By Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch (retired)
Much has been written about the recent terror strike in Pathankot and more such material will be produced. The discovery of US Army military binoculars used by terrorists makes it obvious that they were trained and equipped by the Pakistani army. The discussion in media has veered toward massive deficiencies in equipping National Security Guard (NSG) commandos. Some of these shortcomings stood out during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Following the blasts at Zhaveri Bazaar in Mumbai, and Delhi High Court, the focus was on CCTVs not working.
This time, it is equipping the NSG; will we then forget Pathankot till the next terror strike? Ironically, among the many questions about command and control, coordination and time taken in responding to the Pathankot attack, some fundamental questions were never asked and some systemic deficiencies remain unaddressed.
Following reports of infiltration across the International Border (IB) and indications of terrorists heading towards Pathankot, the Indian Air Force base was correctly assessed as the prime target and the strategic assets moved out before terrorists entered the base on 1 January, which merits high commendation. The mechanics of our response with NSG as the lead force is public knowledge by now but some facts would still be of interest, like:
1. On the fourth day of the operation, a journalist rang up army headquarters to ascertain the ground situation in the IAF base. He was told that he should ring up the Ministry of Home Affairs which controlled the operation through the NSG.
2. During his press briefing at Pathankot base on 5 January, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said the NSG would have the final word in the operation.
3. Following the operation, a journalist asking a senior NSG officer (name withheld) why the operation took that long, and was tersely told, “the NSG does not operate at night”, besides other reasons; an NSG officer (who was part of the force sent to Pathankot) says the group is meant for hostage rescue situations. Significantly, a media report indicates that despite being sanctioned crores for equipment after 26/11, the NSG is deficient of 72 items, including night vision.
Faced with a coup d'état in 1988, when Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom asked for Indian assistance, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted the NSG to be launched. However, the then IG (operations) NSG conveyed to him that should the Male airfield be occupied by the coup d'état forces, our aircraft would turn back and that, therefore, it would be better to allot the task to the army’s parachute brigade, which can deploy troopers if required. There was no one-upmanship. It is a different issue that the paratroopers had to go in using a tourist map, which was all that Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) could supply; even today the Survey of India and Military Survey is some 30 years behind in updating maps of areas within the country.
But here are some questions that have not been posed:
• Would the military ask for NSG assistance if a military commander is taken hostage tomorrow?
• If not, did the two service chiefs, who met the NSA for a briefing, feel the military was incapable to cope with four to six terrorists striking the IAF base?
• Did the service chiefs tell the National Security Adviser that army (special forces) assets, both in western and northern commands, were located much closer to Pathankot than the NSG? And that the special forces routinely exercise the tackling of military bases (including IAF) and are regularly engaged in live terrorist situations?
• Did the NSG inform the NSA they were inadequately equipped with long-range night vision to operate by night?
• Wasn’t the quantum of army troops asked for insufficient – only two columns initially?
• The NSG arrived at the IAF base at 8.30 pm on 1 January and was unable to operate in hours of darkness. Why then was the operation not handed over to the army?
• Are Garuds tasked and trained for such tasks? What was the need to put them on the frontline, holding back special sorces present in the base?
• Was the NSG bomb disposal squad equipped with suits and were the personnel wearing them during the operation?
• Did the defense minister’s statement on 5 January that the last word rests with the NSG not convey that he saw no such role for the IAF base commander?
Apart from removing strategic assets in time, readers can assess whether the counter-terrorist operation itself was a success, a botch up or a royal botch up, and whether this was or was not a case of forcing a square peg into a round hole, cover up statements notwithstanding.
Set aside reports of “many blasts heard later” and “body parts found” and you have four terrorists that held you up for many days. The reasoning being provided — that the Inspector General (operations) NSG controlling the operation was also an army officer — doesn’t cut any ice, as he takes orders from his DG who is an Indian Police Service officer. During the hijack of IC-184 and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the MHA was blissfully unaware that one special group (on army deputation) was fully trained in anti-hijack and counter terrorism and had their own aircraft, unlike NSG deployments, which are invariably delayed because of lack of aircraft. In this case, the NSG capabilities vis-à-vis special forces including deployments of the latter on 1 January were not taken into account.
The NSG, raised in 1986, has had all 28 DGs from the IPS under the euphemism of ‘civilian control’, which makes no sense because the group itself is under the MHA. If an IPS officer is a must for exercising ‘civilian control’ then logically the Assam Rifles too under MHA should have had a DG from IPS but this is not the case.
This is not about army versus the Indian Police Service but the fact is that the specialisation of the latter is ‘law and order’. When combat units of NSG conducting counterterrorism and anti-hijack operations are commanded by army officers, why do they need a DG from the IPS? Also, two-thirds of the NSG comprises Special Ranger Groups (SRG) whose operational task is securing the perimeter before the Special Action Group (SAG) undertakes hostage rescue. But SRGs have never been deployed other than for VVIP security, where besides other perks, they earn two and a half times their dearness allowance per day. Is there any reason why a bulk of the SRGs should not merge with the SPG?
There are other systemic faults that need addressing. A chief of defense staff is required more to synergise the military than to be a single point adviser. The proposed permanent chairman, chiefs of army staff committee, if denied operational powers, cannot ensure the strategy required. Air bases have been struck by terrorists in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now in India. More attempts will be made. Much more military synergy is required. China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) has just one civilian in charge: President Xi Jinping. In contrast, our ministry of defense is manned by civilian bureaucrats and is without military professionals. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is the designated lead force for counter-insurgency but has no additional director general or director general-level officers; it is CRPF cadre officers who should be handing out advice instead of the IPS; a similar grouse is nurtured by the Border Security Force and Indo Tibetan Border Police Force. These are issues that need to be addressed.
(The author is former director general, information systems of the Indian Army, and a special forces officer.)