Wednesday, February 29, 2012

India, Dow & the Olympics

Much has been said about Dow Chemicals's sponsorship of the London Olympics. As two private organisations they are entitled to enter into any legal contract as they please.

There is of course a moral dilemma for Indian athletes at the London Games. Should they participate in an event that has accepted money from a company responsible for the most deadly chemical disaster in history? One that occured in India; one that continues to maim & kill.

I think the athletes should participate. But I also think there are ways to make a strong statement.

Why should we go? Well, for one, the Olympics were and always will be, first and last, about Sport. There is great honour in competing for your flag, even if you don't win. There is great pride in winning.

Indian athletes stand a better-than-ever chance of a good medal haul this year. Our boxers and wrestlers are in promising form. Our archers did well at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth games. Our shooters are world class. Our hockey team is rampant. In tennis and in badminton, we can be world champions on a good day. Play we must. Win we can.

Also, staying out of the London Games will invalidate all the sacrifices made by these athletes who have struggled to get here for their whole life, not just the past four years.

So what about Dow? There are many ways to make a statement.

No one remembers 'not seeing' the US contingent at the 1980 Moscow Games. But everyone remembers the powerful image of Tommie Smith & John Carlos raising black gloved fists on the winners' podium at the 1968 Mexico games. We remember that image because they came, they won and they expressed themselves powerfully.

India's athletes, who are well aware of the moral dilemma they find themselves in, can do something similar.

For starters, they can attend the opening ceremony with black armbands. Guaranteed press coverage the next day.

They may also play with these armbands. For sports where this can obstruct the athletes' performance such as swimming or gymnastics, etc. no one will complain should they choose not to wear them.

And, perhaps, a black armband on the winners' podium will resonate most of all.

India must go to London. India must also protest Dow's tainted history and its attempts to whitewash this. I believe both are possible.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How an NCTC could've prevented 26/11 the right way

Many people oppose the creation of the NCTC. Some say it will do nothing to curb terror. Others call it bureaucratic overkill: another agency on top of nearly two dozen others. Many talk of how the NCTC, in its current form, is anti-federal.

I agree with the last point, as long as the qualifier "in its current form" is added. I disagree with the first two. Using the 26/11 example, I will demonstrate how an NCTC could have stopped the attack WITHOUT "damaging" our federal structure.

Before I do, I've pulled excerpts from this excellent article by Shishir Gupta in the Indian Express, detailing the failures of our security apparatus before and during the 26/11attack.
His primary findings:
- In September 2008, the IB had intel about an LeT operation to take hostages at Mumbai hotels, including the Taj. 
- Eight days before the attack, R&AW received information about an LeT ship off the Indian coast, including its latitude and longitude. The Coast Guard only arrived three days later. It found nothing. 
- On the morning of 26/11 R&AW intercepted communications near the Bangladeshi border requesting for the activation of 10 SIM cards. The input went nowhere. 
- After the attack began, the Mumbai Police control room was found terribly wanting. This paralyzed the actions of first responders.
- With the situation now beyond its control. the Maharashtra government asked for help from navy Marine Commandos. They refused to intervene without written authorisation. 
- The NSG arrived 7 hours after the attacks began. They took over the operation a full five hours later. This was thanks to several procedural delays, including the lack of transport aircraft.

If the NCTC existed - and worked as I imagine it should - here's what could have happened.

I make three  assumptions here.
First, that the NCTC would receive all terror-related inputs from all intelligence agencies.
Second, that the NCTC can requisition any intelligence and offensive/defensive assets in pursuit of live intelligence.
Third, that the states would cooperate if intelligence was shared with them in a transparent manner, in the interest of protecting their citizens.

Here we go:
1. Starting with the September alert from the IB, an NCTC would direct the Mumbai police to boost security around the hotels. Specific procedures would be put in place to respond to an attack.

2. By November, with no sign of an attack, security was withdrawn. This is understandable. Heightened security costs money. Still, the hotel, local police and national security agencies would have the procedures to fall back on.

3. Then came the R&AW input on the LeT boat on November 18. Instead of wasting three days, an NCTC would have immediately sent the latitude and longitude of the suspected ship to the Navy and Coast Guard. It would've directed spy satellites to scan the area even faster. A fully-kitted-out ARC aircraft would have been sent in to augment Navy and Coast Guard search. It is highly likely the LeT boat would have been found and the terrorists stopped before they even got close.

4. For the sake of the exercise, let's imagine the terrorists did get through. Recalling the September input, the NCTC would put 2 and 2 together. An NCTC officer would like say: "The LeT had planned to attack Mumbai. Now we know an LeT ship has got through our search cordon". Immediately a defensive perimeter of coast guard and naval assets would be drawn around Mumbai. Beat patrols would be stepped up, particularly along the shore. The NTRO would be scanning the area with its antennas to pick up any radio or sat-phone signals.

5. We now know the LeT hit squad signalled its handlers in Pakistan on the morning of 26/11 that they were close. The R&AW intercepted a call near Bangladesh asking for the activation of 10 SIM cards. NTRO scanners - if they were placed in the area - would have immediately latched on to the sat-phone's signal, narrowing the search corridor. Here too, the terrorists may have been stopped.

6. For the sake of our exercise, let's assume the LeT squad was extremely good and still got through. Having made no arrests, an NCTC would have immediately directed a 'bandobast' around south Mumbai. ATS from around the city and the NSG from Manesar would be deployed (this is pre-NSG hub days, remember). Individual platoons would be sent to each target hotel.

