The last weekend witnessed two almost simultaneous attacks on Indian soil. The first was an attack on the Pathankot air base, and the second was an almost simultaneous attack on the Indian mission in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Though the attack in Pathankot captured the minds and hearts of the country, the assault in Afghanistan received just passing attention in the media.
Both attacks were effectively dealt with, though there was no loss of life in Afghanistan. In both cases, the terrorists failed to achieve their laid down objectives. However, one common thread flows through both. The groups involved in both assaults have the support of the Pakistan military. While the one in Afghanistan was dealt with by their army, the one in India was handled with complete lack of military knowledge.
Criticism has been rife on the shortcomings in the conduct of the operation in Pathankot. The mix of forces, each trained for a different type of mission, being employed for something they have not rehearsed, with no single appointment to coordinate, shows immaturity and bureaucratic interference with no knowledge on matters military.
However, there are issues not yet considered. In every single case of infiltration, the targets have been police stations and army units. Never has the air force been a target. However this time, the assessment led the NSA and the army chief to firmly deduce the air force base as the actual target. If the chaotic confusion of movement of troops and conduct is anything to go by, then I wonder if any specific information was given to the NSA by relevant intelligence agencies, or even by the Pakistani civilian government, which though against the attack would be unable to stop it.
At the same time, while since no terrorists are alive to answer the question, why did it take them so long after entering India to launch the actual assault? It would never be known whether it was done intentionally to give notice to India, or was accidental. This gave the security agencies enough reaction time to actually thwart the attack. Of greater surprise is the fact that once the objective was clear, why action was not taken immediately to beef up defences. The DSC should have been replaced by the regular army. It is but simple military logic to enhance the defences of any target once an attack is imminent to thwart the enemy&’s designs.
The above if viewed positively would suggest that efforts were made to enable us to thwart an attack when the same could not be stopped from their side. If viewed as circumstantial evidence then the government needs to review its policies of dealing with Pakistan.
If the meeting held by the NSA also had the Chief of Army Staff present, then logically the COAS should have stated that the authority responsible for operations should be the general officer commanding of the local infantry division, rather than the operation being remotely controlled by the NSA from Delhi. Moving the head of the Western Air Command from Delhi truly made no sense, as he has no experience of counter-terrorist operations. Pathankot has an armoured brigade. Employment of tanks and armoured personnel carriers would have ensured a faster and easier destruction of the terrorists. It was a simple case of too many cooks, headed by a chef with no knowledge of his ingredients.
The civil police too have to accept a large share of the blame. Not trusting their own SP, that too when there is news of an infiltration, clearly smacks of carelessness and ineptness. Not spreading the word to the local villages, employing sniffer dogs or conducting rigorous search and seek operations indicates complete carelessness. The only worthwhile action they took was to lock themselves into the stations to prevent an attack on themselves.
The BSF know that the area is prone to infiltration and smuggling. They are aware of regular movement from across. Yet over the years they have failed to enhance their security systems to cater for changing times. Accepting infiltration to be the norm, rather than an exception, has caused untold harm to the state.
In brief, when we compare the two operations, the one which should have been easily handled was completely blundered, whereas the one (Afghanistan) which should have caused more casualties was better handled. The reasons were clear – simpler and easier command and control, better coordination and cohesive employment of force, in spite of it being in the middle of the city, with more chances of collateral damage.
The lessons we need to draw are clear. Firstly we must revamp the border responsibility. There cannot be multiple agencies responsible, reporting to different ministries. Make it simple and clear. Secondly, the Punjab Police need to be shaken up. Such ineptness and shoddy police work can never do. Thirdly, bureaucrats, even with an intelligence background, should not attempt what is not their forte. They should avoid taking over operations employing remote controls. Leave dealing with terrorists to the one organization trained for the task, the army. Make an appointment responsible, and let him handle the crisis. That is how it has been handled and that too successfully so far; let it continue. Fourthly, reconsider the importance of navy and air force bases. Raise specialist units for their security. The DSC is good for checking and monitoring movement within and around, not active security.
Finally, as a country, we have to be capable of defending ourselves. We cannot cry ourselves hoarse every time. The crisis in Afghanistan and West Asia would affect us also in the days ahead. Therefore we need to be prepared and develop our capability to defeat such terrorist designs, and unless we do so we would never be safe. Talks or no talks, we have to be strong within.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.