Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, is a familiar and oft heard adage. Pathankot proved this true yet again. Patterns of the past have seemingly become cast in stone in South Asia. The institutional dynamics of the dysfunctional state in Pakistan, lead it time and again to act in an obsessive-compulsive manner and repeat itself ad nauseam. Thus, the bus journey to Lahore in 1998 had ended in the war in Kargil in 1999. That is why when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his sudden outreach to Nawaz Sharif on Christmas Day, most security experts braced themselves for the near inevitable backlash from the deep state in Pakistan. The attack took just eight days to materialise.
On the night of 2-3 January 2016, the terrorist organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) attacked the Indian Air Force base of Pathankot. This was the first airbase that Pakistan had struck both in the 1965 and 1971 wars. The attack this time came not from Pakistani jet fighters, but Pakistan’s asymmetric warfare assets, the so called non-state actors. The aim, however, was the same: to destroy on ground our jet fighters, attack helicopters, ammunition dumps and fuel tanks located in this sprawling airbase. This amounted to an act of war — a dangerous escalation of Pakistan’s proxy war against India. The only redeeming feature in this episode was the heroism of our troops, seven of whom lost their lives to safeguard our strategic assets. Even as the attack was on, the ISI unleashed a second attack on our consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. We were saved there by the energetic defense put up by our ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) boys and the Afghan National Army commandos.
For some years now, the ISI has been making concerted efforts to smuggle narcotics into Punjab on a mammoth scale. With political connivance, this border state is now flooded with drugs. This is the essential precursor to launching any asymmetric war to destabilise a vital border province. With drugs you subvert the border policing infrastructure, the police and the locals. Drug addiction creates zombies you can exploit to subsequently smuggle guns and ammunition. In 1993, the Dawood gang used its gold smuggling conduits to land arms and explosives for the Mumbai bombing that killed 257 people.
BORDER SEALING DEFICIT: The entire India-Pak border from Kashmir to Kutch has been fenced. It shows up as a wall of light on satellite photographs. The fencing on the Line of Control has been lethal and effective because of the night vision devices (NVD)-equipped ambush parties that are deployed each night. This has curtailed infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir by some 70%-80%. To circumvent this formidable obstacle system, Pakistan has been seeking fresh avenues of ingress, which it has found in the riverine terrain of Punjab. A large number of major rivers and nullahs flow from India into Pakistan — the Beas, Satlej, Aik Nullah and Degh Nadi. These have broad and shifting water courses that cannot be fenced. So they exist as huge gaps in the fencing. These araes are covered by tall elephant grass that further facilitates infiltration. The sub soil is soft and tunnels can be dug under the fence. It is for this reason that the ISI is focusing its major infiltration efforts on Punjab’s riverine tracts, especially in Gurdaspur district, which is also a hub of drug smuggling. The last attack on Gurdaspur also had come via the marshes, west of Bhagwal, along the Jaimal nullah. The present infiltration, apparently, occurred through the same gap. Why was this route not plugged? Why didn’t we mine these riverine gaps to seal them? Media reports indicate that the floodlights and the sensors here were non-functional. If so, why were these not attended to? The Border Security Force in the Gurdaspur sector feels that it is overstretched. Apparently, each battalion here covers a 34 km stretch of the border. In neghbouring Jammu it is said to be just 24 km. Why cannot we focus additional resources on vulnerable sectors instead of a uniform deployment right through? There is an urgent need to review our border sealing postures and deployment. To start with, the riverine gaps must be mined and booby trapped. This will curtail drug smuggling and infiltration.
NARCO-TERROR CIRCUIT: The preliminary phase of this operation clearly bears the narco-terror imprint. An Uber taxi was called via a mobile phone from Pakistan. At 2100 hrs on the night of 31 December-1 January, Ikegar Singh moved out with his Innova vehicle, ostensibly to pick up a patient. Was this actually to pick up a routine drug consignment? He was shocked to find some five heavily armed desperadoes. Somewhere after 2130 hrs, there was a scuffle. The man rammed his car into a tree and tried to escape. He was chased and killed a kilometre away. Gurdaspur is a hive of smuggling activities at night. A Superintendent of Police (SP) SP was travelling around in his XUV along with a jeweller and his cook. Ostensibly a deeply religious man, he had come to put a chador on a local shrine very near the border. The infuriated terrorists waved his car down and hijacked the vehicle. Surprisingly, a little later they dumped the gagged and bound SP and took away his phones. They used these to call Pakistan. Around 0330 hrs, the SP finally got through to his boss, who was surprised to learn that he was at that loaction. Nonetheless, an alert was sounded and nakas (security checkpoints) were activated to intercept the XUV. By 0700 hrs on 1 January the XUV was found abandoned near the airbase. By 1100 hrs, Ikegar’s Innova was also found. Both these vehicles were used by the terrorists. The question is: why weren’t tracker dogs and QRTs (quick response teams) employed immediately to track down these desperadoes and stop them well before they launched their attack?
