Pathankot: Tragedy of Errors
by Sandhya Jain on 12 Jan 2016 19 Comments
The pre-dawn strike inside the Pathankot Air Force Base on January 2 was a Tragedy of Errors. Never before has such specific, actionable intelligence been available in real time, and the concerned operatives deserve our heartiest appreciation. Yet, information for which men may have risked their lives did not give us the desired advantage due to serial lapses, especially the reliance on charisma rather than institutional mechanisms.


An operation like Pathankot would have taken several weeks to plan; hence we may conclude it was not a reaction to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Christmas stopover in Lahore. Nevertheless, it represents a major challenge to Mr Modi’s energetic and innovative attempts to engage Pakistan. New Delhi’s measured response to the attack was necessary to protect the resurrected dialogue process, especially as the Afghanistan peace process is intricately linked to the India-Pakistan dialogue. Given the near simultaneous attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan) and another blast near the consulate in Jalalabad, it appears that Islamabad continues to think of its western neighbour as “strategic depth”.


A little-noticed aspect of the problem is the cavalier attitude of the military’s estate department. In 2008, two high level Army officers were indicted for their role in issuing a no-objection certificate to a private realtor to build an educational institution on land adjacent to the Sukhna military station in Darjeeling district, West Bengal. A five-star hotel has come up across a military training camp in another State, precisely due to such laxity (read corruption).


Under the British-era Works of Defence Act, no structure can be erected in the vicinity of a defence establishment, regardless of land ownership, so that an operational area is available in the event of an attack. The Act empowers the military estate officer to raze unwanted structures flat; complicity allows encroachment of defence lands also.


The Border Security Force is reluctant to admit that the infiltrators crossed the line of control disguised as drug smugglers, but their route into the air base is perfectly clear. They climbed a eucalyptus tree whose branches overhung the 11-foot high perimeter wall of the airbase, swung down on a rope, cut the concertina wires and pulled up their weaponry. The fact that the floodlights in that stretch of wall were turned upwards, creating a zone of darkness, suggests internal complicity. Doubtless this will come to light in the enquiry, as will the role of Superintendent of Police, Salvinder Singh, murdered taxi driver Ikagar Singh, and others.


Larger questions remain. When the intelligence alert was fairly specific, and fighter aircraft and military helicopters were shifted as a wise precaution, why did overall defences remain poor? Why weren’t the Army’s Special Forces, standing nearly, asked to secure the perimeter wall from outside, which could have nixed the assault in the bud? Why was there no electronic surveillance system; why were trees allowed to hug the wall and facilitate entry?


Why was elephant grass allowed to grow so high outside and inside the base that armed men could move with impunity, carrying around 50 kg of ammunition, 30 kg of grenades and assault weapons. Why were poorly trained and equipped Defense Security Corps personnel the first responders when the National Security Guards and army units had been moved into the airbase on Friday? The campaign was badly handled and the loss of seven security personnel (including an NSG Lt Col tackling a booby-trapped body), was avoidable.


Political consequences are inevitable, as institutions were pushed around. There was no clear chain of command; the Army’s area sub-commander, who has intimate ground knowledge and resources, was best suited to conduct the operation. Instead, an NSG commander with no organic command and control structure was brought in, and multiplicity of agencies compromised the principle of accountability.


Both the Air Force and Army are unhappy (read furious) that the Director General of the NSG is a police officer. Experts claim that micro-management from Delhi caused a four-hour operation to drag on till the fourth day, during which period the Union Home Minister and Defence Minister were misled to prematurely declare the action over. During the operation, both travelled outside Delhi for official engagements and Mr Rajnath Singh remained absent when the cabinet met to discuss the incident on January 6, a sign of discontent.


On the positive side, the international community believes the attack was launched from Pakistan side, even though the United Jihad Council (of Kashmir) has claimed responsibility. A note reportedly found in the police officer’s car, which hinted the attack was retaliation for the decision to hang Afzal Guru for his role in the 2001 Parliament attack, suggests that Jaish-e-Mohammad could be the mastermind. In conversations between Prime Minister Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif, and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his counterpart Gen. Naseer Khan Janjua, India provided “specific and actionable” information on the attack, including call intercepts, names of handlers in Bahawalpur and GPS data showing complicity with persons across the border.


The finger of suspicion points to the “Gang of 7,” including Jaish founder Maulana Masood Azhar, his brother Mufti Abdur Rauf Asghar, Maulana Ashfaq, Haji Shakqur, trainer Jaan Ali Kasif, and Saifullah and Iftikhar (both of Shakargarh). The Defence Minister has stated that some of the equipment used by the terrorists was made in Pakistan, as also painkillers found on the bodies. India’s plan to send Pakistan the DNA samples of the terrorists will be clinching evidence, particularly in the case of the man who called his mother and told her he was on a fidayeen mission. Should she decide to go public, as Ajmal Kasab’s family did after the Mumbai attack of 2008, it would bolster India’s case.


This time, the world is on our side. France and Japan have condemned the attack and US Secretary of State John Kerry is pressurizing Islamabad for action against the guilty. For once, the Pakistani response has been muted; it has publicly condemned the attack and is wondering how to wriggle out of the hot seat.


India, too, has lessons to learn. At Pathankot, non-professionals took control and messed up a simple operation. In the run up to the parliamentary election in 2014, Mr Modi decried the UPA tendency to denude institutions of strength through interference or by encroaching upon their authority. Now, vital institutions and even cabinet colleagues feel slighted; the visit to Pathankot airbase was partly to restore morale but mainly to soothe ruffled feathers. As Prime Minister, the onus is on him to restore institutional authority and responsibility across the spectrum.  

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