NEW DELHI: An unprecedented meeting by Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj---even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi went into a huddle with security personnel---with a group of retired bureaucrats reflected, perhaps more than any other factor, the insecurity and confusion at the highest levels with Pathankot terror attack entering its second, relentless day.

Should we continue talking to Pakistan was the question that Swaraj wanted the gathering of former diplomats to answer as pressure from within mounted on the government to snap the hastily agreed upon dialogue. More so, as it was clear that the attack on the Pathankot Air Force base had been conceived and prepared for before PM Modi’s flying visit to Lahore, that clearly had not persuaded the mentors of this terror attack to call it off.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has been clearly in control of the operations at the Pathankot base. He ensured that control was passed from the military to the National Security Guards, and more specifically their Special Action Group of which 120 plus commandos were flown into the base at least eight hours before the terror attack. This, in effect, ensured that the control of the operations shifted from the military to the civilian heads with the Union Home Ministry and again more specifically the NSA in charge. The SAG, although drawn from the Army, took over the operations blind as they were not conversant with the area, or the base. Sources said that the control should have been transferred to the Division Commander of the Indian Army who is posted there, more so as “the place is controlled by the military, and it made just no sense whatsoever to place the NSG in command.”

Defence sources suspect that the logistics of the new command centre delayed the effective sealing off the base. It is not clear at all as to why in the eight hours the camp had not been fortified to a point where no one could enter, least of all terrorists. There is apparently a drain running at the back of the camp that is surrounded by a forest area. The terrorists are believed to have used this as an entry point even after the operations began, with the small forest providing the much needed cover. Again it is not clear why this area was not the first to be fortified and cleansed in the much touted combing operation.

The sequence of events that has emerged from non-briefings with the government unable to even answer basic questions is as follows:

The Intelligence Bureau intercepted conversation between the alleged militants to suggest ‘infiltration’ and a terror strike. This, according to local sources in Punjab, was received around December 26.

The intercepts pointed towards the Pathankot air force base as the target of attack.

NSA Doval took charge and flew in NSG commandos to the base, making it clear that the command would now be with the civilian authorities and not the Army for the purpose of the operations.

The NSG team flew in at least 8 hours before the terrorists struck to fortify the base, but were clearly not successful.

The terrorists struck at 3 am and despite the intelligence information, and the supposed preparedness on the ground---police, Air Force and Army commandos, NSG et al---managed to carry the surprise factor with them and entered the camp easily. Defence personnel died but the terrorists did not, until later, in the ensuring gun battle.

Significantly, the same complacency that was evident before the terrorists entered the base came into operation just after the gun battle. The government rushed to announce that it was in full command, that all the terrorists ----the numbers kept fluctuating between 4 and 5----had been killed, and the post encounter combing operations had declared the camp clean. Within minutes, however, it became clear that this was not so, that terrorists remained in the camp, and the gun battle started all over again, continuing till the time of writing this. Again the figure being given out is of two terrorists, leading to the question as to why they have not been flushed out by the large forces made available for the operations? Local newspapers have written that initial intelligence information was of infiltration by 15 militants, but the figure once the operation started was reduced dramatically on the basis of eyewitness accounts. However, as sources said, it is not clear whether the combing operations extended to the drain and the forest behind, as more than two terrorists could be hiding there.

In the process, all policy claims by the government seem to have gone up in smoke. The claim of a major re-look at the security apparatus by the NSA in minute detail does not seem to be substantiated as the commandos were not able to secure the base. More worrying, as sources here said, is that they thought they had, with success being declared even though terrorists were still present inside. The death of the Lt Colonel, while tragic, is also not without significance as if initial reports that he was killed while trying to shift a dead militants body, with an explosive on it detonating. It is not clear why the body was not first searched for explosives, before being shifted.

The death of seven security personnel, including a Lt Colonel, in an attack that was expected and prepared for is again being described by defence sources as “unprecedented.” The assessment is that if the camp had been fortified efficiently, the terrorists would have been on the receiving end even before they entered, and not the security personnel who were killed instead.

The policy of friendship with Pakistan, stitched together it seems under tremendous international pressure, is now coming apart. The government that has pursued a hard ball policy for over 17 months is now having to accept the attack here, as well as on its consulate in Mazar Sharif, Afghanistan by using the same excuse as the Congress dispensation did earlier, “this has not been done by the Pakistan government.” However, the domestic pressure is not intense as well particularly as the BJP constituency is asserting itself in demanding ‘war’ as a response to the ‘attack’.

The Pathankot Air Force base is sensitive and important. In fact during the 1965 war the Pakistanis had first immobilised this by bombing the runways and the jet fighters parked here. Meanwhile, fresh gunfire has been reported again from the base at 230pm indicating that the terrorists are very much alive and kicking.