The Indian security establishment will continue to be in watertight silos, lumbering from one terrorist attack to the other with no end in sight.

Pathankot debacle What went wrong and why we are unlikely to learn lessonsFile image: NSG Commandos, By Soumya S Das via Wikimedia Commons
Voices Terrorism Wednesday, January 06, 2016 - 08:09

For years, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) remained an elusive target for Indian intelligence agencies – under pressure from the United States after the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl. His beheading was carried out by Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, one of the terrorists released by India along with Maulana Masood Azhar in the aftermath of the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in 1999.

Pearl’s death came after 9/11, with the U.S taking a harder look at its “alliance” with Pakistan and ensuring that most of the terror outfits operating from its soil against India were kept under check. The JeM had carried out an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, forcing the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to send the Indian Army to the border. Worried at an impending conflict with the possible use of nuclear weapons, the US forced the Pakistanis to act upon terror groups and Azhar was kept in cold storage, to be activated at an opportune moment later.

The attack in the early hours of January 2 this year indicates that the JeM is back in action after a long hiatus. The last major attack in India was carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba in July 2015, ensuring that Indian security agencies were focussed on its activities.

In fact, several senior intelligence officials I spoke to in the wake of the terror attack in Paris late last year were worried that the LeT was planning a fresh attack. In May 2014, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was taking oath, a ferocious attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul by the Pakistani Taliban’s Haqqani network had been launched to destabilise the new government. Indian intelligence sources confirmed that inputs received from the U.S. intelligence agency, CIA, had established beyond doubt that the ISI had helped the Haqqani network launch the attack. Nobody in the Indian intelligence community was expecting an attack from the JeM until a few phone numbers under watch went live in the late hours of January 1 this year.

This is when things began to spin out of control.

While alerts went out to the state police and a small complement of the NSG was moved to Pathankot as a precaution, most of the mistakes committed before 26/11 occurred once again.

None of the agencies that would be eventually involved in countering the attack spoke to one another. Two key Indian Army Special Forces battalions near Pathankot – 1 Para (SF) in Nahan, Himachal Pradesh and 9 Para (SF) in Udhampur, Jammu & Kashmir were alerted. All three units have decades of experience in countering similar attacks and had conducted countless operations and were familiar with the JeM’s tactics. Their experience and capabilities would have come handy since the NSG is trained more for hostage rescue operations rather than counter terrorist operations.

The terrorists that infiltrated Punjab from Pakistan used the same route that the LeT men had used in July last year for carrying out the attack on Gurdaspur. However, the border-guarding units of the BSF and the Punjab Police failed to apprehend the JeM terrorists even as they hijacked SP Salwinder Singh and his associates.

What also surprised everyone was that the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was never convened despite such a major crisis. The CCS comprises the Prime Minister and the defence, home and foreign ministers with the National Security Advisor and the cabinet secretary as special invitees. This is the apex body of the government on all security matters and should have been immediately activated to ensure all the major ministries involved were on the same page.

While the IAF and the Army report to the union defence ministry, the NSG reports to the union home ministry. The foreign ministry is always pressed into service to ensure foreign missions are briefed while diplomatic channels are used to put pressure on Pakistan. In this case, none of this was put into place even as a major crisis was unfolding.

In fact, as the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s tweet at 6:45 pm on January 2 demonstrated, the upper echelons of India’s complicated security architecture were cut off from the reality on the ground. The home minister tweeted that the operations were “successful” even as undetected terrorists were still holed up inside the air base. They were discovered a day later and the home minister deleted his tweet after intense criticism online.

A little over a year ago, an attempt had been made by the RAW and IB chiefs to bring their counter terrorism capabilities under one roof. Had this been done, then the flow of information between the two agencies for Pathankot-like terror attacks would have been seamless. However, the proposal did not find any major backers in the Modi government and this proved to be a major handicap during the Pathankot operations. The overly centralised decision-making model spearheaded by the Prime Minister’s Office is now proving to be a bottleneck in such situations rather than an enabler. Little wonder then that the PMO was tweeting about Yoga classes while the Home Minister’s Office was planning a two-day trip to Assam on January 3.

Meanwhile, India’s asymmetric capabilities to carry out special operations beyond its borders remains abysmal, ensuring that there is no deterrence capabilities. While the raid in Myanmar was successful, New Delhi knows its severe limitations with Pakistan. That has not changed even though the government at the Centre has had 19 months to build such capabilities.

Chances are that intelligence reforms will continue to be ignored even after the Pathankot attack. The Indian intelligence community, albeit a very successful one at countering terror, has never seen any major accountability or continuity unlike their western counterparts for any meaningful reform to set in. After the massive failure of 26/11, not only did the government ignore any major reforms, the two intelligence chiefs of the IB and RAW escaped any censure. The seamless integration between intelligence and first-responders like the NSG and the army’s Special Forces also seems buried despite a half-hearted attempt by P Chidambaram during his stint as the union home minister. His speech articulating a major shake-up in India’s counter-terrorism capabilities during the IB Centenary lecture in 2010 remains on paper with no takers.

With the Pathankot operations finally declared over, chances are that the Indian security establishment will continue to be in watertight silos, lumbering from one terrorist attack to the other with no end in sight.

Saikat Datta is a journalist and author specialising on security issues. He tweets as @saikatd. All views expressed are personal.

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