Don't blame training: Pathankot attack calls for overhaul of anti-terror response

A huge lesson that has emerged from the chaotic responses to the attack in Pathankot over the past few days is that India has not developed the right mechanisms to face the terror tactics that constitute contemporary warfare. That the response was botched is more than obvious. The attackers roamed around Punjab in a hijacked vehicle for more than 15 hours, even though information of the carjack was given to authorities; indeed, it was an officer’s car. Yet, the attackers were able to invade one of the most important military installations what is arguably one of India’s three most militarily-significant nodes — and perhaps its most vital quick-response node for any putative attack against Pakistan.

Security forces in Pathankot. AP

Security forces in Pathankot. AP

Much has been written and said about particular flaws and inadequacies in the responses of the police, the air force, the army, the National Security Guard, the national security advisor et al. Little of it will be worthwhile when it comes to the crunch, unless analysts start assessing what kind of mechanisms and forces are required, and how these can be effectively established.

So far, there has clearly been no effort.

What happened in and around Pathankot in the first few days of this new year is depressingly similar to what happened in the last few days of 1999 in Amritsar, when IC-814 briefly stopped there en route to Dubai and finally Kandahar. Apparently, no lessons were learnt from that entire hijack. The situation swung between no decision-making and too many decision-makers.

A good place to start would be to acknowledge that none of these forces is really adequate to deal with the emergent patterns of attack. The problem with top-notch training is that it can only be given to very few. So, adequately-trained personnel just cannot be available wherever and whenever terrorists attack.

On the other hand, terrorism’s greatest advantage is surprise. Perpetrators, or their handlers, choose their targets and timing at will. They can also switch plans very quickly. The other great advantage of a terrorist is disguise. It is almost impossible to make out who might turn out to be a terrorist. The Pathankot attackers used all these advantages to great advantage.

After what happened at Parliament House on 13 December, 2001, and the security measures that have been put in place since, the fact that the vehicle managed to enter the Pathankot air force station unchallenged is nothing short of criminal negligence. This is particularly so in light of the fact that the authorities in Pathankot were informed that a senior police officer’s car with a revolving blue light on its roof had been taken over by possible terrorists. Clearly, those charged with ensuring security are so busy bending the rules to suit their little egos that they learn no lessons.

Armies and air forces are trained to move in strength, with logistical support. This necessarily slows down responses. The challenge is compounded by the attackers’ willingness to die. They not only break in at great speed, they do not need to secure their exit routes or running out of bullets or other supplies.

The Rashtriya Rifles was established about a quarter-century ago. It was given a huge fillip in 1994, when a large number of new battalions were established for Kashmir. General BC Joshi, one of the finest chiefs the Indian Army has had, apparently envisaged it as a counter-insurngey force that would function under the home ministry. Instead, it has become a wing of the army, stuck with the army’s ways and methods – and appears to have become a Kashmir-specific force.

Its approach is area domination. That means that it seeks to ensure that the area under each unit of the counter-insurgency grid is `sanitized’ of militants. This is inadequate for the sort of highly mobile, even more highly motivated, and willing to die militants — coordinated from far away — that are emerging.

There is an impressive-looking fence and other technological tools to prevent infiltration into Kashmir. So, they now come into Punjab or the area around Jammu. There is a counter-insurgency grid in the Valley. So, they launch daring operations in Gurdaspur, Pathankot of Udhampur. Islamic State has demonstrated that such tactics and strategies are extremely effective over even wider regions. They do not even need the operational command centres that the Pakistan Army has in places like Rawalpindi.

This sort of war-by-other-means is going to become more common. A deep hard look at the entire machinery, methods and modes of war that developed from the late 19th Century is required — quickly.

One of the most important challenges is training. Those who died during combing operations when they thought the terrorists had already all been killed were clearly unfamiliar with some of the patterns adopted by militants in Kashmir over the past decade or so. They sometimes try to booby-trap their bodies to kill those who come to dispose of the bodies and debris after the firefight.

Not only do officers and other ranks of all kinds of security forces need to be given orientation and methodological training, even others such as security and other staff at hotels, educational institutions and other potential targets of terrorism must be given at least some introductory training.

That would only be the starting point of a concerted and purposeful response to the new patterns of warfare — for make no mistake, it is warfare.

Published Date: Jan 06, 2016 04:58 pm | Updated Date: Jan 06, 2016 04:58 pm