A lot to make up after the lapses in Pathankot
Pathankot attacks have revealed not just the lapses in the security systems but also on the bureaucracy and delicate ties between India and Pakistan. The situation is a make or break and only determined sincere talks can help achieve a breakthrough.Updated: Jan 10, 2016 09:43 IST
Tragedy followed by embarrassment seems to be par for the course far too often in the Indian context. The terrorist attack at Pathankot was a deeply disturbing affair, as it came within days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unexpected outreach to Pakistan through a visit to that country during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding. For a moment, I rejoiced at the prospect that in all the dark clouds could disperse just a little and let in a glimmer of sunlight. But that was not to be. The spectacle of the two prime ministers walking hand-in-hand at Lahore airport evidently convulsed jihadi figures and inimical strategic actors in Pakistan enough to put their diabolical plans into effect immediately.
India and Pakistan are back to familiar, uncertain waters. Can the political and bureaucratic elites in both countries who instinctively mistrust each other after being politicised through a long blame game over the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 and the insurgency in Punjab and Kashmir in the 1980s focus on reachable objectives? Modi, who more than walked the talk, now needs to give a long hard look at framing his Pakistan policy as he aims to keep India secure while continuing engagement in view of the strategic imperatives of peace and regional economic cooperation.
The first priority to pursue is, of course, security; to ensure that we do not see the repeat of military installations (and potentially entire towns) being held hostage by a small band of terrorists for days on end. For that we need a candid, public assessment of the failures of the operation to counter the terrorists at Pathankot. This is important because there is a 91-km stretch along the India-Pakistan border that is not fenced owing to difficult, riverine terrain. As it is now increasingly plain, the handling of the Pathankot operation was riddled with blunders, raising serious questions about our preparedness.
The Punjab Police either did not take the account of superintendent of police Salwinder Singh, whom the terrorists abducted, or its leadership could not summon enough resources on time to launch a hunt for the SUV they were travelling in. There appear to be technical challenges in pinpointing their location but systems ought to have been in place to respond to such an intrusion in a sensitive military zone. Influential policy practitioners have wondered if established processes for decision-making were followed such as the convening of the Crisis Management Group, which includes representations from key ministries and security services.
And well-regarded military analysts have pointed to decision-making flaws during the counter-terrorist assault. As Lt. Gen. HS Panag (retd) has written, “no lead agency or overall commander was appointed”. He goes on to say that the General Officer Commanding of the 29 Division ought to have been put in charge, the preventive security of the air base was not beefed up, an infantry battalion should have manned the perimeter and patrolled the wall from outside, the air base itself was poorly guarded, there were no electronic sensors to detect movement and the periphery is not lit up, and a key air force base was being guarded by poorly trained personnel. I am surprised that this escaped the notice of terrorists and their handlers for so long.
The principal focus of the government should now be on identifying gaps and assigning responsibility within rather than mainly expending energy on blaming actors in Pakistan, however warranted that is. The prime minister also has the difficult task of calibrating his engagement with Pakistan, to be able to balance the promise of last month’s atmospherics with the domestic pressures he is bound to face. Sabre-rattling narratives are understandable, and often necessary, reactions to disturbing events. But they cannot always be guides to policymaking. The problem with reprisals is that military or covert objectives are difficult to identify without the risk of escalation. This is not in India’s interests.
But there are things that New Delhi will expect of Sharif’s government in the days ahead. First, cooperating with India during the investigation, as he has promised. The Pakistani commentariat is not persuaded by claims from India that Pathankot was masterminded by Pakistan State actors. They point to the insurgency in the tribal areas and the high incidence of targeting Pakistani military targets to argue that non-State actors are a law unto themselves. The Indians counter saying the brazenness and efficiency of the Pathankot operation and the very infiltration into Punjab could not have materialised without the active assistance of the Pakistani military.
The only way to settle this for the Sharif and Modi governments is to cooperate in unravelling the conspiracy. And if it is established that non-State actors like the Jaish-e-Mohammed or the United Jihad Council were behind this, then India must insist that Sharif muster up the nerve to go after these elements, however risky it may be for him. Mr Sharif’s penchant has been to forge a range of political alliances, including with extremist groups, which offer him cover from the military and at the same time enhance his business interests. But now is the time for him to make tough choices. He should realise that the India relationship cannot prosper without him showing courage on the domestic front.
The Modi government has done well to manage the domestic narrative so far. BJP leaders have clarified that dialogue should go on and the RSS has backed the PM’s policy with one senior leader even characterising ties between both the countries as relations souring “between two brothers”. The internal debate is, however, by no means settled. More attacks will certainly unsettle the united front on display now. The task for Modi is to bring the full weight of international pressure on Pakistan to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. The NDA must use continued engagement on the NSA and the foreign secretaries channel to uncover the truth about Pathankot and underline that Sharif’s credibility is on the line in New Delhi. Frankly, Pathankot has ensured that terrorism is the only agenda item for now on the bilateral calendar. If Sharif cannot work the system to keep India safe, then policymakers here are bound to lend a greater ear to arguments that speak about the benefits of a freeze.