Anti-terrorist operations ideally need to quickly and decisively respond. The longer officials wait, the more time terrorists have to wreak havoc and hole themselves up in defensive positions, experts say.
Mumbai lost three of its top anti-terrorism officials almost immediately when the violence began; they were gunned down as they rode together in a van. The three should not have been in the same vehicle, experts said, nor should they have exposed themselves to danger. Their loss badly handicapped the early response.
Mumbai has no equivalent of a SWAT team. It took hours to decide to send in the nation's rapid-response National Security Guards, based in New Delhi. The capital is three hours away by air, but no military aircraft were available and the unit evidently lacked authority to requisition a commercial plane. Military transport was flown in from elsewhere.
On reaching Mumbai, the guards were driven to the hostage sites by bus -- there were no helicopters -- then briefed. By the time they took up positions, many hours had passed.
"A city the size of Mumbai, with [more than] 18 million people, doesn't even have a SWAT team or a helicopter available," said Ajay Sahni, executive director of New Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management. "At every stage there was complete institutional failure. You can't have a rapid-action force that takes seven hours to arrive."
At the two hotels, a few militants kept hundreds of commandos at bay for two days. Senior commanders would announce that sections of the buildings had been cleared, only to see the attackers move back in.
Government forces lacked hotel floor plans, although the militants seemed to have had them -- and apparently had stockpiled explosives and ammunition at the sites. And the commandos lacked an effective command structure or a good communication system, experts said, whereas the terrorists reportedly used BlackBerrys and GPS devices to navigate and monitor news coverage.
Though the hotels are huge, the Jewish center is in a five-story building, known as Nariman House, which should have made for a far easier recovery operation. When commandos were dropped on the roof Saturday morning by helicopter, the craft made three sorties, removing any element of surprise.
"These are Jews," Sahni said. "It's very clear they were not going to be allowed to live by these people. This tiny building should've been taken in the first few minutes."
Onlookers at the Nariman House were allowed to watch from a few feet away, hampering police operations. A night counterattack was nixed, reportedly because it was too dark: The attackers had night-vision goggles, the police didn't.
Conventional theory suggests that commandos move quickly once there's indication that hostages are in imminent danger, in hopes of getting at least a few out alive. Yet days passed until, in the end, all hostages at the center were killed.
"You can wait, but you use that wait to engage the terrorists and plan," said Yoram Schweitzer, an international terrorism expert at Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies. "Then you engage them quickly, with shock -- prepare for a maximum one- to two-minute strike."
India also has paid the price for corruption in the ranks, said Singh, the former policeman.
"Everyone wants to be in the police station where you have contact with the public and can get payments for resolving a dispute, allowing a builder to build a flat," he said. "If you're assigned to the anti-terrorism unit, you try and find a politician to get you out of it. You can see the results in the past few days."
Also problematic has been the lack of training or equipment. The elite forces have no thermal-imaging equipment, which would have helped distinguish terrorists from hotel guests. And ordinary policemen on the front lines have single-bolt rifles of the sort used in World War I, the Lee-Enfield .303, which they typically fire 10 times total during training.
"We're talking about an early 20th century police system trying to deal with a 21st century threat," security analyst Sahni said.
Intelligence also has come under criticism amid reports that fishermen, the Home Ministry and foreign and domestic intelligence agencies all recorded strange goings-on or received warnings that were never acted upon.