British Army General J.F.C. Fuller, architect of the great tank battle at Cambrai, described the cities as impregnable in conventional wars. Tanks could never enter the narrow streets of the built up areas and should they succeed and move deep, it was easy to cut their supply line by the defending forces. During World War II Russian cities like Moscow and Leningrad withstood the Nazi assaults. In changed times however, cities, symbols of political and economic power as well as citadels of technological advancement have not only become the targets of choice for the terrorists, but are also immensely vulnerable for their networked existence. Worse still, the attacks which have been witnessed so far on urban environments, are in a process of constant evolution. In this context, David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, demands a thorough reading.
From the point of view of logistics, selecting soft targets within the cities and mounting assault on them are much simpler than carrying out an attack on a fortified military installation. Not all countries can boast of the security preparedness of the likes of Singapore (despite the recent incidents in which some persons did manage to force their way into the city state by crashing into the safety barriers at the border check points). The terrorists can study their targets with pinpoint precision through Google maps, carry out online recruitment for cells providing logistical support, and launch an attack, which will result in some degree of damage to the reputation of the cities even if the original plan of the terrorists does not succeed fully. The threat of terrorism on urban centres has been present for the past several decades. The difference, however, is in the growing level of preparedness among the terrorists to implement their plan of action. The states, on the other hand, have been found wanting in both their preparedness and response.
For Indian readers, the 16-page sub-chapter on the 2008 Mumbai attacks would be of interest. The original plan of the ten Pakistani terrorists and their handlers to take hostages in the hotels and other locales did not fully succeed. Even then the damage inflicted by the attack on the city and the popular psyche proved to be an inspiration of sorts for terrorists in other parts of the world to try and replicate the adventure. Despite mixing up the role played by the Indian Navy’s commando force, Marine Commandos (MARCOS) with the National Security Guards (NSG), Kilcullen does make important points regarding exploitation of the ‘urbanized coastal environment’ and the ‘networks of connectivity’ within and between Mumbai and Karachi by the non-state actors and how the Mumbai attack has served as the model for at least two planned copycat raids on major coastal cities in Southeast Asia and Europe.
The Mumbai attacks exposed all that was wrong with India’s existing architecture for defending cities against terrorist attacks. A few more attacks, although not of the same intensity, have since taken place on Indian soil amidst the official efforts to erect a new counter-terrorism architecture. There are some improvements and a large number of continuing loopholes. Several questions for the future remain relevant. Is security a parameter for the project for the 100 smart cities, planned to be set up by the new Indian Government? Will those cities be more secure and able than their old avatars to deal with a terrorist attack? Will the existing cities and their tier II and tier III brethrens be able to overcome the loopholes and improve upon their existing law-enforcement capacities under the new home minister and his counterparts in various states? Some of these questions will have to be answered and tested as the efforts to secure Indian urban centres continue under the new government. For the security planners, Kilcullen’s exposition on ‘Feral Cities’, defined as being laced with ‘superabundance of uncontrollable flows’ and not necessarily ‘collapse’ is especially useful. For security planning, growing littoralization in countries and the advantage these messy urban areas provide to the potential terrorists would remain a constant challenge.
Equally fascinating is the book’s chapter titled, ‘The Theory of Competitive Control’, which deals with Afghanistan. Here Kilcullen moves away from the urban environment to explore the relationship between the armed group (i.e. the Taliban) and the local population under the ‘fish trap’ framework. His articulation that it is not just the armed groups which try to control the local population, but the latter too manipulates the group in return is quite convincing. Rise of the ‘fake elders’ in the country, the inability of the regional commanders to switch sides and support the government, and the acceptability of Taliban’s swift and predictable version of justice delivery system among the population vis-à-vis the corrupt police and lengthy judicial process in a way explain why the transformation project in Afghanistan would be extremely lengthy and may even fail in times to come. Indian analysts studying the insurgency movements in the North Eastern states and the Maoist extremism would be able to draw parallels between the Afghan theatre and the situation at home.
How does one meet the terrorist threats hovering over the urban arena? The common response would be securitization. In 1918, J.F.C. Fuller, as narrated by Kilcullen, came up with Plan 1919 advocating a ‘shot through the enemy’s brain’ rather than ‘a succession of slight wounds which will eventually cause an enemy to bleed to death.’ Nearly a century later, we discover that the ability of the states in ‘finding and destroying the enemy’s command node’ has considerably declined. Networked existence might have proved to be the vulnerability of cities, but networked operations are proving to be the greatest asset for the terrorists, giving them near unassailability. Not surprisingly, each year new theatres of conflict have sprung up across the globe. How to defend the cities against these ever alive threats must start figuring in the imaginations of the policy makers as well as strategic writers who follow up on Kilcullen’s work. For now, Kilcullen has done his bit.
Bibhu Prasad Routray, a New Delhi based Security Analyst, was Deputy Director, National Security Council Secretariat, New Delhi.