As the dust settles down on the Pathankot episode, the government is veering towards doing a thorough review of all standard operating procedures and instructions for security forces dealing in anti-terror operations. The government will investigate the two apparent lapses made by security forces that seemed to have occurred during the Pathankot terrorist attack: One, the failure to detect the infiltration of the heavily armed terrorist group, most probably members of the JeM, well-trained and ready to die, across the Punjab border and two, how did they manage to enter into the Pathankot Air Force station undetected. At the same time, an internal assessment within the government has appreciated the fact that civilian casualties were fully avoided and so was any damage to the high value air assets like fighter aircraft and helicopters.
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At first glance the casualty figures of seven security personnel killed looks high and unacceptable but a closer scrutiny shows up that only two security personnel—a brave, unarmed DSC (Defence Security Corps) soldier and an IAF Garud commando—were actually martyred in direct combat with the terrorists. Four other DSC men were unlucky to have been caught out unarmed and unprepared while they were in a cookhouse.
The terrorists chanced upon them and killed four of them instantly. One of them however was so brave that in an act reminiscent of Constable Tukaram Omble’s bravery during the 26/11 attack, chased a terrorist, turned his weapon and killed him before being eliminated by the remaining terrorists. This man—Subedar Major Fateh Singh deserves the highest award for his gallantry. And so does, the Garud Commando Gursewak Singh, who
confronted the terrorists at a crucial junction and prevented them from proceeding towards the technical area where the air assets are located, before being martyred. The death of the Lt Col during clearing operations was unfortunate and once again demonstrates that bomb disposal is a highly risky and unpredictable operation even in the most benign circumstances.
December 30-31: A group of six terrorists allegedly entered Bharat through the Kathua-Gurdaspur border in Punjab.
After the initial success however, the terrorists were unable to make any headway and were confined to the periphery. Thereafter, it was a matter of time before they were eliminated. The criticism about the delay in killing the remaining terrorists or even detecting a couple of them much later, is a matter of perspective. From the security forces point of view, they were not willing to take anymore casualties than absolutely necessary and therefore the deliberate and apparently slow clearing operation that took more than 48 hours.
Also contrary to popular perception, the Army was fully involved in the operation with as many as nine columns of infantry and para Special Forces men (900 men) involved in the assault.
Major Attack on Army Camps
March 13, 2013: CRPF Camp, Srinagar
June 24, 2013: Army Convoy, Srinagar
September 16, 2013:
Dec 5, 2014:
July 27, 2015: Gurdaspur Police Station
Jan2, 2016: Pathankot Air Base
Now that the operation is over, many of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will have to be revisited, tactics honed and intelligence improved. To begin with border management in Punjab by the BSF will have to be reviewed and thoroughly revamped; twice in the last six months, terrorists have managed to infiltrate from the same area.
The Punjab Police also needs a shake up and needs it quick. The story of the SP who was let off by the terrorists, smells fishy. It needs to crossed checked by interrogating him and his associates. The Akali government will have to pull up its socks in managing not just law and order but also the intelligence network within the state. Right now, Punjab Police is the weakest link in the security grid.
Finally, the security of all frontline Air Force bases is expected to be reassessed in coming weeks. Although the DSC has traditionally guarded these stations, security managers will need to take a hard look if they need to be replaced or redeployed. Although comprising of all veterans drawn from the three defence forces, the DSC is neither equipped nor oriented to carry out an anti-terror operation. They have done and continue to do a great job in static duties across the most sensitive defence establishments, but it will be unfair to expect them to take on highly motivated, lethally armed and bent-on-suicide terrorists.
If anything, the Pathankot episode shows that security forces handled the attack well after the initial setback, although there is no denying that there are shortcomings in India's security grid that need urgent correction.
The biggest weakness in the entire episode however was the lack of timely messaging about the entire operation. In absence of timely and accurate information, there were too many speculative reports appearing in the media. The narrative went complete out of the government’s hand within 24 hours, despite the initial success of eliminatng four of the six terrorists by the evening of 3 January. With not enough thought given to perception management and information sharing and absence of central communication mechanism, government lost the initiative.
This aspect has to be looked into in much more detail by the government if it does not want to lose the perception war. The biggest lesson of Pathankot perhaps lies there.
Nitin A Gokhale (The writer is a National