New Delhi: Even as the government refuses to admit any lapse on the part of security and intelligence agencies in the terror attack at Punjab’s Pathankot airbase, doubts have surfaced over how fool-proof India's intelligence-security ecosystem really is. Defence experts and former top servicemen feel the attack is the result of a failure of the “entire system’’. According to latest reports, seven Indian security personnel had died in the attack and there’s still no clarity on whether more terrorists are holed up at the base.
Questions are many: How can a pinpointed intelligence input – if any – be ignored? Why was the perimeter of the Pathankot airbase not secured despite warnings? Why was the first information of the armed infiltration, given by a Punjab Police officer who was abducted by the terrorists, disregarded? How was another infiltration allowed to take place along the very same nullah which served as conduit for a recent previous attack? What was the Border Security Force's role? Where are the surveillance equipment and night vision devices? Why was the National Security Guard (NSG) sent in when the Army has a crack Special Forces unit nearby at Nahan? Why was Delhi trying to micromanage when it clearly lacks the competence?
“India has not learnt any lesson from previous operations carried out by Pakistan against us. We shout for two days and then it is business as usual. It is a shame,” Major General (retired) Satbir Singh told Firstpost.
How can this operation, he asked, be called 'professional' when terrorists managed to advance 25 km inside the area where we have vital air assets, kill seven and seriously injure 20 in 36 hours?
“It means our intelligence agencies are not working at all. There is no co-ordination. There is no actionable intelligence,” he alleged.
When reminded that the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had given prior inputs, he replied, “The responsibility of the IB does not stop after merely issuing alerts. Its responsibility is to ensure that actionable intelligence goes is acted upon. And mind you, I am not isolating military when I said it was the failure of all intelligence and executing agencies. The entire system has failed.”
The Army veteran refused to accept that the assault was a terror attack. He said it is a military operation by Pakistan.
“The nation has been defeated by terrorists of Pakistan. So, they are not terrorists. It is a military operation against us by the ISI and the Pakistan Army. The government has permitted the terrorists to enter our territory and kill so many people,” he said.
On whether there is a visible trend in the recent attacks in Punjab, he added, “Pakistani terrorists are shifting their target from the Valley to Punjab as they are finding it (the state) an easier target. They are finding laxity, lack of coordination, seriousness and ineffectiveness of local commanders.”
According to him, a standard operating procedure should immediately be installed so that whenever such an attack takes place, the local command of all operations and forces in the sector is automatically assumed by the senior-most military officer.
"This operation should have come under the local Army GOC instead of New Delhi," he said.
Air Vice Marshal (retired) Kapil Kak also shared the same opinion. “The government had specific inputs 24 hours in advance that Punjab is going to be struck. Why was security of vital installations was not beefed up? The government did not coordinate well enough to prevent terrorists from getting inside the airbase. It takes only six hours to deploy a battalion around the perimeter. Had they been deployed in time, the terrorists would have never dared to climb the wall and cross the concertina wire and get inside. Seven lives could have been saved,” he said.
The police, he said, had 24 hours after the terrorists killed taxi driver Ikagar Singh on Friday and injured Rajesh Verma, the friend of Gurdaspur SP Salwinder Singh, early in the morning on 1 January. Between 11:30 am and 1 pm, the terrorists spoke to their handlers. From 1 pm to 3 am next morning, they were around Punjab for full 15 hours in Army fatigues.
“Where were the police? They knew the last position. So, the police and decision-making at the highest level were below par because they had all the time and forces at their disposal to protect the airbase. There could have been a three-layer security. This is disaster at a strategic level,” he further added.
He questioned National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s move of sending the National Security Guard at Pathankot.
“Why are you fiddling around with the NSG? There is a brigade in Pathankot. Why were its battalions not used?” he asked, adding “it is not the duty of Air Force to protect it from outside. Their job is to see if the place is secure, the aircraft are serviceable, and can fly when required and to ensure infrastructure inside. They provide security only inside the airbase and for this purpose, they rely on retired Army jawans who constitute what they call Defence Security Corps (DSC) – which are not a counter terror force. They are like chowkidars (watchman) in uniform. They are not trained take on intruders and therefore, five of them were killed”.
