NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mann ki baat was on yoga even as the security personnel were struggling to regain control of the Pathankot Air Force base; his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who was in charge of the anti terror operation found that despite intelligence information and an over eight hour headstart his ‘strategy’ had fallen apart; and the Army remains aghast at being virtually left out of an operation in its own cantonment in Pathankot with the civilians in control of what then became a ‘botched up’ operation taking four days, when a precise surgical strike should have been sufficient to take out six terrorists.

As the flak mounts, with senior Army officers coming out in open criticism of the government ‘strategy’ the government has gone into damage control mode. And the media is being briefed, selectively as well as in larger press conferences, about the ‘story’ that basically rests around three points: 1) there was no Army versus National Security Guards, all were in it together and in fact the last two ‘contacts’ were made by the Army columns with the terrorists; 2) the terrain was tough and hence the time taken was longer; in actual fact only ten hours of contact in four days took place; and 3) all precautions including removal of assets from the base were taken.

One such press conference was held by Lieutenant General KJ Singh, General Officer, Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Command, to control the damage and insist that there was sufficient synergy between all the various agencies involved. It is still a fact that the command and control instead of being left to the military was taken away by NSA Doval and handed over to the National Security Guards that are answerable to the Union Home Ministry and through it to the Prime Ministers Office, namely the NSA. In other words, the control for the operation as pointed out by The Citizen was not given to the military, but secured by the civilian authorities. This has led Lt General Harcharanjit Singh Panag, a former Northern Army Commander to send an email to Major General Pradyot K Mallick (retd), formerly of the National Defence College, to point out: “No lead agency or overall Commander was appointed. Unless Doval felt he could control the events. The area in the vicinity of the base was not combed. The public was not informed.”

And again to say openly what many of his colleagues have been saying in private, “ The villain of the piece seems to be Doval, followed by the Indian air force and the Indian army. What was the NSG doing in a purely military installation? The time is not far when we will take orders from the Home Minister, the National Security Advisor or the police. Once again we have become the laughing stock for the whole world, and given our weaknesses on a platter to the ISI.”

Significantly Lt General Singh’s press conference has actually confirmed that even the basic standard procedures were not observed, despite advanced intelligence information.

1. It was clear from the General Singh’s comments there were as many as 11,000 personnel, including families, at the Air Force base. And that it was just sheer luck that the terrorists did not take easily available hostages as there had been no effort to clear the base, despite the advanced intelligence information with New Delhi at least 8-10 hours before. As General Singh disclosed, though in an effort to outline the reported difficulties the forces on the ground faced, “the final group of terrorists , two of them, were on a second storey structure, our troops were on first floor, had to be pulled out to avoid hostage situation”. It was thus, sheer providence that the terrorists did not move onto the first floor that was full of hostages for the asking.

And another amazing disclosure, "There are strategic assets here and there can be hostage situations as there are 11,000 people live here and 3,000 families, and above all, foreign trainees and had there been any hostage situation, it is NSG body which is specially trained to rescue them," the Lt General said. Here he was trying to justify why the operation took all of four days, and in the process confirmed the large number, civilians included, who had remained on the base with no move to evacuate them in the initial stage.

And if anyone had missed the point General Singh further added "it could have developed into a hostage situation. In any case, all along the operation, there was a great possibility of taking a hostage situation because there are air men living in those barracks / residential area.”

2. Lt General Singh insisted that the Army was involved in the operations. But admitted that the first point of contact with the extremists was made by the Garuds and the Defence Security Corps who incidentally paid with their lives for this decision by those masterminding the operation. Lt General Panag again hit the nail on the head with, “ The less said about the security of our air bases in general, the better. Four-five platoon (60 men) of rag tag DSC are capable of being static security guards only. There are approximately 20-30 poorly trained Garuds.”

General Singh spoke of the bravery of a DSC soldier who was unarmed (again no explanation why, probably one of the many thousands who had not been evacuated), he jumped on a terrorist, reportedly disarmed and killed him, and then was shot dead by a second terrorist. This, if true, gives an idea of the bloody battles within with the unarmed soldiers clearly in the line of deadly fire. Why? The question keeps going back to: why were they not armed despite the warning? And why were the civilian families not evacuated?

