The sprawling Pathankot Air Force Station (PAFS) in the Indian state of Punjab is about 40 kms from the Indo-Pak border. A part of the Western Air Command, PAFS has a 25 km perimeter, 12-feet high wall around it topped by barbed wire. It has an area of 1,999 square acres of broken ground with dense vegetation patches.

Indian troops at Panthakot attack
Indian troops during Panthankot attack

The base houses 75 fighter jets (MIG 21), attack helicopters (Mi 25 and Mi 35), Pechora surface to air missiles, drones, surveillance radars, ammunition and fuel dumps. About 1,500 families live on the campus with a school, market and hospital.

Pathankot is the hub from which northern Punjab and the state of Jammu  and Kashmir are militarily defended. It is the railhead and road head for extensive military supplies.

Any damage to the radar hub or air defense centre at the base could destroy the entire defense network of the Western Sector. It is a miracle that six determined, Pakistan-trained terrorists tried but just about failed to destroy the network despite conceptual and operational loopholes in the Indian counter-terrorist apparatus.

The strategic PAFS had been targeted during the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971.  In January 2016, it became a vulnerable target for terrorist infiltration through the riverine tracts in Punjab by the Pakistan-based outfit Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), the brainchild of Maulana Masood Azhar who was involved in the January 13 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament and also the 1999 hijack of the Indian Airlines flight 814. Though banned in Pakistan in 2002, JeM became operational again in 2013.

Briefly, early on the morning of January 1 2016, the Gurdaspur district superintendent of police (SP) Salwinder Singh reported the hijacking of his vehicle by four men. In the afternoon, following intelligence alerts, India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval convened a high-level meeting to discuss reported infiltration by terrorists into vital security installations in Pathankot. By evening, 150 National Security Guard (NSG) commandos were dispatched to Pathankot.

On January 2 (3.30 am), terrorists inside the air force base opened fire on Defence Security Corps (DSC) personnel. Later the same day, the defense minister convened a meeting attended by NSA. (A simultaneous attack had been mounted on the Indian consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan). In the evening, it was reported to India’s defence and home ministers that four terrorists and six soldiers had been killed in the operation. The home minister ‘tweeted’ the success of the operation. But when news came of two more terrorists still holed up in the airbase, his ‘tweet’ was deleted.

On January 3, Lt. Col. Niranjan Kumar was killed and five other Indians injured. Firing started to eliminate the two remaining terrorists. Prime Minister Modi held a meeting with the NSA and the Foreign Secretary.

On January 4, firing erupted and reinforcements and another contingent of NSG commandos (totalling in all over 200) were rushed. The two remaining terrorists were ‘neutralised’. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) started investigations.

On January 5, combing operations were started.

The terrorists aimed to destroy the strategic assets at the ‘technical area’ and they came near to doing it. They were foiled by the Indian Army, Navy and the NSG detachments. That they had come this far was perhaps due to weaknesses of the Indian defense.

The terrorists should never have been allowed to climb over the perimeter wall. This failure led to all the subsequent security problems of the Indian defense, which would be looked into by the proposed official inquiry.

Though the Indian NSA and intelligence had received pinpointed intelligence, they failed to act to stop the terrorists from entering the airbase complex. The NSA micromanaged events in Pathankot from New Delhi and failed to name a field commander. The NSG, a police force, was incongruously led by an army officer of high rank. Doval, an autocratic former police official-turned National Security Advisor (NSA) to the Prime Minister, has been a controversial figure.

The position of the NSA, borrowed from the US presidential system, does not fit in with the parliamentary democratic system in India. The Constitution of India does not provide for the NSA. He does not have clearly specified legal powers or functions. He is a personal appointee of the Prime Minister accountable only to him. As an advisor to the PM, he cannot initiate executive action. The position is anomalous and can create complications when a bumptious man is in charge.

Doval has centralized decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is not a Committee Man. On the Pathankot terrorist attack, he committed a series of avoidable blunders. He avoided consulting the Directorate of Military Operations (DMO) at the army headquarters.

A former super-cop with rich counter-terrorism experience in Punjab and elsewhere has noted the endemic vulnerabilities of India’s strategic assets and institutions. The terrorists managed to penetrate deep into the strategic airbase at Pathankot.  Providentially, they failed to reach the ‘technical area’ with strategic assets. How did these assets become vulnerable?

