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Why the Pathankot op has gone on for so long

By Ajai Shukla
January 05, 2016 08:59 IST
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Inept handling by the National Security Advisor transformed what should have been a short counter-terrorist operation in Pathankot into an apparent debacle, argues Ajai Shukla.

'Between Doval and the deep blue sea'

This title, borrowed from a comment posted on Twitter after the Pathankot attack, accurately sums up Prime Minister Narendra Modi's current predicament. His bold opening to Pakistan last week, which shifted the moribund peace dialogue from the morgue to intensive care, depends upon peace -- both on the Indo-Pakistan border, and in the relative absence of terrorist strikes originating from Pakistan.

But National Security Advisor Ajit Doval's inept handling has transformed what should have been a short, intelligence-driven, counter-terrorist operation into something that increasingly seems like a debacle.

For the peace dialogue to continue, India cannot afford to gift an aura of success to the terrorist 'spoilers', who will inevitably follow up with further strikes. If only for our own sake, India must competently defend itself.

Providentially, the jihadis, who entered the Pathankot air base and killed seven security men and injured another 20, have not achieved their main aim -- which was clearly to derail the peace dialogue even before a preliminary meeting between India's and Pakistan's foreign secretaries in mid-January.

If talks remain on track, it is because both sides have demonstrated unusual restraint. Modi blamed the incident on 'enemies of humanity who can't see India progress.' And Pakistan's foreign office condemned the terrorist attack and proposed to 'partner with India... to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism afflicting our region.'

Yet, it was a close run thing. Had the terrorists inflicted mass casualties in the family lines, or entered the technical area and blown up some fighter aircraft, India's forbearance would have been seriously strained.

By good luck India's intelligence agencies were forewarned on Friday, the day before the attack, by telephone calls the terrorists foolishly made to Pakistan.

This intelligence, which went straight up to the NSA, provided precious hours to beef up security at potential terrorist targets -- a list headed by the Pathankot air base.

The means for this were readily available from the nearby Pathankot cantonment, India's biggest, which houses two infantry divisions and two armoured brigades (over 50,000 troops).

Yet, when the NSA met the army chief on Friday, he asked for only two columns of soldiers (some 50 troops). Intent on directly controlling what he anticipated would be a walk in the park, and without anticipating that there might be more than one group of terrorists, Doval led with his trump card -- he ordered 150-160 National Security Guard troopers to be flown down immediately from New Delhi. The army was placed on the sidelines.

In effect, knowing that armed terrorists were prowling the vicinity, the NSA left the Pathankot air base in the hands of Defence Security Corps jawans; a handful of air force Garud commandos; and the NSG contingent.

The DSC, composed of retired military veterans well past their prime, can hardly repulse a well-equipped and motivated terrorist suicide squad.

The NSG is not a first responder, and is neither trained nor equipped to protect sprawling air bases; it is meant for pinpoint operations like hostage rescue or flushing out terrorists holed up in a house.

As for the Garuds, even the air force has not been able to adequately clarify what they are meant for. The army, which flushes militants out of large forests every day in Jammu and Kashmir, was given a peripheral role.

Only when things started going wrong was the army asked for more troops. Although six army columns (150 soldiers) were eventually deployed, it was never in command of the operations.

It is revealing that not a single Pathankot casualty is from the army. The hapless DSC jawans took most of the casualties. The NSG took unacceptable losses, including an officer killed from a booby-trapped terrorist body. The army knows this ploy well and approaches terrorist bodies in J&K with caution, knowing the jihadi's dying act could have been to activate a grenade and lie on it.

But in New Delhi, the flawed initial allocation of resources set the stage for further bumbling. Eager to crown Doval with credit, even before the operation was done, his cultivated troupe of journalist cheerleaders began tweeting his brilliance. A sample tweet: 'Ajit Doval take a bow. Superb counter action, moved NSG on Friday brilliant synergy...'. Another: 'Hats off to those in national security/int(elligence) op(eration)s/ military/Punjab pol(ice) who haven't winked in past 24 hours to exterminate the vermin 4rm (from) across.'

Perhaps taken in by this drivel, which was being corroborated by credit-seeking air force commanders on the ground, top political leaders joined the premature victory chorus. Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted at 6.50 pm on Saturday: 'The nation is proud of its brave security forces who have always rose (sic) to the occasion. I salute our forces on successful operation in P'kot (Pathankot).'

At 9 pm, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar joined him in saluting the martyrs. At 10.05 pm on Saturday, the prime minister tweeted with finality: 'In Pathankot today, our security forces once again demonstrated their valour. I salute their sacrifice.'

It took just a few bursts of terrorist fire in Pathankot on Sunday morning for these sonorous statesmen to be unmasked as national security amateurs.

Stepping in to explain the continuing casualties that day, Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi -- clearly a votary of the police tradition of throwing troopers into action without training or equipment -- declared the Pathankot attack was not a security lapse, because 'when weapons are in use, (a) few security personnel are bound to be injured.'

This attack comes on the heels of dialogue resumption, exactly as predicted by analysts in both India and Pakistan. It underlines the fact that New Delhi's penchant for calling off talks in response to a serious terrorist strike provides an attractive incentive to jihadi groups to launch such strikes.

After all, terrorist groups stand to lose the most from improved India-Pakistan relations. New Delhi must state clearly that it will continue talks through even the most heinous terrorist attack -- and through the inevitable Indian response that will follow such an attack.

Currently, the possibility of an Indian military response against terrorists does not deter them, since this capability is not evident.

If Doval wishes to provide real options to his boss, he must stop dabbling in day-to-day intelligence operations and, instead, coordinate the development of strike options that are a viable alternative to stalling the dialogue (yawn from Islamabad) yet again.

IMAGE: Security personnel stand guard at the Pathankot air base during the terror attack. Photograph: PTI

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