Again the next two points of contact, General Singh said, were made by the Army. He amended this slightly to re-assert that these were made by the Army, and the integrated force, under the NSG. As General Panag has pointed out in his email, “If the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 29 Div was in charge, this (evacuation) would have been done. Preventive security of the air base was not beefed up. Given the size, an Infantry Battalion should have manned the perimeter and patrolled the wall from outside.” Not even a fraction of this was done as NSA Doval decided to keep the military out of its own terrain.

3. The security around the Pathankot Air Force base remained minimal. This despite the Gurdaspur attack recently, just 20 odd kilometres from the strategic base. And intelligence information of militant activity, and the possibility of more attacks on strategic installations in Punjab.

Asked why terrorists had hit the Air Force base, Lt Gen Singh admitted, "it is strategically important. Imagine the kind of publicity you can gain that you have targeted strategic air base. Secondly it is in the vicinity. It is easy to reach here. It is only 25 km from the area." Having known all this, why was the Air Force base not secured? No response from the government but again as General Panag said, “The less said about the security of our air bases in general, the better. Four-five platoon (60 men) of rag tag DSC are capable of being static security guards only. There are approximately 20-30 poorly trained Garuds. No electronic sensors of any kind are present along the wall and fence and the outer periphery is not lit up. Civilian houses are right next to the wall. Our air bases are sitting ducks. We have been singularly lucky that despite Mehran and Kamra, ISI did not target air bases near the International Border.

Despite the 24 hour warning, 5-8 terrorists scaled the wall and entered the administration area and attacked the DSC Mess where men were unarmed despite the warning.”

4. Pathankot is the base for MiG-21 Bison fighters and Mi-35 attack helicopters and the terrorists were ordered to blow up aircraft stationed at the air base, said General Singh. Then why were these assets not moved out of the camp? As an afterthought the authorities now claim that this was done. At the same time the same authorities maintain that the helicopters were pressed into service, and fired rockets at installations where the terrorists were suspected to be hiding. How can both be possible? Sources said that the assets were not removed,and this is a wrong claim to counter the flak. Planted stories quoting official sources point to the success of the operation with, no hostages were taken, all assets were safeguarded.

Seven defence personnel were killed, and at least another 12 or more wounded. Some sustained injuries when the explosive on a dead terrorists body detonated when it was moved by the NSG Lt Colonel who was killed immediately. The soldiers standing around the body were injured, according to sources. The sources said that standard procedure is to use a hook on a long chain, that basically then is attached to a terrorists body which is dragged in all directions to ensure that it is not booby trapped. This basic procedure was not followed by the NSG Bomb Disposal Squad.

New Delhi has been pointing out, through select briefings, that the NSG is also the Army and hence there is no real difference. The defence sources admit this, but point out that while the Special Action Group in the NSG is 100 per cent Army, it is drawn from all over the country and has little specific information about the location, such as the Pathankot air force base, where it is deployed. Besides, and more importantly, the SAG is trained for hostage and terror situations in urban areas and not equipped to secure the large tract of 1600 odd acres where the Air Force base is located. The ‘NSG should at best have been a reinforcement for the military that should have been deployed in large numbers, being present in the area, and allowed to retain command and control of the sensitive operation.

As General Panag said, “The operation should have been under GOC 29 Div. Air base security should have been placed under the Indian army. An Infantry Battalion responsible for preventive security, Special Forces team and Infantry quick reaction teams should have been placed inside the base. On 1 Jan, the area in the vicinity of the base should have been combed. Any one of us familiar with our air bases and their lack of security, and with the hindsight of Mehran and Kamra would have done this.”

Instead General Singh was fielded now with what officials said was a ‘civilian mandate’ to insist there was complete synergy between all the different agencies involved in the operation; that the delay was because of a host of logistical and operational reasons; and that the Army was not sidelined in the process.