The super-cop has called for an examination of i) the levels of security available normally in such installations; ii) the measures needed to augment security to meet specific contingencies; iii) contingency plans to meet terrorist threats; iv) the contradictory induction of the tiny police force, NSG commandos, led by an army officer of high rank; v) the neglect of perimeter security and provision of tactical ‘special operation’ for the ‘technical area’; and vi) induction of only tiny units of the Army and Air Force when tens of thousands of trained and well-equipped army personnel and Commandos and Special Operations units were available nearby.

The super-cop questioned the NSA’s special preference for the NSG which has often failed to deliver in the past. The ‘special forces’ mentality is not capable of meeting various contingencies in a resource-starved, politicized and degraded general policing and intelligence environment. Moreover, the first response in any emergency should lie with the local defense forces; a centralized ‘special force’ imported from outside cannot replace effective local response.

The security ‘botch-up’ at Pathankot is further subjected to scrutiny by an intelligence specialist who notes that despite the availability of specific intelligence, the terrorists had been allowed to overcome the perimeter guards at the airbase complex and advance towards the ‘technical area’. Further advance could have led to a major disaster.

The DMO kept a close watch on Pathankot and noted a ‘lot of confusion’ on the spot about who the commanding officer was. The army has ‘special forces’ trained and equipped to deal with counter insurgency situations near Pathankot, at Nahan (Himachal Pradesh) and Udhampur (Jammu and Kashmir). The NSA, micromanaging from New Delhi, ignored army suggestions.

The Intelligence Bureau (IB) in New Delhi kept a watch on Pathankot and noted that the terrorists could mysteriously abduct the SP and use his mobile phone to contact people back in Pakistan. The SP, after freeing himself from the terrorists, informed his bosses (incorrectly) that there were four terrorists at Pathankot, not six as happened to be the case. The SP is being interrogated by the National Investigation Agency.

On the basis of wrong information, the Union Home and Defence ministers had fooled themselves about the alleged ‘successes’ of the Pathankot operation. How did this happen? Perhaps the NSA would know.

The IB noted that the NSG commandos on the spot were not receiving updates on the terrorists till after the counter insurgency action had already commenced. How come since this was the lead agency in the counter insurgency action?

The fact that the July 2015 terrorist attack in Gurdaspur in Punjab had been masterminded by the Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) led the IB to think that the Pathankot attack too was the handiwork of LeT. The NSA had perhaps more precise information he did not share with colleagues. The overall impression is one of confusion at the top of the security architecture.

The NSA neither allowed a joint task force to be set up nor bothered to establish proper command and control. The Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) at the IB headquarters kept sending security alerts with no major follow-up action.

A major security evaluation after the 1999 terrorist hijack of the Indian Airlines plane masterminded by Azhar recommended revamp of the Indian intelligence machinery. This was neglected and the deep flaws in the India’s counterterrorist setup remained.

Army authorities have wondered why the NSG, a home ministry police force, was selected as the lead agency for tackling the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase, which is under control of the ministry of defense. The standard operating procedure should have been to take advantage of the two army divisions located ten minutes away from Pathankot airbase. The action of the NSA in this regard created confusion and many spokesmen from different ministries began speaking in different voices. The lack of clarity about the commanding officer aggravated the confusion.

Distrust of the army has been characteristic of the civilian administration in India since the time of the late prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who chose to deploy the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) rather than the Indian army to face the Chinese across the Sino-Indian border till the early 1960s when army had to be deployed.

Further, the placement of a two-star army general at the head of an NSG force of only about 200 men was odd. A brigadier would perhaps have been more suitable. Further, the induction of the NSG in place of the army to conduct an operation at a military base, ‘crossed the lines of communication and led to avoidable gaffes’.

Punjab is the haven of drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, espionage and terrorism, all described as ‘multinational systemic crimes’. Evidence of the possible involvement of central and state police personnel in these activities must be probed. Two constables of the border security force have already been arrested.

The maladroit Indian response to the Pathankot terrorist attack, which could easily have led to a major calamity, has damaged the reputation of the Indian Prime Minister and his National Security Advisor. Strident calls are being made for a review of the institution of the NSA.

The writer is a former official of the union home ministry in New Delhi and is recently the author of ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ (Routledge, 2016) 

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