RE-INVENTING THE WHEEL
By 0900 hrs on 1 January, the local Intelligence Bureau (IB) deputy director in Amritsar was thoroughly alarmed. Calls from the SP’s phone to known Jaish terrorist members in Pakistan’s Bahawalpur had been intercepted. Generalised alerts were issued to all at that stage. The target was still not clear. At 0150 hrs on 2 January morning, the last call was made by a Jaish terrorist to his mother in Bahawalpur, telling her that he was on his final mission. New Delhi was, by now, quite alarmed. At 1530 hrs on 2 January, the National Security Adviser (NSA) held a conference in New Delhi, which was attended by the Army and Air Chiefs and the Director, IB. All military bases in the area were alerted. Guards and pickets were told to look out for the terrorists. The target was still not clear and 2x Special Forces teams and 6x Mine Protected Vehicles (MPVs) were put on standby at Mamun by the Army (this is 10 minutes from the AIRBASE). At 2100 hrs on 2 January, the NSA ordered the NSG team at Manesar to move to Pathankot to be ready to deal with any hostage situation. By 2210 hrs, the first lot of 130 NSG troopers had reached the airbase. By 0230 hrs on 3 January, another 80 more NSG men had arrived there. Apparently, these 200 NSG troopers were headed by the IG Ops, an Army Major General himself. Thus the NSG, a Home Ministry force, was selected to be the lead agency for tackling an attack on a Ministry of Defence Air Force base. But why? Why don’t our standard contingency plans survive the first rush of a crisis situation? Standard SOPs envision that the Army (there are two divisions worth located some 10 minutes away at Mamun) must rush in to protect vital Air Force assets, in case they are attacked by the SSG (as they were in 1965) or by the terrorists. So why were they not involved at the very outset? The whole scenario from here onwards became a welter of confusion, with many spokesmen and ministries speaking in different voices.
The seeming reluctance to use the Army is indicative of a deeper malaise. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had felt that India did not need any armed forces, that the police forces alone would suffice. He distrusted the armed forces, especially after the coup in Pakistan. The then IB director, B.N. Malik had initially used police forces to man the Ladakh border against China. The Army had been progressively marginalised and sidelined. The disaster of 1962 had mercifully put an end to that marginalisation. The 1965 and 1971 wars had underlined the dire need for a strong and capable armed forces. We are once again witnessing a puzzling marginalisation of the military. The entire internal security role has been allocated to police and Central police organisations. Heavy casualties suffered each year by the CRPF in anti Maoist operations show their severe limitations for this role in terms of equipment pattern, training and organisational ethos. It is unfair to ask them to undertake offensive counter-insurgency (CI) ops in such dense jungle terrain. Nowhwre else in the world have the police undertaken such offensive counter-insurgency operations. Yet the Army has been scrupulously kept out of the anti-Maoist operations. In the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, the Army had reached within two hours, but was contemptuously kept out and asked to man the outer cordon and wait for the NSG to fly in. It had taken over 12 hours for the NSG to respond. Army units have hands-on experience of such operations in J&K and the Northeast and are eminently suited to conduct such counter-terror (CT) operations effectively and efficiently. Given their far higher numbers and dispersion all over the country, they can react much faster. At the very least, they are more than capable of protecting their own bases and installations. Is it anybody’s case that in the next war the police will protect our armed forces?
A question that is being asked is that if just two teams of the NSG had to be used, why was a two-star general sent with them? Given his rank, he assumed charge of the whole operation. This got two ministries involved in what was purely a Ministry of Defence (MoD) operation. We do not parachute commanders from outside in the middle of a battle. Army units have an organic cohesion that must not be disrupted on the eve of battle. They must fight under their own commanders with whom they have trained. Ultimately, nine columns (over two battalions) of the Army, a platoon of BMP armoured personnel carriers and over six MPVs (Mine Protected Vehicles) were used. Out of the six terrorists, the Army eliminated five. It would have been a much neater command and control arrangement if they had served under their own brigadier (a general was not needed to deal with just six terrorists). The induction of the NSG into an armed forces’ operation at a military base, unfortunately, crossed the lines of communication and led to avoidable gaffes. The operation was declared successfully concluded on the first day itself, when it was, in fact, still very much on. A study of past attack patterns indicate that terrorist assaults on such a well guarded airbase have usually been launched by a minimum of six to eight terrorists. They divide themselves into three or four buddy-pairs to target diverse parts of the base and fragment the defender’s reaction. Hence, an attack by just four terrorists should have sounded innocuous and the premature announcement of the operation’s conclusion could have been avoided.
