Luck by chance: Six fundamental questions about the Pathankot attack
Photo Credit: AFP
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Inquiries and investigations are ongoing into various aspects of the attack at the Pathankot Air Force Base, but it is unlikely that the whole truth will ever get out into the public. On the basis of available information, however, it is safe to say that the Modi government has been extraordinarily fortunate. Had the present attack not been preceded by exceptionally specific intelligence, the bizarre incident of the hijacking of a Superintendent of Police’s car, and a group of incredibly loose-talking terrorists, the attack could have been devastating.

It is significant that, despite the many hours of clear forewarning and the fairly definitive identification of the intended target, the terrorists were still able to breach the perimeter of the base (and it is nonsense to argue that this is over 25 kilometres long and consequently cannot be effectively sealed off. By that measure, no large installation in the country can effectively be protected). They were, moreover, able to penetrate fairly deep into the airbase, albeit not into the “technical area” where strategic assets were located.

Deficient response

It is useful to divide the response into two components. First, the sharing of intelligence and of information gleaned from the car hijack incident, assessment, identification of target, and systemic response times appear to have been most satisfactory. Significant deficiencies are, however, visible in the actual response. While a major disaster has been averted, it is abundantly clear that security arrangements prevailing at the airbase and their augmentation in response to the specific threat were far from adequate. It is clear, moreover, that this was the result, not of any conceivable resource constraints, but of deficiencies in conceptualisation and design of the response.

It is astonishing at the outset that a strategic location of such significance should be so fundamentally vulnerable to attack. It is useful to inquire, at this juncture:

  • What levels of security are in place in normal times at the Indian Air Force Base (and other comparable defence establishments)?
  • Do contingency plans exist to deal with potential threats? Were these followed (this is improbable, on current publicly available information)?
  • Were measures proportionately and appropriately augmented in view of specific intelligence relating to an attack?
  • What was the rationale of handing over charge of the response to a relatively tiny contingent of an outside force – the National Security Guard – which would have little or no familiarity with the lay of the land and the peculiarities of security at the airbase?
  • Why was the counter-terrorism response conceptualised as a tactical special operation within the airbase, rather than one of perimeter protection?
  • And why were only tiny units from the Army and Air Force mobilized when tens of thousands of trained and equipped personnel, including Commando and Special Ops units, were available all around the airbase in the sprawling Pathankot Cantonment?

Micromanagement from Delhi

One of the critical problems here is the NSG and the Centre’s orientation to this Special Force. When NSG hubs were to be established in various metros in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, I had written that this was not an appropriate pattern of deployment and response. The Centre has distorted and delayed counter-terrorism responses in a number of high profile terrorist incidents, simply because of the insistence that the NSG alone, and not local forces, were competent or authorised to respond. This was certainly the case in the Akshardham Temple attack; it caused interminable delay in the Mumbai 26/11 response (and the terrorists remained active for some 62 hours even after the deployment of the NSG); and engineered a veritable disaster at Amritsar in the IC 814 hijacking case, which culminated in national humiliation at Kandahar.

Worse, I have emphasised repeatedly, that centralisation of counter-terrorism responses, micromanagement from Raisina Hill, is a recipe for disaster. Counter-terrorism operations demand tremendous local familiarity, intelligence and specialisation. The belief that a well-trained and equipped unit can perform with equal facility in any theatre or location is fundamentally flawed – some of the best forces have been led into bloody debacles on unfamiliar ground.

Special Forces have tremendous utility in certain situations – but they cannot provide us with enveloping security and protection against terrorist attack. The “Special Forces mentality” has prevented us from creating security systems that are capable of dealing with all contingencies all over the country. Such a security system cannot be established within the context of resource starved, politicised and degraded environments of general policing and intelligence, and by denying the role and mandate of first response to other security forces. Until we get the first responder capable and functional, everything else is just fire-fighting.

The attack at Pathankot is the nth wake up call for this country – this time warning us about the endemic vulnerabilities of our strategic assets and installations. We have been incredibly lucky on this occasion to have been able to thwart the terrorists in their principal objective – to damage our strategic assets – and to limit the loss of life. But we are unlikely to be as lucky the next time; we will have to be prepared, or we will face disaster.