Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Deadly Confusion

Commandos do not normally address press conferences. Like spies, special operations units are supposed to work in the shadows: after the daring, successful, rescue of Israeli hostages in Entebbe in the ’70s, the leader of the rescue mission was persuaded to speak, but was never pleased about having to. So the sight of the black-clad, black-masked men of the navy’s MARCOS — who, according to military legend, do not even tell their families that they have been re-assigned to the Marine Commando Force — taking questions from hordes of reporters was disconcerting. And what was even more jarring: they had been wheeled out in front of the cameras before the operation of which they were technically a part had even been completed; and definitely before it could be declared a “success”, whatever that word would mean in this tragic context.
But this combination of tone-deafness and over-compensation seems to have characterised the response of the navy, and to an extent the other security services, to this tragedy. That the navy’s commandos stepped in quickly when the police were stunned by the magnitude of the assault is something we should be thankful for; but there are less palatable aspects of the last few days that we cannot overlook for ever. The sight of senior navy officers declaring that of course the Mumbai harbour would be insecure — because of the Navy’s own disputes with the Coast Guard; of credit-grabbing press conferences, and attempts by all the services to get in a word with the media while the National Security Guard was still mopping up resistance; of the chief of Southern Naval Command, saying that “we very strongly suspect such a thing can happen” when asked about links between the terrorist strikes and Somalian pirates, of all things. This reflects a genuine confusion, strategic and tactical. Tactically, there was no single command structure for the operations being conducted since Wednesday night; this led to delays, crossed connections and redundancies, the cost of each of which could be measured in lives. The army, the navy and the police were running chains of command parallel to the NSG. Strategically, the security of the harbour, India’s territorial waters and the coastline is divided up between the Customs, woefully under-weaponed; the Coast Guard, always smarting under what it sees as stepmotherly treatment and with designs on being a brown-water force; and the navy. Through the gaps in this structure the terrorists may have sailed to Colaba, making landfall dangerously close to the navy’s sheathed sword, the submarines of Western Command. In 1993, there was an outcry when 800 kg of RDX landed on the Indian coast and destabilised Mumbai. What’s changed since then? And who’s accountable if it hasn’t?


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