Referring to Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehershi’s statements where he kept repeating that the IAF lost seven men, he said: “The fact is the IAF and the NSG lost one officer each. Four DSC guards were apparently gunned down and one DSC jawan was killed after he killed a terrorist. A man who doesn’t even know the line-up of our own forces is quite clearly not up to the job,” he added.
Adding that attacks after attacks are a worrisome trend, he added: “We will have to now watch Jaish in the frontline. It is getting more and more active in Kashmir taking a leaf out of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen's book.
“The attack in Kupwara sector was also their handiwork. They targeted military camp there and now the airbase here. Gurdaspur attack, too, was carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammad.”
Kak strongly disagreed with Major Gen. Singh who said the Pakistan Army and the ISI are involved in the attack.
“The Pakistan Army or the ISI do not have a hand in this incident. Though it goes against the grains of public opinion in India, I say it very openly and with firmness. I don’t say it in psychological or instinctive terms but as an analysis,” he said.
"The attack", said the Air Vice Marshal, "is is not a result of planning but a threat. Pakistan-based Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) carried out a similar attack on PN Naval Base in Mehran in 2011 and subsequently on Kamra airbase in 2012. Fortunately, Jaish failed to inflict such damage on us because of some apparent coordination problems.
Ashok K Behuria, research fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, feels the terror attack is aimed at unsettling the dialogue process.
“I would say that this was pretty much expected. One should not be surprised. What surprises me is the lack of preparedness on our part. I would have expected our authorities to be little more prepared for this kind of act. This spoiler act was very much on. In fact, the script had been written when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed Lahore,” he added.
“There is a very powerful constituency in the Pakistani military which does not want better relationship with India and it has become an existential charter of the Pakistan Army. The army is not happy with the efforts of civilian government led by Nawaz Sharif to engage in talks with India and that is quite evident. If you look at the trend right from November 2008 till date, each time civilian government in Pakistan had taken a step forward it had been followed by a terror attack.
"To claim that the LeT, Jaish. HuJI or any other terror outfit are acting on their own is ridiculous because it is a deliberate attempt by the Pakistan military to scotch the talks. No second thoughts,” added Behuria, who is an expert on Pakistan's politics, India-Pakistan relations vis-a-vis Kashmir and the sectarian diversity in Pakistan.
"Pakistan is trying," he said, "to take this war to different theatre because they know that Indian Army is better prepared in the valley.
“I imagine it that they are doing it with twin purposes – it is a weaker area from a security point of view and it is easier to infiltrate. Second, there is parallel effort to resurrect Punjabi militancy. The Sikh community is being wooed by the Pakistani intelligence agencies. the Pathankot attack is an effort to kill three birds with one stone – demonstrate the weakness of the Indian military; hold the talks; revive or encourage the Sikh militancy in the state to gain grounds.
Prof Ajay Darshan Behera, coordinator for Pakistan Studies at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia university, raised questions on the ill-informed operation by the security forces. “Yesterday, there was news that all terrorists have been neutralised but today, the operation is still on. I think there is something terrible in the way they have handled the entire operation as well as disseminating information to the media.
Why has so much information being given out about the operation when you do not know what actually happened? It is a very sensitive case because the government is trying to move ahead with talks and simultaneously trying to contain a terrorist attack,” he said.
There are information that infiltrators are entering the country through the routes taken by smugglers to cross the international border.
“I strongly feel the attacks are planned and through and through. They wanted to inflict a major damage like blowing up a plane etc., and therefore had chose Pathankot (which is considered India’s first line of defence against Pakistan),” he said.
Behera doesn't think the attacks are an attempt to revive insurgency in Punjab.
“Any insurgency is very difficult to be revived until there is a cause. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to revive any movement in Punjab. Kashmir keeps on burning because there is some resistance but in Punjab you do not have that kind of situation. Pakistan cannot really build a movement in Punjab,” he concluded.