7. At 9:21 when the terrorists struck, the police would be waiting for them. The NSG would be waiting for them. But, as I showed in steps 3 and 5, it is more likely the situation would never reach this stage.

Can anyone poke holes in this functioning? I'm a journalist. Not a security expert. Can you also point out where exactly the NCTC would have "damaged" our federal structure in all this?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Iran & India's options

Perhaps if India wasn't an ostrich in its foreign relations. Perhaps if we weren't afraid to take a stand. Perhaps if we didn't define the national interest as 'what's the least we must do to get by'.

Perhaps our neck of the world would be a different place.

And that brings us to Iran. Because after years of benign neglect on our part, the world's biggest foreign relations headache today is now at ours too.

What can India do, then, at this late stage? A few things actually. But that must begin with defining our national interest. So what is our national interest in this case?

I'd wager to define it like this:
1. Keeping our oil supplies secure
2. Maintaining a route into and out of Afghanistan.
The former can be achieved without Iran, albeit at a higher cost. The latter cannot. A war between Iran and the West will doom both these goals.

What can India do then?

1. Call for a 'Delhi Dialogue' round. Bring representatives of the six parties to talk in our capital. Maybe even just Washington and Tehran.
Why would the parties trust ans Indian initiative? Because despite our laziness, we can still be trusted as an honest broker. We have an interest in a robust Iran that... most importantly... does not have nuclear weapons. Ostensibly, at least, Iran doesn't want them.

2. Take a 'no-regret' approach to our energy interests. We must immediately begin the process of upgrading key oil refineries so they can process non-Iranian oil if need be. Currently some can't, thus restricting us from switching to other sources.
This will cost us for sure, but it will also do three things.

First, we can be assured of energy security in the future as we will be able to import & process oil from any source.
Second, it will signal to Iran that there will be costs to bad behaviour. If Tehran behaves, we can continue importing from them.
Third, it will signal to the West that we are prepared to take decisions to ensure everyone plays to the rules.

It is imperative that Iran gets this 'tough love' message. It cannot assume it can get away with bad behaviour because the West is wary of more war.

There must also be no ambiguity that Delhi will tolerate a 'nuclearised' Iran. The earlier that message goes out, the better.

We've wanted years doing nothing. There is still time to act. We have considerable national interest at stake.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Mystery Bomber

The bomb attack this evening on an Israeli embassy vehicle was reportedly placed by a motorcycle-borne assailant a short distance from the Israeli embassy itself. High-level Israeli diplomats often travel with tight security details around India. Other nationals enjoy lesser protection.
According to a source, who works with the Israelis, it is easy to spot Israeli diplomats' cars by scanning for their '109 CD' license plates. Since the attack occurred near the embassy, it is likely the assailant lay in wait nearby looking for a "target of opportunity". In other words, an Israeli national who did not enjoy high security. Ms Tal Yehoshua-Koren, the woman injured in the bombing, would have presented just such an opportunity.
Shortly after, Israeli officials blamed Hezbollah and Iran for attacks. It's not hard to imagine why Iran would want to target Israelis either directly or through its proxy, Hezbollah. The two countries are virtually at war.

But there is also some skepticism. The allegations came before authorities in India and Georgia had even begun preliminary investigations.

Second, if Iran was found to be behind the attacks, it would present a lose-lose scenario for Tehran. Under the weight of US-sponsored sanctions, the country is struggling to find buyers for its oil. India is one of the few large customers that remains. No doubt, Israel (and the US) will now pressure India to stop buying Iranian oil. Indeed, if Iran did orchestrate the attacks, India would find near impossible to continue doing so. For the same reason, it is unlikely that Iran would have sanctioned a Hezbollah-run operation.

Georgia too, has been cozying up to Iran, although the stakes are arguably far lesser if Georgia-Iran ties were strained.  

And what of Hezbollah? A likely motive is that the terror group was taking revenge for the assassination of its military chief Imad Mugniyeh by Israeli intelligence four years and one day ago, using a similar MO. It is just as likely that Hezbollah believed the bombings would spur an Israeli attack on Iran, solidifying domestic support for the government in Tehran. It isn't clear why Hezbollah would pick Georgia and India as locations for the attack.

Assuming Israeli, Georgian and Indian officials find an answer to that question, the next step is finding out how Hezbollah did it. I can think of three options.

1. An undercover Hezbollah team. Unlikely. The team would need to spend considerable time in Delhi working out logistics not just for the attack, but also living in the capital for the duration of the mission.
2. Hezbollah contracted a foreign terror group that is active in India to carry out the attack. Here there are obvious questions about ideologies and religious allegiances that crop up. And hazarding a guess either way is, well, hazardous.
3. Hezbollah contracted a domestic terror group such as the Indian Mujahideen to carry out the attack. There are worrying implications about this. First, it means Indian terror groups now have a global network that goes beyond the LeT. There may be a quid-pro-quo involved with Hezbollah assisting the local group in exchange for carrying out the attack.

Arguably, Hezbollah is far more dangerous than even the LeT. It ground the advanced Israeli military to a halt in a border war in 2006. More recently, it neutralised CIA espionage networks using sophisticated ELINT techniques and technology. A quid pro quo deal between Hezbollah and domestic terror groups is a frightening possibility to behold. India must work at rapid speed to nip this threat in the bud, if indeed it does exist.

Before any of all this, the Delhi police and Indian security establishment must answer a very big question. How did someone attack a foreign diplomat just a few hundred meters from the Indian Prime Minister's residence and escape before a cordon could be drawn?