In hindsight, it would be improper to micro-manage such operations from Delhi. Full latitude must be given to operational commanders on the ground. In no way should their initiative and freedom of action be curbed. The standard operating procedure (SOP) is that an Incident Command Post (ICP) is established on the site, and all operational bulletins are issued locally from there. A single point commander is nominated from amongst the lead force carrying out the operation. In the instant case, it was the Army. The Army has the maximum experience in conducting CI/CT operations. Its expertise must not be wasted on pure considerations of turf. In any case, an AIRBASE is the legitimate turf of the MoD.
THE MILITARY OPERATION
Despite all these initial organisational mix-ups, let me state unequivocally that the military operations part of it was an unqualified success. The aim of the attackers was to destroy the strategic assets at the base, and this was completely foiled. Let us not forget that after attacking PNS Mehran, Pakistan’s Naval Air Station in Karachi, in 2011, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) managed to destroy aircraft and maritime recce assets worth over a billion dollars. An airbase is a huge and sprawling target. The Pathankot base has a perimeter of over 24 km and an area of 1,900 sqare acres of broken ground and dense vegetation patches. It has MIG fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, ammunition and fuel dumps, a school and thousands of personnel and their families. It has an 11-foot-high wall all around it. The lesson learnt is that over a period of time, a large number of trees have come up in the vicinity of the fence and were exploited by the terrorists to cross it.
Coincidentally, the initial terrorist assault hit the DSC (Defence Security Corps) cook house, where five unarmed DSC boys were killed. The retired soldiers performed heroically. One unarmed DSC boy grappled with the terrorists, snatched his weapon and shot him dead. He was killed by the other terrorists. The terrorists were then immediately pinned down and confined to some 250 metres of the initial penetration. They were completely prevented from breaking out towards the technical area, where the aircraft were located.
The base remained operational and attack helicopter sorties took off regularly to monitor the operations. The next day, the terrorists tried to hide in a dense patch of elephant grass. They were pinned down and eliminated by the Armymen. There was a lull in the firing, but the search operations were continued to sanitise the whole base.
“Fog of war” is a term all military veterans are familiar with. Things take time to crystallise in such operations and there should be no undue haste in calling them off prematurely. The operations continued smoothly. The problem was more in the management of the flow of information. The next day, another pair of terrorists were located in a building where the airmen stay. It took time to evacuate the Air Force personnel and ensure that no hostages were taken. The terrorists had obviously intended to conclude this attack with a prolonged hostage drama. The effort of all such terror attacks is to finally stage a prolonged hostage situation. One of the NSG officers, leading the bomb disposal squad, was, unfortunately, martyred when searching the booby trapped dead body of a terrorist.
To conserve further casualties, the Army then used its BMPs and virtually brought this building down. Rocket launchers were used liberally and the terrorist bodies were blasted to bits. This, in turn, created the problem of digging out the bodies and weapons from the massive quantity of rubble. The Army accepts no claims of kills unless the bodies and weapons have been recovered, and this took time.
Meanwhile, a media hysteria got generated that the operation was taking inordinately long to conclude. This was highly incorrect and unethical. Once the terrorists have been pinned down and immobilised, there is no need for any inordinate hurry as that generally leads to more casualties. Such operations must be conducted methodically and decisions must be left to the commander on the spot. After such an attack, it was essential to sanitise every inch of the 1,999 square acres of the base, to winkle out any terrorist who may still be hiding, or playing possum, as also to neutralise any unexploded ordinance and booby traps left behind. In the instant case, some terrorist bodies caught fire and the ammunition on their person continued to cook off for hours afterwards, leading to uncertainty about all terrorists having been eliminated. That precisely is the fog of war and all those who have been in combat know this well. It does take time to read the battle and the situation takes time to crystallise. There is no need to seek entry into the Guinness book of records on the speed in the conduct of operations. Military lives are precious and must not be wasted by inordinate hurry to show results to a news hungry media.
All in all, our boys of the Army, Air Force, NSG and even the retired DCS personnel did a commendable job. Seven of them laid down their lives to safeguard our strategic assets. Let us celebrate their valour and sacrifice. They deserve the nation’s unstinted gratitude and a little less of carping would serve to raise morale.
However, we must learn our lessons and plug the gaps that may have emerged in the course of this prolonged operation. The drug menace in Punjab has serious security ramifications and must be ruthlessly curbed as a national endeavour.
Maj Gen (Dr) G.D. Bakshi SM, VSM (Retd) is a retired military officer