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12 January, 2016

Exposing chinks in armour

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Security experts are agreed that the Indian response to the daring terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase close to the Pakistan border on New Year’s Day was ham-handed and showed the authorities have learnt little from experience.

Visiting the airbase on Saturday, a week after the strike by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed satisfaction over the handling of the situation.

While security forces were able to prevent damage to military assets, critics have pointed out that the authorities failed to act quickly on intelligence input about an imminent attack.

The terrorists sneaked into India unnoticed by those guarding the border, carrying with them assault weapons, 50 kg of ammunition and 30 kg of grenades. They kidnapped a high police officer, seized his beacon-fitted vehicle and roamed in it for hours before scaling the 11-foot high wall of the airbase. The officer’s role is now under scrutiny.

Seven security personnel were killed and 22 others injured in the attack. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar disclosed that only one death was an operational loss. Five defence service guards were killed even before the counter-terror operation began. A lieutenant colonel died in a blast during the combing operations.

Retired Lieutenant General HS Panag, who was once in charge of the Indian army’s northern command, said the counter-terror operation was a disaster from the word go. “We were not only slow to respond but were caught with our pants down,” he added.

He attributed the colonel’s death to failure to follow the standard operating procedures.

Gen Panag as well as other experts were critical of the primacy accorded to the National Security Guard in the counter-terror operation. Defence analyst Rahul Bedi said the NSG was given command to keep the operation under the control of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, arguably the most influential person in the Modi administration.

Doval sent 150 NSG commandos into Pathankot from a camp near Delhi when about 50,000 soldiers with fair knowledge of the terrain and experience of handling terrorists were available in the immediate vicinity.

The NSG is under the Home Ministry. The Defence Minister justified its use saying the NSG’s expertise was needed to ensure the safety of about 3,000 civilians in the family quarters at the airbase. The argument did not impress Gen Panag. Time is not far when the army may have to take orders from the Home Minister, the National Security Adviser or the Police, he quipped.

On the second day, after four terrorists were gunned down, Twitter-happy Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced completion of the operation. Soon shots rang out again, necessitating renewal of the counter-terror operation. It took two more days to liquidate all the terrorists.

“Four days to neutralise no more than five or six militants is unacceptable in a confined open space where there is little or no scope for any civilian collateral damage,” said retired Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal.

The National Investigation Agency has begun a probe into the attack. Analysts believe a high-powered commission of inquiry is needed to bring out the truth and formulate proposals to avoid a repetition of mistakes.

The Pathankot attack and the Gurdaspur attack of last July by Lashkar-e-Taiba have been valuable learning experiences for Modi and his colleagues who are ardent admirers of Israeli tactics.

Ironically, as they are coming to terms with ground realities, the Congress, which has the most experience of dealing with the Pakistan government and terrorists based in that country, is acting the way the BJP did when it was in the opposition.

The terrorists’ aim was to disrupt the dialogue process which received a boost when Modi, on his way back from Afghanistan, stopped at Lahore on Christmas Day to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet on January 15. Sharif has said terrorists will not be allowed to disturb the peace process but Indian sources have said the talks may be called off unless Islamabad acts upon evidence of the Jaishe-e-Mohammed’s involvement in the attack.

Reports indicate that Nawaz Sharif has asked the Pakistan army to follow up on the leads India has provided.

The US administration is said to be exerting pressure on Pakistan to save the dialogue process.

Goof-ups of the kind witnessed recently cannot cloud the fact that the strategy followed by India since Rajiv Gandhi’s days with regard to Kashmir-related terrorism has yielded results. Civilian casualties in Kashmir have come down from more than 1,000 a year in the 1990s to just about 20 last year. The terrorists have shifted attention to Punjab precisely because cross-border operations in Kashmir have become difficult. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 12, 2016.

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