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The Pathankot Siege and its Lessons

Last updated on: January 07, 2016 20:58 IST

'Jihadi outfits backed by the ISI are now prepared to attack targets not just in J&K, but also in Punjab. This signals an escalation in the range and scope of cross-border terrorism, which cannot be ignored,' says Ambassador G Parthasarthy, former high commissioner to Pakistan.

Soldiers conduct a search operation in a forest area outside the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on Sunday, January 3. Photograph: PTI Photo

IMAGE: Soldiers conduct a search operation in a forest area outside the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on Sunday, January 3. Photograph: PTI Photo

 

The entry of six well-armed Pakistani terrorists into the strategically located Pathankot military airfield and the subsequent siege that followed has several lessons for India in the conduct of foreign and defence policies. This is notably so, in its relations with Pakistan and in addressing its defence and internal security shortcomings. All these issues need to be addressed seriously and not glossed over.

Ever since the acquisition of longer-range military aircraft like the SU-27, Mirage 2000 and Jaguars, these strategic assets can now be positioned in mores distant locations from the borders with Pakistan. But Pathankot has always been a chosen target for Pakistani attacks, in both the 1965 and 1971 conflicts. It now houses relatively old MiG-21 aircraft and given its location, close to the border, attack helicopters.

The attack on the Pathankot airbase, which follows a similar attack on nearby Gurdaspur along the Pathankot-Jammu Highway in July, clearly indicates that jihadi outfits backed by the ISI are now prepared to attack targets not just in Jammu and Kashmir, but also in Punjab.

This signals an escalation in the range and scope of cross-border terrorism, which cannot be ignored.

The ease with which the terrorists slipped passed border defences appears to indicate a nexus between smugglers, particularly of narcotics, and elements in the local administration.

The Pakistan-based jihadi groups and the ISI are clearly plugged into this nexus and prepared to exploit it to their advantage. This is an issue that can no longer be wished away and needs to be tackled head on.

The entire handling of the terrorist attack appeared to indicate scant regard and knowledge in New Delhi about the availability of vast local resources of infantry, firepower and even Special Forces, to deal with such intrusions successfully.

The dispatch of units of the National Security Guard from Delhi to Pathankot reflected poor appreciation of the need to have a unified command structure led by a local commander.

Despite these shortcomings, the forces on the ground did a magnificent job in protecting the airport, the strategic assets there and the estimated 3,000 family members resident in the airbase. Criticism about the time taken for combing action to clear the airport of the possibility of any looming threat was unwarranted. Such operations are inevitably measured, slow and time consuming.

The Jaish-e-Mohammed, headed by Maulana Masood Azhar, which has had a complex relationship with the ISI, carried out the attack. The former director general of the ISI, Lieutenant General Javed Ashraf Qazi, has acknowledged in the Pakistani parliament in 2004 that the Jaish was responsible for the attack on Parliament in December 2001. General Qazi also revealed that sections of the Jaish were responsible for an attempt to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf.

Since then the Jaish has been handled with kid gloves by the ISI, amongst other reasons, because of its close relations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, TTP, which is now a sworn enemy of the Pakistani armed forces. The Jaish also has close relations with the Afghan Taliban.

It needs to be borne in mind that it was the TTP that mounted devastating attacks on Pakistani airbases in Karachi and elsewhere inflicting heavy damage, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars on crucial air assets of the Pakistan armed forces.

India has to realise that there is now a complex web of relationships between jihadi groups in Pakistan and their mentors in the ISI.

It is, however, clear that the while the Lashkar-e-Tayiba will remain the most loyal ISI asset for terrorism in India, other jihadi groups like the Masood Azhar faction of the Jaish-e-Mohammed based in Bahawalpur in southern Punjab will also be utilised from time to time to keep them away from joining groups like the TTP, against whom the Pakistan army is presently at war.

It also needs to be borne in mind that the ISI ensures that these groups work jointly with the predominantly Pashtun Afghan Taliban, to ensure that Punjabi-Pashtun differences are subsumed and the Afghan Taliban continue to have an anti-India agenda.

In these circumstances, it will be naive to think that the ISI will allow Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take 'prompt and decisive action' against the Jaish-e-Mohammed as New Delhi has demanded and expects.

There could, of course, be some token measures like arresting some middle level Jaish cadres or even a pretence of action against top leaders. But the big fish will likely be left untouched.

G Parthasarathy
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