CONFRONTING TERROR: Lessons From the Pathankot Terror Attack

A lot of heat and dust was generated by the plethora of opinions that followed on the heels of the terrorist attack on the air base at Pathankot, both in the audio visual and in the print media from a wide range of analysts. Unfortunately, few analysts had access to information and their opinions were at best speculative and in some cases downright motivated. Now that sufficient time has elapsed post the event, a bit of reasoned analysis is called for.

Whether the operation was a resounding success or otherwise depends to a large extent on the terms of reference used to describe the term. An obvious conclusion however, is that a major tragedy was averted. Advance intelligence was available, which undoubtedly points to the effectiveness of the Indian intelligence network. That undoubtedly was a major contributory factor which led to all vital assets being secured before the terrorists could strike.

It is by now common knowledge that the terrorists crossed over into Punjab from across the international border (IB). The border is guarded by the BSF, and this being the second such infiltration by terrorists over a short span of time, the earlier one having taken place in Gurdaspur district on 27 July 2015, points to the need for additional measures to nab the terrorists at the IB itself. While the IB is fenced, large gaps exist due to the riverine terrain, which must be guarded by other means. Here, terrain and weather conditions facilitate infiltration of small groups of people. Multiple means need to be employed to seal off such routes of ingress. The BSF also needs to be better trained, equipped and led to increase its effectiveness. A possible intervention in this regard is to make the BSF into a paramilitary force on the lines of the Assam Rifles, rather than keeping it as a Central Armed Police Force, officered by the IPS. It must be appreciated that the Pakistan Rangers, whom the BSF faces across the IB are paramilitary forces, trained on the lines of the Pakistan army and led by Pakistan army officers. The BSF too needs army leadership, which would also lead to better integration between the Army and the BSF, both in peace and in war.

While intelligence inputs were timely, some aspects could have been handled better. The case of Mr Salwinder Singh, the abducted superintendent of Police of Punjab, is a case in point. The SP had reported the matter of his car being forcibly taken by the terrorists and his escape from their clutches. He had also stated that his mobile phone had been taken by the terrorists. Why tabs were not immediately kept on the mobile phone and its location traced remains a mystery. Had this been done, it would have enabled the security forces to home on to the location of the terrorists and enable their neutralisation in a faster timeframe. In such operations, which are time sensitive, all intelligence agencies must be proactive, and react in real time to the demands of the situation.

With advance warning being made available of a possible terror strike in Pathankot, the security of all sensitive areas in the town, to include the air force station, the army cantonment and the public utilities was beefed up. The air force station had their own Garud commandos, and these were reinforced by two ghatak platoons from the infantry, as per the laid down station drills. In addition, the NSG commandos were also flown in to the air force station, to cater for any hostage situation that could arise in the town as a result of action by the terrorists.

The detection of the terrorists on the night of 1 January followed information provided by a drone, flown by the IAF, indicating the presence of some people inside the perimeter. The IAF Garud commandos sent to investigate a possible intrusion were fired upon and the leading commando was killed in action. The terrorists thereafter fled in the opposite direction, where they happened to chance upon the DSC personnel in the cook house. They opened fire on these unarmed men and killed three of them. A fourth soldier grappled with one of the terrorists and pinned him down, but the other terrorists opened fire and hurled a grenade as a result of which both the soldier and the terrorist was killed. The commander of the DSC guard, Hony Capt Fateh Singh, hearing gunshots came out to investigate the matter but he too was shot. In the initial gunfight itself then, the terrorists had killed one soldier from the IAF Garud commando platoon and five soldiers from the DSC.

By this time the infantry ghataks had been deployed and the routes of escape of the terrorists were cut off. The three remaining terrorists in this group were then eliminated by the infantry ghataks. The surprise appearance of two more terrorists a day later was also taken care off and both were eliminated in due course of time.

A lot of media space was taken up on the length of time taken to neutralise the terrorists. This really bespoke of a lack of understanding of such operations. Once a terrorist is located and isolated, then the amount of time taken to neutralise the threat is of lesser concern. The operation is no longer time sensitive and the emphasis shifts to ensuring that the threat is removed without any damage being caused to own troops. A more relevant observation was of the multiple authorities detailed to deal with the situation. Four different types of forces were operating in the base, of which the IAF Garud commandos and the DSC personnel were directly under the control of the Air Force. With the arrival of the NSG commandos and the infantry ghatak platoons, there was a need for a more formalised control structure for all the forces. This remained a lacuna in the operation carried out against the terrorists in Pathankot and needs rectification. Policies need to be formulated in peace time on command and control structures, to obviate dissonance in times of crisis.

Adding to the dissonance caused by lack of formalised command and control structures was the presence of a large number of senior officers on the site. Besides a Brigadier from the Indian Army, who perhaps should have been the only one controlling the operation, there were a large number of officers from the NSG to include their Director General, IG (Ops) and a few DIG rank level officers. Also, in location at the Air Force station was the AOC-in-C Western Air Command. In future, the movement of senior officers to the site of incident must be curbed. Even if they choose to be in location, their role in the conduct of operations and in interacting with the media must be regulated.

Adding to the dissonance caused by lack of formalised command and control structures was the presence of a large number of senior officers on the site. Besides a Brigadier from the Indian Army, who perhaps should have been the only one controlling the operation, there were a large number of officers from the NSG to include their Director General, IG (Ops) and a few DIG rank level officers. Also, in location at the Air Force station was the AOC-in-C Western Air Command. In future, the movement of senior officers to the site of incident must be curbed. Even if they choose to be in location, their role in the conduct of operations and in interacting with the media must be regulated.

Finally, a word about why the Pathankot base was attacked. Besides the evident desire of the Pakistani establishment to stir the terrorism pot within India, ostensibly over the issue of J&K, it was perhaps also designed to convey a larger geo-political message to India to stay away from Afghanistan, which Pakistan considers as its backyard. It must be remembered that India had recently gifted four attack helicopters to Afghanistan and there were Afghan Air Force personnel undergoing training at the Pathankot air base. The attack would have had great symbolic impact if the terrorists had breached the security cordon and killed any of the Afghans or destroyed the attack helicopters inside the base. In the event, the terrorists could do precious little, and the limited success they got was mostly against unarmed personnel. When viewed dispassionately, the overall operation was certainly a success, though much can be learned from the weaknesses which were observed in some of our response mechanisms.

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