India is unprepared for urban guerilla warfare-qua-terrorism. This much was proved by the walk-by/drive-by shooting sprees followed by the south Mumbai hotel sieges. Many of the disembarked terrorists are still on the loose and, courtesy the support of the Dawood Ibrahim crime syndicate, more murder and mayhem may be on the way.

A former director general of the National Security Guard (NSG), A.K. Mitra, reflecting the passive, defensive and reactive thinking rife in official circles, said on television that terrorists have “the option of being proactive" which luxury, he implied, is unavailable to the state and thus revealed the reasons why India has been rendered an easy terrorist target.

Mumbai was waiting to happen. National security reforms are needed to prevent future attacks. Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg

The Indian system is inefficient and ineffective because it is overly bureaucratized and works in a compartmentalized fashion. In the national security sphere, as in other fields, there is a profusion of agencies and institutions at local, state and Central levels, each separately fighting its own war and hence, geared to step on each other’s toes. Coordinated action and effective prophylactic measures become impossible.

With everyone responsible for tackling terrorism, nobody is responsible for anything and the job of actually taking on the terrorists is left for someone else to do. However, the existing arrangement, because it allows escape from accountability, is prized by bureaucrats and political leaders alike; the reason why systemic reform is unlikely. With the scene bereft of a single nodal authority tasked with all aspects of internal security—such as the Homeland Security Administration in the US, for instance—what obtains is the Mumbai fiasco. Barring the scale of extreme mismanagement, this was a routine occurrence of everything that could go wrong going wrong.

Consider this:

1) Elint (electronic intelligence) intercepts indicated a definite time frame in which an attack was coming. But lacking authoritative inter se prioritization and rating of this bit of “actionable intelligence" compared with previous such warnings, the boy crying “wolf" once too often syndrome took over and agencies downstream disregarded it. This explains why the triple-layered, overlapping, maritime defence ostensibly in place comprising the navy, the Coast Guard, and the marine police was mostly on paper.

Unmolested by any naval action to intercept, the terrorists sailed leisurely towards Mumbai. There was no sign anywhere of warships, alerted by the Elint-intercept, conducting radar sweeps conjointly with the navy and Coast Guard-run Dornier air surveillance sorties, or more intensive searches seaward by the naval and Coast Guard ships. The wonder is that in choosing to stage a spectacular event, a la the Islamabad Marriott, at the Taj and Trident hotels, the terrorists and their minders in Karachi missed out on a truly stupendous feat—that of doing a “Pearl Harbour"—sinking or disabling with powerful limpet mines and similar ordnance the bulk of the Indian Navy’s western fleet, featuring the most modern capital ships less than a kilometre away from the Gateway of India. That would have meant all-out war, and possibly a nuclear exchange ending in the certain extinction of Pakistan. Be thankful for intended or unintended mercies.

In this context, the facts that the navy did nothing and the Coast Guard were caught unawares or, alternatively, as a news report suggested, a Coast Guard boat commander accepted bribes to ensure safe passage for the terrorists—and that the marine police and the Mumbai Port Trust do not subscribe to 24/7 harbour and proximal inner water patrolling using search light-equipped armed patrol craft, are reduced to mere footnotes.

2) As is commonly seen when such disasters occur, just about everybody at every level of government and, notwithstanding the Elint message, even the intelligence agencies, appeared clueless and surprised. A root problem may be that in the aftermath of a 1997 directive to the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) by then prime minister Inder Gujral to cease and desist from activities inside Pakistan—and it is not certain this order has been countermanded—RAW assets and capabilities have been seriously degraded. Had it been otherwise, the first hints of this operation launched from Karachi would have reached Delhi early, and the operation supposedly supervised by the traditionally Inter-Services Intelligence-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba could have been scuppered at that end, or the terrorists apprehended at various points—on the high seas or in coastal waters, before they made landfall.

3) It is all very well to call in the army special forces and the mainly army-personnel-staffed Special Action Group (SAG) of the NSG, when the going gets tough. The trouble is all military special forces, including the marine commandos specializing in sea-borne action, are simply not trained in counter-urban terrorist guerilla warfare. That they lacked the necessary tactical skills was apparent from the operational haste the NSG displayed, resulting in terrorists being eliminated and civilians directly taken hostage being killed. In hostage situations, specialist commando generally “wait it out", tire out the terrorists, by using various sensors triangulate and “map" out the positions of the terrorist combatants on a real-time basis and, when opportunity presents itself, shoot to disable the terrorists. This is important because the premium is on subsequently interrogating these urban guerillas in order to generate information, data and actionable intelligence about their backgrounds, group antecedents, technical training programmes and material support infrastructure outside the country and social support bases inside India.

Instead, by the time the NSG was done, amid the smoke and the ruins lay dead bodies. The potentially vast corpus of information to help weed out fifth columnists was destroyed, as was the piling evidence regarding external assistance. In the event, a Mumbai-based NSG troop would only have hastened the eventual outcome. The reality is the NSG and other military special forces are trained in a version of basic infantry tactics which do not amount to tactical skills and competence in waging successful counter-urban guerilla terrorist operations.

A cadre of super-specialists is the surest bet, particularly one trained by Israeli military experts, who are the most experienced and the best in the business. The skill-sets of the special forces may be improved by these means, but without the political will to take hard decisions and to reform the whole system of intelligence, decision-making and implementation, little will be different the next time a similar crisis rolls around. It is time, moreover, for the NSG or, at least, its SAG (deployed in contingencies) to pass fully under the military’s control. For best results, this measure can blend into the urgent need to establish an independent special forces command in the defence ministry with all special forces under its control.

4) The 60-hour firefights could not have been possible without considerable caching of ammunition and other ordnance at pre-designated points within the two targeted hotels. The possibility of Lashkar fighters and sympathizers doing a reconnaissance in the months previous and, as reported, renting out rooms in the vicinity posing as Malaysian students reveals the deficiencies in the local policing system. The fact that these persons then checked into these hotels as guests or worked on the hotel staff reveals a fairly cavalier attitude of the hotel authorities in verifying the records of the people they hire and to checking the baggage of incoming guests (no X-ray machines or physical checking of baggage preceding entry into the hotel foyer). Further, it shows the negligence of the hotels in doing inspections as part of the daily clean-up detail of rooms to find goods such as cached RDX and ammunition.

There’s one other factor that is critical for success. Uruguay battling the Tupamaros and Argentina the Monteneros in the 1960s both realized what the US Homeland Security scheme, Russia fighting the Chechen insurgents in Grozny, and Israel have established: Success against the urban terrorist guerilla is predicated on “oppressive population control". The more aggressively potential sympathizers in a society are deterred from offering moral and material support to terrorists and would-be terrorists, the more effectively this threat can be quelled. Thus, for example, nowhere are residents and citizens with Muslim-sounding names under stricter surveillance than in the US, where there has been no incidence of extremist Islamic terror after 9/11.

What is urgently called for is more intrusive overt and covert policing of the minority community in India. This may be a politically onerous but unavoidable policy. The sting of the targeted approach can, however, be diluted by subsuming it in a system of more intense monitoring of the population at large.

Bharat Karnad is professor of National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Comments are welcome at