It’s always good to wait for some time before trying to make sense of events with complex ramifications. Somebody should tell that to our media and armchair intellectuals. They were writing off the terrorist attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station as a massive failure of the government and Indian intelligence even as our brave soldiers were taking bullets for the country. Politicians, the media, and armchair intellectuals are never known for their restraint, but if ever an image of vultures tearing at a still living and kicking body came to mind, it was during this crisis.
Although the central government, the Punjab police, and even the armed forces were so fiercely attacked for their perceived failure, cooler mulling over the incident shows that this was anything but that. Yes, there were issues, but, on the whole, things did pan out well for India, thanks to some quick thinking and even quicker action by the security establishment.
People did die, and that is a tragedy for their families and the country. But, given the amount of ammunition and explosives they carried, the terrorists could have inflicted greater damage. Airplanes could have been destroyed, the base made inoperable, and scores more people could have died.
Pathankot Air Force Station covers an area of 2,000 acres and has a 24 km-long perimeter wall. That’s a really long wall to secure. It’s doubtful that every foot of that wall is watched all the time. Tall grass grows in the open area and it’s theoretically possible to stay hidden for days without being seen. Hundreds of people live and work on the base and dozens of airplanes are parked here. Due to the sheer volumes of people, including civilians, coming and going, security tends to be lax. This will probably change.
With the size and large number of people on the base, the damage inflicted by the terrorists could have been worse. However, as events unfolded, adverse opinions came swiftly. In reality, a possible Indian collaborator, Gurdaspur superintendent of police Salwinder Singh, was identified and questioned, phone conversations were monitored, the Pakistani handlers were pinpointed, and most of the terrorists were killed in the first few hours.
Criticism of how the situation was handled came from three sides. First, retired defense personnel questioned the lack of security and the ease with which the terrorists penetrated the camp. This is valid. Since there was some kind of advance information about the attack, could it have been prevented? What this information was and how it was obtained is not yet clear, but extra troops were moved into the base to protect it. The terrorists used Salwinder Singh’s car to enter the premises. While it’s strange that his car was conveniently available to be hijacked, he was also the person who alerted the authorities that an attack was imminent. Some clarity is still needed there.
The media reported the events with great stupidity. A national TV channel anchor tweeted rather petulantly that Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar should hold a press conference to “clarify” the situation. Hold a press conference in the middle of anti-terrorist action? Where did she learn her journalism? Another anchor demanded to know why the operation was taking so long. He seemed to have no idea that the air force base was the size of a small town. It looked like any monkey with a microphone in front of a camera suddenly became an expert in anti-terrorism operations.
Opposition parties and false-intellectuals were another story. Their problem is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running away with an Indo-Pak agenda that is daringly different, refreshing, and revolutionary. Where he is running away to is another question altogether, but for the Modi’s opponents, the Pathankot attack offered a great opportunity to try and show that his bold Pakistan initiatives are not working. Former UPA Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, somewhat optimistically, called for the resignations of Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Parrikar. Singh announcing on social media that the operation was over even before it was over must have buoyed Shinde’s confidence.
There is no doubt at all that some criticism is valid. Security around a forward air force base needs to be much better. But once the attack began, there is every evidence that security agencies acted swiftly and correctly. Over the years, security forces have come up against terrorists hundreds of times all over the world. In very few cases have attacks been prevented; forces move in only after an attack is launched. Given the circumstances here, the Indian response at Pathankot was effective. While there was an unfortunate loss of lives it did not spiral out of control at any time.
At the end of the day, the Pathankot siege has presented several positive outcomes:
1. Given the arsenal the terrorists carried, the body count was very low.
2. Not even one plane was touched; the base was up and running within hours.
3. The terrorists had enough food and ammunition to last for days, but the siege did not last as long as they would have wanted. Most of the terrorists were killed in the first few hours and the forces took their time to mop up the remaining two with minimum loss of lives.
4. A possible Indian collaborator was identified even before the operation was over and is being questioned.
5. Monitoring of telephone calls has pinpointed the handlers; we know their names and locations.
6. For the first time, Pakistan did not automatically deny that this originated on its soil.
7. For the first time, Pakistan is promising action. When and how remains to be seen.
8. We know how the terrorists entered India. Another hole will be plugged.
For some people, like everything else in this country of fractured opinions, nothing that Modi does can be right. The rest of us need to move on.