CHANDIGARH: For India, the present New Year is different than most other countries. While the world welcomed the New Year with cheers; all round revelry; and popping corks of champagne bottles, it brought betrayal; deceit; fraudulence; perfidy; and a breach of solemn promises by no less a person than the Prime Minister of a neighbouring country made to our Prime Minister, not once but repeatedly, that Jihadi terrorists would not be permitted to operate from Pakistan and attack targets in India. This is yet another case of many earlier attempts for making peace with Pakistan, but that is not the subject of this article.

I am referring to the attack on the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot by terrorists of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) from Pakistan.

While the terrorists did not succeed in their nefarious mission, it has undoubtedly brought to the fore the gross ineptness of both persons and institutions that deal with security issues of our nation. This ineptness was at all levels, from the very top to the lowly but brave soldiers, who once again proved that even when the higher ups botch up everything, they readily sacrifice even their lives and do not shirk from their duty and responsibility. Yet, mere bravery and putting lives on the line are no substitute for wrong decisions and ill-thought follow up actions by supposedly experts charged with national level policies affecting the security of the nation. In the aftermath, instead of taking the culprits to task, cover-ups are already underway to shield loyalists and look for scapegoats.

Although the media has carried considerable reports about this terrorist operation, it is necessary to highlight some important aspects. It is fairly clear that the attack was mounted to derail the so-called peace process between the two countries, when for the umpteen time India extended its hand to normalize relations with its neighbour. Unlike earlier occasions, the attempt at disruption came much earlier than in the past, indicating that nothing really has changed among those in Pakistan, who for their own reasons of retaining power do not want a rapprochement, even when the Pakistani Awam desires it. Since most facets of this terrorist attack are already in the public domain, I will confine myself to only analysis.

I am firmly of the view that it is narco-terrorism that was fully and deeply involved in making this attack possible for the JEM terrorists. Many Border Security Force (BSF) and Punjab Police personnel are in cahoots with smugglers of both sides and are deeply involved in smuggling of narcotics from Pakistan. I believe that the nexus extends all the way up to a few ministers of the Punjab Government, if not higher.

All facets of the incident involving the Gurdaspur SP Salwinder Singh, particularly the fact that he and his companions were not killed and his cock and bull story are pointers to the deep involvement of the JEM and by association the Pakistani ISI in making use of these collaborators to terrorist actions in India. That Salwinder later got in touch with his headquarters were as a hedge to his other activities.

The Pathankot attack is one instance when sufficient clues, evidence and information about the high probability of a terrorist attack were not just available but even the target was broadly identified. In addition, sufficient time and more importantly overwhelming well-trained force was readily available to foil the likely attack. In spite of this, people who project themselves as experts at the rarified levels at the capital behaved not just shabbily but in a most unprofessional manner.

The National Security Adviser (NSA), having received most relevant information from more than one source did not even think of calling the experts in counter terrorist operations (the army units next door), but chose to airlift a small team of NSG—trained for tackling hostage situations and anti- hijacking operations and not flushing out terrorists. Then the floodgates of mismanagement opened when no command arrangements were made. The army formation next door was the ideal force available. It had senior and well trained command, control, communications and staff available and it had well trained and equipped troops readily and immediately available to foil and flush out the terrorists.

Information available in the public domain also states that the decision taken was in a meeting of the so called ‘core group’ that gets activated in such situations. One can understand that the civil officials who form part of the group may be somewhat naive about security issues and are more concerned about ensuring that no blame comes to them later, but it is baffling that the three Service Chiefs and particularly the Army Chief, who were also present, went along with this peculiar decision.

Maybe the major reasons for the NSA to take such a decision were one or all of three, viz. ‘ego’ to show himself as a better professional than others; deliberately belittling the only force that matters in our country, viz. the army to tackle such challenges; and taking credit later by proving that a force under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) was as good, forgetting that the cutting edge of the NSG also consists of only army personnel, albeit curiously commanded by a police officer!

Whatever the reason, the nation then found itself looking at a situation where a whole division or more of well trained and equipped force was left cooling its heels next door in Mamun Military Station, while an assortment of Defence Security Corps (DSC) personnel, meant for static guard duties; a few Garud Commandos of the IAF, who are not tasked for such roles; sundry personnel of the Punjab Police, some armed and others with only their ‘dandas’ ; some elements of the BSF, whose role is guarding the border; a few intelligence personnel from a number of intelligence agencies (whose role I am unable to comprehend); and sundry others.

The moot question is whether the nation should continue to have a person who cannot discern even roles and tasks of various security forces to continue in that position? Maybe, this is an irrelevant question in a nation where important appointments are made not on account of ability and capability but on loyalty, willingness to compromise and having other such traits.

The Base Commander of a sensitive operational base is always specially selected for his professionalism and leadership qualities. This was also the case for the Pathankot Air Base. However, when a leader with such great responsibility is confronted with a challenge of the type that had presented itself, he needs space; interaction with his command to formulate plans; and monitor execution. However, if senior brass lands up in the base, ostensibly to help or for any other inexplicable reason, they are bound to curb the style of the commander and draw his attention away from the task at hand. This is exactly what happened, as senior officers started landing in sundry aircraft and other vehicles, who included the C in C of the Western Air Command and many others.

Notwithstanding the botched up decision making in Delhi, unfortunately, in the heat of excitement or a myriad other reasons some senior brass forgot the basic teaching drummed into them for years, which is to let the commander on the spot handle the situation and not breathe over his shoulder. Many of us, either for ego, glory or other similar reasons forget this golden military rule.

It was the same case with the DG of NSG, who also landed up there, maybe for similar reasons. Some of you may remember that the police officer who was the DG at the time of the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai had done the same and proved to be a major hindrance in the conduct of those operations.

The shemozzle of wrong decisions taken at Delhi was eventually corrected after we suffered many casualties and had dollops of sheer luck, but can we or should we depend on luck? These kind of situations are highly serious and sensitive, where if SOP’s (standing operating procedures) are not followed for extraneous reasons or for seeking personal glory, then after the event cover ups always start so that blue-eyed boys can be extracted from their ignominious decisions.

Accountability is unfortunately an alien word in the system the government follows in our country. Whether it was the debacle of 1962, or the widespread bomb blasts on a number of occasions in Mumbai, or after the Mumbai Mayhem of 26/11, no one was apparently accountable! Once again, with a massive cover up already underway, some low level functionaries may well be blamed and then all will be forgotten and forgiven. The ‘sarkari’ media and the ‘paid’ media are already working speedily to shift focus away from the highly unprofessional way the ‘maharathis’ of Delhi handled the entire crisis.

This piece would be incomplete if one does not bring out the inaction or the non-action of our elected political leaders dealing with security affairs. Apparently, the cabinet did not meet for six days and the senior ministers concerned with security issues found many other engagements that kept them away from Delhi! The Prime Minister’s visit to the base now had little meaning except perhaps to show that he still had confidence in his ‘maharathis’ whom he had taken along for the photo-ops. I suppose it was a non-event for the political leaders, as it had no electoral connotations and hence of no importance!

When insurgency/ terrorism was at its height in the early years of the 1990’s, we in the army used to have a plethora of data to get an overall picture of how our troops were performing. One of these categories was the ratio of casualties of the troops vis a vis the insurgents. I do recall that we always had a favourable ratio, which gave a good idea of the gains we were making. It is sad and disheartening that even after prior knowledge was available, the ratio of casualties is in favour of the terrorists in this terrorist attack.

When will we learn lessons and when will they get implemented, or would we continue to rely on lady luck to come to our rescue? Your guess is as good as mine!

(The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff.)