November 29, 2011

Combating terrorism: three years after 26/11

By Col. R. Hariharan

How is India’s war on terror going on three years after 26-11 Mumbai attacks? Like the proverbial curate’s eggs it is good in parts, while bad otherwise.

But overall, it would be realistic to call it “limping.” In a nutshell, at the Central level the progress is somewhat better while at the state level it is uneven and tardy. At the operational level halting progress has been made in structural mechanisms and in force levels. Leadership drive and commitment to fight terrorism demonstrated in the U.S. after 9/11 attack is missing here. Even well-thought out plans continue to be hobbled by the deadweight of political priorities and considerations, rather than real time needs of counter terrorism.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking at the annual conference of the State police chiefs and Inspectors-General of Police at New Delhi on September 15, 2011 gave an overview of the progress India has so far made in combating terror. He said, “The security environment in the country continues to be uncertain. The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai and Delhi are grim reminders of the grave challenges posed by terrorism to our national security. Over the last one year, Left wing extremism has also claimed the lives of many innocent persons and police personnel.” It is doubtful whether the situation has actually improved since he made the statement.

After the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Dr Manmohan Singh had said he would “take the strongest possible measures to ensure that there is no repetition of such terrorist acts.” So three years later, when the Prime Minister speaks of uncertain security environment, it can only be construed as an expression of helplessness in getting the act together to fight terrorism.

It must have been a painful experience for the Home Minister P Chidambaram to speak at the same conference barely eight days after a terrorist strike in New Delhi. This was evident in his candid comment: “Today, we do not have an organisation devoting its whole time and energy to that task. I hope to secure a government decision on setting up the NCTC [National Counter Terrorism Centre]. Once there is a decision, I am confident that the core team of the NCTC can be installed within 60 days, and the full structure can be put together within 12-18 months.”

Apparently, the Home Minister has now revised his 2009 estimate of getting the NCTC going by the end of 2009 to more realistic levels. The proposal is still bogged down as stakeholders have not been able to overcome their reservations about the concept and its fall out on their domains. Given this situation, perhaps we have to look at a new game plan.

While the NCTC is yet to make progress, the Home Minister had been able to get through his pet database project - the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). In June 2011, the Cabinet Committee on Security approved the proposal for creating the NATGRID. The NATGRID conceived after 26/11 attack is designed to consolidate and make searchable data gathered by existing security and law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorist activity within the country. P. Raghu Raman, An ex-Army officer and former head of Mahindra Special Services Group, a corporate security consulting firm, has been appointed chief executive officer of the agency.

The hard truth is that our security environment continues to remain uncertain because we do not have the will to translate our thoughts into plans and turn plans into action. One cannot entirely blame the Home Minister or the Prime Minister alone for this state of affairs, because there is a lack of national goal convergence on the issue of fighting terrorism.

As the Home Minister quoted in his speech a phrase from the National Strategy for Counter Terrorism published by the US Government in June 2011, the goal must be “to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat”. In our country even in achieving this simple goal there are differences in many strands of the nation: between the Centre and states, political parties, among bureaucracy, civil society et al. While this is to be expected in a country with so many complexities like India, the real ability of a nation lies in rising up to meet an existential challenge like terrorism. Unfortunately, the country has so far not been able to do this.

But ultimately the responsibility rests with New Delhi as it is a national leadership issue. The core problem in handling terrorism is lack of political will rather than administrative lethargy. In this context, the reaction of some of the political leaders to the September 7 New Delhi terror strike was revealing. Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s statement in parliament on the day of the attack was typical. He said: “whenever there is a terror act, a particular community is looked at with suspicion. This is not good. It should stop. It is dangerous. It has happened several times and this still continues.” This is how a major terrorist attack is politically viewed even as the wounded were fighting for their life.

As terrorism analyst Ajai Sahni says, “The real political response to the challenge of terrorism in India has been posturing, diversion and deception. The approach has never been pragmatic, seeking, in good faith to solve a problem, which has been assessed within realistic parameters. Rather, the effort has been to politically exploit both the problem and its purported resolution, or to deflect criticism however this may be possible...”

The politicians are unlikely to change their style and culture unless the twin drivers of powerful national leadership and strong public opinion push them. The momentum generated by 26/11 attack created such a feeling which is petering out. The inept ministers who had to quit in its wake, are back in cosy positions of power now. And politicians are still not tired of talking about the actions they would take at every anniversary of 26/11 attacks.

At the state level, lack of effective policing - the first line of defence in combating terrorism - continues to be our weakest link. According to the Home Minister, states were not pulling their weight in making their police forces viable entities to fight terrorism. There were still over 500,000 vacancies in State police forces although funds have been allotted to states to recruit them. Many states have not enacted the new Police Act; nor have they set up the State Police Establishment Board. Not all states have adopted the Transparent Recruitment Process. This is the state of affairs in spite of the Department of Police Modernisation at the Union Home Ministry doing all the paper work full of ideas to make the states' job easy.

Poor progress made in coastal security is a typical example of the pedestrian approach to the problem at the state government level. Expensive boats provided by the Centre for coastal police are rotting on the beaches as there are no police personnel to man them at sea. Coastal police do not have adequate infrastructure despite Centre’s financial allocation. Police personnel with no aptitude for the job continue to be posted to these forces.

These reflect lack of leadership commitment. And that can be traced to the reluctance of our leaders to give up the use of police force as an instrument of political power, and at times even as a private army.

The Jihadi terrorism in Af-Pak region is poised to be stepped up even as American and NATO forces start pulling out of Afghanistan. The temptation for Taliban to scale up the operations is likely to grow even during the thinning out process. And as India and Afghanistan have a strategic security agreement India is also likely to be involved in the Afghan conflict regardless of its own reservations. With Pakistan locked up in its own internal dilemmas in handling Jihadi terrorism, anti-Indian terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are likely to expand their activity in India.

Already the extremist and terrorism scene in India is undergoing a change with Indian Jihadi terrorists coming into full flow. In addition to their Pak connections, they are networked across the length and breadth of India. There are also a few other disturbing trends noticeable. After the recovery of a car laden with explosives in Ambala in October, there is apprehension that it was part of a joint plot of LeT and Babbar Khalsa (the Sikh extremist group that had been subdued) for carrying out terror strikes in New Delhi. Talking to the media, Defence Minister AK Antony had called this incident as the tip of an iceberg and cautioned “We have to be alert 24/7 along both the land borders and coast lines.”

In the Northeast, Manipur extremist groups have shifted to sanctuaries in Myanmar after Bangladesh started taking action to throw them out of its soil. There are reports of Maoists seeking the assistance of United Liberation Force of Assam (ULFA) holed up in Myanmar for procuring arms. Of course, the shadowy support of Pak ISI continues to be reported in the activities of extremist groups in Northeast.

In this emerging environment, the nation cannot be complacent about its counter terrorism machinery. Present apathy will change only when the public demand greater transparency and accountability from political leaders and government. Otherwise, the public and political leaders may well be shaken up with jolts of few more terror strikes to bring them back to reality. And the nation simply cannot afford it.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail:

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