them the oxygen needed to carry out similar operations in the United States or the European Union.

Five squads of highly trained "terror commandos" killed over 170 civilians at 11 locations in Mumbai within hours of landing at the city waterfront, possibly from Pakistan. Associates were awaiting them within the target locations, pointing them to civilian clusters and providing them with additional information and ordnance. The unarmed and unsuspecting civilians at those locations proved to be sitting ducks for the gunmen, who showed as little moral hesitation in killing them as SS death squads did during World War II. Today, a new Nazi-like party, a new Nazi-like force, has risen, complete with an ideology preaching hatred of "the other" and global domination. It will need to be fought the same way fascism was during World War II -- by a united world pooling its resources and talents to combat a recognized common enemy

The difference between the Nazis and the international jihadists is that the latter are not concentrated in a single country, but form what may be described as a "Terror Archipelago" spread across several countries. The headquarters is in Pakistan, a country where terror and the related trade in narcotics has resulted in a good living for hundreds of thousands of recruits. This is where the "head of the snake" is to be found, and unless it is rooted out directly, hacking away at the tail will at best gain the world a brief respite before the terrorists return in force. Those who have fallen under the sway of this terrorist ideology are capable of morphing rapidly, changing names, tactics, and locations to escape retribution. The world has its work cut out for it.

But first, what does India need to do? What mistakes were committed by successive governments in the world's largest democracy that combined to make India the softest terrorist target among the major democracies, a country where terrorists use loopholes in the legal state to escape prosecution or punishment, and where police methods are primitive? Although the Indian military has emerged as an effective fighting force against terrorists operating in regions such as Kashmir, the country's police are badly paid, poorly trained, and under-motivated. Corruption within the police force serves as an entry hatch for terrorists not intelligent enough to find their way through the country's other numerous security gaps.

It would have been amusing -- were it not so tragic -- to watch as Mumbai's potbellied police officers lumbered into the Taj and Trident hotels with their 1960s-model carbines to battle terrorists armed with grenade launchers and modern assault weapons. Combating terrorism is very different from tackling ordinary crime, and the force tasked with this needs special equipment and training, something that India has refused to provide thus far, despite being a front-line state in the war on terror since the 1980s. Even the National Security Guard (NSG), formed as the country's crack counterterrorism force, must depend on local police for vehicles and lacks any airborne or seaborne capability.

In the case of the Mumbai attacks, NSG commandos lost nearly 20 hours between alarm and action, time that drained them physically and which might well have been used to take out the terrorists before so many civilians had been killed. Local police arranged for their transportation in city buses, hardly the safest or most efficient means of getting an elite squad to the zone of operations. Although the Maharashtra regional government has aircraft for the transport of VIPs, it does not have a single police helicopter or any coastal patrol craft, despite the security threats the region's coastline presents.

Indian soldiers hold a position during gunbattle at the Taj Mahal Hotel on November 29.
Around the target locations, crowd control was not even attempted, creating obstacles to the speedy entry and exit of security forces. In addition, the presence of the crowds forced security officials to make certain the terrorists remained confined in a way that prevented them from spraying the civilians with automatic-weapons fire -- measures that also cost time and lives.

In addition to the creation of a special police unit devoted to going after identified terrorists, India needs to ensure that political correctness does not stand in the way of combating terrorism. Especially since a communist-supported national government took office in 2004, police have been barred from entering certain locations identified as terrorist shelters for fear of being accused by human rights activists of profiling. As a result, several important cities in India -- including Mumbai, Lucknow, Chennai, and Hyderabad -- have become virtual safe havens for terrorists. Hopefully, not for much longer.

Also, reform within the police is badly needed to ensure that political interference in its work is reduced. The reforms must also target endemic corruption, which too often enables terrorists to make their way through security screens. Does the country have the political will necessary for such reform? If not, India will continue to pay a heavy price in lost growth and lives.

Sadly, neither in India nor in most other democracies have governments done enough to educate the public about how individual citizens can help stamp out terrorism. Citizens need to be educated about potentially suspicious activity and about how to make sure vital information gets to the appropriate authorities. Doing this easier if democracy is strengthened as well, if a state is democratic, secular, and has the confidence of the population, if there is no discrimination on grounds of faith, ethnicity, or social class. In a very real way, the best defense against terrorism is a free society.

The rest of the world also needs to heed the wake-up call of Mumbai. It must look toward those locations where terrorists up to now have been allowed to operate and make sure such assistance is halted. In the case of Pakistan, there are several known terrorist training camps there that the military not only refuses to liquidate, but actually proactively assists. Because of this help, the international community -- particularly coalition forces in Afghanistan -- are subject to terrorist attacks.

Screen grab from India's NDTV showing a man carrying an automatic rifle as he enters a Mumbai train station on November 26.
Unless the Pakistani military is brought under civilian control, and is cleansed of the jihadist elements within its officer corps, the war on terror cannot be won. World governments need to do much, much more to ensure that the elected government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari establishes the same control over the military as civilian leaders in the United States and India have. Sadly, not only has this not even been attempted, but the civilian-scorning Pakistani military has been cosseted and showered with assistance, despite its disastrous record in the war on terror. If Pakistan is to be ever freed of terror, the elected government must be freed from the death-grip of a military that has "jihad" as its official motto.

Because many of those killed in Mumbai were affluent, the elite in India has at last awakened to the reality of terrorism. Over the past five years, more than 2,000 lives have been lost because of terrorist-related activities just in Maharashtra, yet little has been done because the victims were almost all poor and dispossessed. Now that the terrorists have struck at India's billionaires and millionaires, perhaps the elites will finally take action to reduce the country's vulnerability. Unless the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks -- whoever they are and wherever they may be -- are identified and punished, this tragedy will be followed by similar attacks in the West as surely as the Kandahar hijacking (during which key terrorist leaders were released in exchange for hostages) was the precursor to 9/11.

M. D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair and is a director of the Department of Geopolitics at Manipal University in Southern India. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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