Pathankot attack: Enduring macros

Having the Army taking the lead in the operation could have provoked Pakistan to retaliate.

 |  7-minute read |   12-01-2016
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There is a feeling of déjà vu when we look at our response to the Pathankot attack. There was the same confusion in command and control, poor response to warning of a terrorist attack, abysmal physical security measures (even in the airbase close to the Pakistan border where terrorists freely circulate), leadership without responsibility, incoherent public communication and political one-upmanship between the state and the Centre as we saw after Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists carried out the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

There was timely dissemination of intelligence about an impending terrorist attack. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fortunately, kept mum and didn't utter the usual “we will not be intimidated by terrorist attacks” statement, sparing the nation this embarrassing cliché, unlike his predecessors.

The Opposition castigated Modi though they knew the prime minister never made a statement when everyone expected him to do so. Modi, in fact, struck to his schedule and spoke about yoga!

Also read - Pathankot attack: Pakistan pushing India for war?

However, there was a curious difference in the way the Pathankot attack was handled. In a first, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval took charge of strategising and controlling the counter-terror operation from New Delhi in the early stage itself, though the operation was inside an important military airbase!

One may call it the Doval gambit as the NSA seems to have used it an opportunity to pin down Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and make him take follow-up action and bring the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists to book as a tangible proof of his sincerity in mending ties with India. The NSA saved Sharif’s face by not calling in the army to carry out the operation which could have provoked the Pakistani army to retaliate.

Hats off to the NSA; apparently he convinced the three service chiefs to be party to his decision; otherwise it is difficult to understand them agreeing to hand over the operation to the National Security Guard (NSG) commandos even before the first shot was fired (NSG arrived at the scene even before the operation started according to Punjab Police).

Also read - Pathankot attack: Are India's nuclear sites really safe from Pakistan?

The Army was available in the near vicinity of Pathakot and counter-terror operations are its bread and butter. They had been conducting such operations the region for more than four decades. I am confident there exists in the airforce base a standard operative procedure for joint operations with the Army to handle such a threat. So the NSG was flown into the airbase and the results are there to see.

What is disturbing is the national mindset that seems to be the driving force in this country in matters military. During the last three decades or so, the services seem to have been trained to say “ji huzur” to politicians and bureaucrats even on matters of national security rather than take decision and act with responsibility in keeping with their professional training.

To set the record straight, our service chiefs also seem to have become accustomed to this state of affairs for many years now. They are wise men. They have seen an irrepressible Army chief running the risk of being hauled up had he moved two regiments of armour for training in the national capital region without "permission" from the defence ministry (or informing the then minister Manish Tiwari even though he had nothing to with defence ministry). The chief could have been accused of plotting a coup!

Also read: India must weed out and fight the terrorist within

The latest demonstration of this mindset is in the sixth pay commission’s draft recommendations. It equates a trained soldier with the lowest rung of untrained civilian staff, well below the policeman, in dishing out largesse.

Coming back to Pathankot airbase attack, nobody seems to believe the apologetic defence minister Manohar Parikkar’s claim that the operation was a success. He only saw some “security related gaps that will be cleared after investigation”. It is the understatement of the year so far!

But if we go by the minister’s body language, he himself probably did not believe it. His discomfort is understandable. After all, the airbase - a prime airforce installation close to the Pakistan border - had advance warning of a possible terrorist attack; yet the six terrorists managed to not only enter the airbase but strike at a time of their choosing and inflict casualties. They managed to stretch the operation for over three days. Probably that is why Masood Azhar, the Jaish chief, is gloating over the terrorists' success in Pathankot.

Moreover, the defence minister, like the service chiefs, seem to have been on the fringes of the decision-making process in the Pathankot operation. The poor man was left to explain minister for home affairs Rajnath Singh's hasty declaration of complete success even before the terrorists fired the last shot in the operation. Where does the home minister come in a terrorist attack in a military establishment will be an enduring mystery, if we ignore the clear pecking order even in case of a counter-terror operation inside a military installation.

The other enduring mystery is the security of airbases. In 1963, I found the same weaknesses in Tezpur as in Pathankot – floodlights of the perimeter not working, heavy uncleared underbrush within the airbase that provides hiding space for intruders and poorly maintained border fencing. The Pathankot airbase seems to be only maintaining this tradition of neglect. The problem is that it was Tezpur way back in 1963. Now it is 2015.

Pakistan has become the world capital for an alphabet soup of jihadi terrorist outfits. Jihadis regularly infiltrate into Jammu and Kashmir to create trouble. They do this also in the south across the India-Pakistan border in Punjab through which drugs, fake currency and humans are also regularly trafficked.

And as I grow older, I discover some things never change in this country. There was a lot of lightning and thunder when we made a mess of handling the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. The UPA's man of action P Chidambaram took over as home minister and swore to rework the whole national counter-terror response system.

He used to submit progress reports regularly to Parliament. But the whole issue faded from the political discourse, public mind and national mainstream. Now he is only lamenting about things he failed to do.

We are back to where we started; cacophony in parliament has overtaken action on national priorities including security threats. So like the child widows of rural West Bengal who loudly voice their woes in village temples in the evenings, we will start our lament all over again when another big bang Pakistani terrorist attack overwhelms us.

We can only wish good luck to the NSA in his new gambit; but I am not prepared to bet on his success because some things never change in Pakistan also. It seems to be our mirror image in its laid back attitude towards result-oriented action.

Lastly, my heart goes out to the Defence Security Corps personnel - the re-employed defence pensioners who had the thankless task of fighting the terrorists. They were never meant to do this. In the Pathankot operation they showed that grey hair and stooped backs notwithstanding, they are no less than their serving peers. They sacrificed their lives without even collecting their One Rank One Pension (or not true OROP) dues which are yet to be notified, just as many of their fellow pensioners are doing.

I hope their widows at least collect their dues in their lifetime. As 19th century poet Arthur Hugh Clough said, “If hopes are dupes fears may be liars.” So servicemen continue to live on hope; what else they have? Enduring macros never change in this country; so we plod on.


Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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