NEW DELHI: What should have been a quick surgical operation stretched into four long days, lost India seven defence personnel including a Lt Colonel of the elite National Security Guards, and exposed an inefficiency that has raised serious questions about the government’s ability to tackle terrorism. At the centre of what sources admit quietly is a ‘botched up’ operation is National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who made it very clear from the word ‘go’ that he was sole in charge, bypassing even the Army and its expertise in counter terrorism.

Doval was handed over the information gathered by the Intelligence Bureau through intercepted conversations of the alleged terrorists. From this it was clear, or so ran the briefings, that the terrorists were to attack the Pathankot Air Force base in what was a sensitive leg of Punjab, and had been very active during the Khalistan movement in the 1980’s. The attack on the Gurdaspur police station earlier, just 20 odd kilometres from the defence base, was confirmation that this sensitive stretch was once again under attack from “spoilers” seeking to inflame India-Pakistan relations.

Given the nature of the information, it seemed that the government was in a good position to foil the attack with the factor of surprise passing from the terrorists to New Delhi. Doval who likes to take credit for operations according to his former colleagues took charge. As a first step he decided to bypass the Army stationed in the Pathankot cantonment with 50,000 troops and bring in the National Security Guards instead, to ensure that the control as reported by The Citizen two days ago, stayed with the civilian authorities and did not move to the military headquarters. He sent in about 120 NSG troops to the base, and asked the Army for just about 50 soldiers for the operations. Sources agreed that this was particularly unusual given the fact that Pathankot serves as probably one of the biggest cantonments in India and troops could have been moved across to completely cordon off the road, and the base.

Amongst the first decisions taken and announced was that the control for the operations would rest with the NSG (read Mr Doval) and not the military. And from this point onwards the operations moved into a mess, giving the terrorists a handle that by all accounts they should not have had given the intelligence information, and the fact that the NSG was in place a good 8 to 10 hours before the attack. The surprise element that should have worked in this case against the terrorists came back to haunt the security troops as they seemed to have been caught unawares by the terror attack in the early hours of the morning.

The 11 foot wall around the base should have been fortified by personnel but this was not done. Sources said this should have been the first decision, to station troops around the camp and seal it completely. As officials pointed out 120-150 NSG soldiers could certainly not fortify the camp spread across approximately 1600 acres of land. The NSA met the defence chiefs, with a meeting also convened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but only asked for two columns with a ‘stay off’ kind of message that gave the impression he had the operations well under control. As the sources said, the troops could have been spread over the Air Force base to ensure there was no possibility left for the terrorists----currently the figure is just five---to attack, let alone keep the country at bay for four long days.

Secondly, the assessments made on the ground were clearly wrong with a highly premature green signal maintaining that the operation was successful, and all terrorists killed, being given without this being the case. Two terrorists emerged to continue the exchange of fire for almost two more days with again the surprise factor, which is crucial in such operations, creating panic and a clearly knee-jerk response from the security personnel on the ground.

Three, an indication that the NSG was out of its depth in this anti-terror operations came from the death of the Lt Colonel who moved a terrorists body and was killed by an explosive that detonated as a result. As the sources said, the NSG is trained for anti-hijacking operations, with a question mark hovering over its counter insurgency capabilities. And clearly the officer though part of the Bomb Disposal Squad did not take the precaution of checking the body for explosives that is a well known terrorist ploy.

Four, given the tall promises made by the government little seems to have been done to refurbish security details. For instance, according to reports even the thermal night imaging cameras that are supposed to fortify the western borders along with other hi-fi technological equipment was not operating properly with the Border Security Force clearly not in fit and fighting form to ensure zero infiltration. The terrorists reportedly came through the riverine borders, but the faulty equipment prevented them from being detected.

Five, as the sources wondered how is it that in this age of high technology and big defence expenditure an important Air Force base with runways and fighter jets was not completely under Indian surveillance? “Surely to secure 1600 odd acres of land with cameras, drones, surveillance equipment is not difficult” the sources said pointing out that to the contrary, five or six terrorists were able to enter even though the NSG was in command, and looking out for them. Why and How are questions being asked by the retired officials in particular, as they point out that security under this government remains as neglected as under previous governments.

Six, according to officials the NSA should have worked closely with the defence forces who have full knowledge of the camp and of the terrain. Instead of flying in NSG commandos blind, the control and command should have been given to the Army with the National Security Guards coming in as additional reinforcements at best. As the sources pointed out when the Army goes into civilian areas to deal with even flood relief, it is under the control of the civilian authority as the latter knows the area and the logistics better. “It was absurd to think that the NSG commandos could replace the military in the area,” the sources said. More so, as they are not trained to secure a large area such as the Pathankot base, and more equipped to deal with tight hostage situations.

Cover up of an essentially botched up operation has begun through the media that has swung from a “well done Mr Doval” position taken within the first few hours of the operation to now a damage control mode. Reports that at least the Migs stationed at the base were saved, that the families were not taken hostage are now appearing in the press when the question is really: why did it take four days and seven deaths to secure the base despite an 8-10 hour head start?