India began the new year holding its head in its hands, nursing a familiar security headache. If it wasn’t exactly a fiasco, it came close to being one.
It took four days for Indian security personnel to clear the sprawling Pathankot Indian Air Force station of six terrorists, although authorities had clear intelligence at least 24 hours before the attackers struck.
When the operations were declared over on Tuesday evening, the body count was of six terrorists, possibly Pakistanis linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group, and seven Indian security personnel—five guards, one bomb disposal specialist and an air force commando. Around 20 Indian security personnel were injured.
Involved in the fightback on the ground were personnel from the Defence Security Corps (DSC), made up of retired soldiers who guard military establishments; the National Security Guards (NSG), the so-called Black Cat special commandoes controlled by the home ministry; and the air force’s Garuda commandoes.
The five guards were killed in the initial burst of fire from terrorists who were dressed in Indian Army fatigues; the NSG specialist died when a hidden grenade blew up while he was checking the body of a slain terrorist. The Garuda commando was killed when he approached the terrorists after they had set a truck ablaze, according to sketchy accounts.
The man who apparently coordinated the entire operation was the government’s national security adviser Ajit Doval, a former spy chief.
Although the Indian media fingered Pakistan as the likely source of the attack, it was clear to the nation that this was a botched security operation—a reminder of the multiday operation to end a 2008 terrorist siege of the city of Mumbai.
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar admitted to “some gaps” after the Indian response—marked by premature jubilation and the yet-to-be-explained involvement of multiple security agencies—was criticized by former army officers. Parrikar also admitted being worried by the fact that the terrorists had managed to breach the highly secure base. Once investigations are over, he said, things will become clear.
The sheer size of the airbase may hold a clue to that particular puzzle—the perimeter fence is 24km long and the base is spread over an area of 2,000 acres.
According to officials and ministers, India succeeded in meeting its larger security objective—that of protecting fighter aircraft, helicopters and other “strategic assets” at the massive airbase.
The base has a fleet of Russian MiG-21 fighter jets and Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters. By all accounts, Indian authorities did well to confine the theatre of battle to a small area, away from the “technical area”.
“In security affairs, what happens to you matters a great deal, but what matters more is how you respond to it,” Doval told The Times of India after being criticized on social media for the handling of the response.
“What happens to you is not always in your hands, but how you respond to it is indicative of your planning, preparedness, correct anticipation, coordination and courage. In that respect, it is a highly successful operation for which our army, air force, NSG and police, which played a vital role, need to be complimented.”
Doval’s most strident critic was Ajai Shukla, a former colonel in the Indian Army, war correspondent and writer on strategic affairs. In an article titled Between Mr Doval and the Deep Blue Sea, Shukla criticized the decision to “sideline” the army and deploy the NSG to deal with the terrorists, a task he said these commandoes were not trained for.
Exactly who was in charge of the operation remained unclear, with several former army officers saying the army was never in control.
Despite the likely Pakistani origin of the attack, India and Pakistan signalled their intent to persist with efforts to resume peace talks that have been stalled for several years. The two nations have been pressed by the US, Russia, UK and France to resume dialogue and facilitate a global fightback against the Syria-based terror group Islamic State (IS).
One view is that the suspected perpetrators of the Pathankot attack—the JeM—fear increasing irrelevance because of the growth of the IS, which has attracted thousands of youths from Islamic countries and the West. Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups are said to be fighting to remain relevant.
“Groups such as JeM and LeT (Lashkar-e-Toiba) have been active in fighting in Afghanistan and have retained their capabilities, but these groups are facing competition in recruiting and fund-raising from groups such as IS, which increasingly represents a more attractive proposition for young Islamists to join, rather than the established organizations,” said Omar Hamid, Asia security head at London-based IHS Country Risk consultancy.
He said terror groups are locked in a turf war. “Groups such as JeM and LeT are unwilling to support either al Qaeda (AQ) in the Indian subcontinent or IS, which are viewed as encroaching upon their sphere of influence. Based on recruitment patterns of both al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and IS, the efforts of these groups have been focused on states such as Gujarat, Odisha, Assam, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.”
Weighing the risks posed to their vital national interests by AQ and IS on one hand and Kashmiri groups JeM and LeT on the other will be something Indian and Pakistani specialists will likely grapple with when they meet.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1