THE 11/26 ATTACK ON MUMBAI (through Washington’s eyes)

October 24, 2010

In the first week of November, President Barack Obama is to visit India. A few weeks before his arrival, a friend in New York has sent me a book titled Obama’s Wars, written by Bob Woodward, Associate Editor at The Washington Post. I recall reading his earlier books, All the President’s Men and The Final Days about the Watergate episode, and Bush at War about the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S. It was Woodward’s reporting on Watergate and 9/11 terrorism that earned him the Pulitzer Prize twice.


The wars Woodward has written about in this latest book are three – in Iraq, in Afghanistan and against terror.


The latter two of these three wars have a direct linkage with India’s interests and so the observations in this book by a perceptive author who has had extensive inter-action with President Obama himself and access to numerous classified documents would be invaluable pointers to Washington’s basic thinking, even though some of its recent actions may seem contrary to it.


Towards the closing days of his tenure President Bush asked Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, top National Security Council deputy for the war in Afghanistan to give him a candid report on the situation in that country.


And the report Lute submitted to the President was far from flattering. A paragraph in the book sums up the principal shortcoming in U.S’s handling of the Afghan war thus :


“As Lute examined the situation there, he found about 10 distinct but overlapping wars in progress.  First, there was the conventional war run by a Canadian general in charge of the region for NATO. Second, the CIA was conducting its own covert paramilitary war. The Green Berets and the Joint Special Operational Command each had their own wars, tracking down high-value targets. The training and equipment command ran its own operations. The Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Directorate for Security, the country’s CIA-sponsored intelligence agency, were also fighting separate wars.”


This report, according to Woodward, “identified Pakistan as a much more strategically troubling problem than Afghanistan, because the sanctuaries there for al Qaeda and other affiliate groups were more of a threat to the United States.”


On November 26, 2009, Bush convened a meeting of his National Security Council to consider this highly classified and disturbing document. And the unanimous decision taken was : the document should not be released. Woodward records in his book that even as this report was being considered by the U.S. President and his N.S.C. “ten gunmen were roaming the Indian city of Mumbai, effectively holding its 15 million people captive.”


“The gunmen”, Woodward writes, “created a spectacle of chaos and violence on live television for about 60 hours. Terrorist theatre had not been anything like this since the 9/11 attacks.”

The Mumbai attack of 11/26 was planned and executed by Lashkar-e-Taiba– commonly known as the LeT. The LeT was created and continues to be funded by the Pakistani ISI. The ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha admitted to Washington that two retired Pak Army officers with ISI links were involved in the Mumbai attack. But he insisted that it was a rogue operation and not authorized.


“There may have been people associated with my organization who were associated with this,” Pasha said.  “But that’s different from authority, direction and control.”


The CIA later received reliable intelligence that the ISI was directly involved in the training for Mumbai.


Woodward concludes this chapter on 11/26 thus :


“The ease of the planning and execution, the low cost, and the alarming sophistication of the communications system that LeT had used were all troubling. The attackers relied on an easily obtainable global positioning system device, Google Earth maps, and commercially available encryption devices and remote control triggers.


They spoke with handlers back in Pakistan with satellite phones that went through a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service in New Jersey, making the calls difficult, if not impossible, to trace and routed them in a way that also concealed the locations of those talking.


The FBI was horrified by the low-cost, high-tech operation that had paralysed Mumbai. American cities were just as vulnerable. A senior FBI official responsible for thwarting similar attacks in the United States said, “Mumbai changed everything.”




The man Obama has placed in charge of reviewing the strategy for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan is Bruce O. Riedel, a former CIA analyst. The strategy paper he has prepared is commonly known in Washington circles as the Riedel Review document.


Riedel told the President that the focus must shift to Pakistan and away from Afghanistan.  Pakistan, he said, had to end its schizophrenic relationship with terrorists in which they are “the patron and the victim and the safe haven all at the same time.”


At several points Obama’s wars deals with what would happen if the jihadis mount yet another 9/11 kind of major terrorist attack. The military contingency they have thought of for such a situation is what Washington calls “a Retribution plan”. Under this plan, the U.S. would bomb or attack every known al Qaeda compound or training camp in the U.S. intelligence database.



This latest book by Bob Woodward points out that while 9/11 was the handiwork of mainly Saudis and Somalis, al Qaeda is now plotting against targets in Western Europe and for this “al Qaeda is using Pakistanis who have relocated to the U.K., Norway and Denmark, and can pass through our screening and defenses.”


There have been press reports lately that Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan. Woodward writes : “Despite the Bush administration’s efforts–the extreme rendition, detention and interrogation techniques–no one has turned in bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, or the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.”


“This fact suggests a greater discipline than is normally attributed to al Qaeda now,” Riedel warned.


L. K.  Advani

New  Delhi

Oct. 24, 2010

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