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Terror at Pathankot: What went wrong?

Despite intelligence input and mounting threat perception the terror attack at Pathankot Air Force Station points to the need for better preparedness and fool proof security of key installations

Anshul Anand
Publish Date: Jan 18 2016 3:44PM | Updated Date: Jan 18 2016 3:52PM

Terror at Pathankot: What went wrong?photo : P. T. I

With the elimination of all the six militants who had managed to enter India’s Premier Air Force Base at Pathankot, a long and much criticised operation has come to an end. Let’s take a look at the chain of events. The nearest infiltration point at Bamiyal International Border (IB) is just 34 Kilometres from Pathankot. Several rivulets and water channels crisscrossing this area make it difficult to fence it and it is relatively easy to swim across undetected. Many civilians from across the border have accidently crossed over in the past. The area is enveloped in dense fog during winters and these are precisely the conditions which were exploited by militants to cross over. 

 

Meanwhile, Punjab is facing a drug addiction epidemic. Heroin from Afghanistan is the drug of choice which is smuggled by a large cartel of drug traffickers across the IB. Youngmen in bordering villages usually act as conduits for drug consignments. They provide temporary storage and also arrange the logistics to transport men and material. The ISI used these channels to ensure that its men received the shelter, local guidance and transport. The BSF which is tasked with patrolling this area alongwith Punjab Police denies longstanding allegations of its personnel being involved in the trafficking. It is alleged that these drug traffickers are under the direct protection of the political elite. Interestingly, NH or National Highway 1A which passes through Pathankot is called Afeem Gali. 

 

On the night of 31st December 2015 the militants were quietly making their way from Bamiyal to Pathankot in a pre booked Toyota Innova. The driver Ikagar Singh realised that his passengers were militants and a struggle ensued during which the vehicle lost control and hit a tree near Kolia Village. The militants killed the driver of the crippled Innova to stop him from raising an alarm. Subsequently SP Salwinder Singh, his friend Rajesh Verma and the former’s cook travelling in a white XUV 500 with a blue beacon were waylaid by the militants. This vehicle proved instrumental as they were able to cross check-posts unchallenged and reached the vicinity of the Pathankot Air Force Base Station. What in the name of God was the SP doing in an area not under his jurisdiction at 3.30 am without his bodyguards? Was SP Salwinder Singh the conduit that drove them across all checkpoints and dropped them near the base? The fact that they let the SP and his cook go unharmed while they killed the driver of the Innova and mildly injured Verma is unconvincing. But it is mind boggling that the Punjab Police could not trace the Innova for 14 hours despite the SP having reported the incident. The NIA and Intelligence agencies are investigating the matter. 

 

The Intelligence was precise and actionable. The Intelligence agencies had concluded that the target was Pathankot AFB by 1st January. By 4pm IST approximately 250 NSG Commandos with their equipment and dog squads were flown in a specialised C130J aircraft of the IAF. This was apart from the eight columns of regular infantry and 1acolumn of Para SF which was already deployed at the base. The IAF deployed its Israeli Searcher and Heron UAVs with sophisticated Thermal Imagers to scan the area for militants. The Technical Area which comprises hangars for Mig-21 BIS, MI-35 Gunships, Surface to Air Missiles, Ammunition Dumps and Radars was secured by deploying Para SF Commandoes.MI-35s were deployed for surveillance as they are armour plated and immune to small arms fire. Incidentally IAF Garuds who are specially raised for such scenarios after October 2001 attack on Avantipur AFB did not have adequate numbers for the task. 

 

The first wave of attacks commenced at 3.30 am IST on 2nd January 2016.The militants who had entered the Airbase after scaling the perimeter were challenged by Garud Commandos. A firefight ensued and the militants were forced to withdraw inside an administrative block .They were killed in a fierce gun battle which lasted an astonishing 14 hours. Meanwhile, two militants escaped and were discovered in the afternoon on 3rd January 2016 during combing operations. Cassipir Mine Protected Vehicles and BMP-2 APCs of the Indian Army were brought in to approach the hideout of the militants. These militants were subsequently eliminated using Carl Gustav rocket launchers and demolition charges. Later a slow and time consuming process of area sanitisation and clearance was initiated .This was done with extreme caution to avoid booby traps and hidden militants. 

 

A total of 7 military personnel lost their lives while 6 militants were killed. Incidentally the only people who lost their lives during to a firefight were Garud Commando Gursewak Singh and Havaldar Jagdish Chand of DSC. The brave havaldar who was a cook disarmed a militant and shot him before being shot dead by another militant. The rest of the 4 DSC men were caught in the crossfire between the terrorists and NSG-Para SF teams at the cookhouse. Lt. Col Niranjan who was trying to inspect the body of a dead militant was killed by a concealed grenade. This incident also injured unconfirmed number of NSG Commandos. 

 

This attack will lead to an overall audit of Base Security at all Air Force Stations, Navy and Army installations. Particularly, bases near the IB will see a complete revamp of security with DSC being relegated to Ordnance Factories, Military Training Institutions and Dockyards. Vital bases like Pathankot must have smart fences, intrusion detection alarms and CCTVs with movement detection and 360 degree coverage. Deployment of an elite and specialised force like NSG during such attacks must only be done if Para SF is not found suitable for the job or is unavailable. The Garuds, Marcos, Para SF and NSG will have to cross-train to enable better interoperability during similar situations. It is also a strong reminder that we need a Joint Special Operations Command (J-SOC) which was proposed by the 14-member Naresh Chandra task force of Indian National Security in 2012. 

 

This operation had put the spotlight on issues related to chain of command. The initial command of the operation was with an Army Brigadier midway he was seconded to a NSG Major General rank officer. Finally C-in-C Western Air Command was put in charge. This led to serious turf battles and the forces fought in their own cocoons .There was serious lack of co-ordination at a time when critical decisions had to be taken. 

 

The Punjab Police needs a revamp and this will only happen if the political leaders pay heed to the wakeup call and summon the will to act. They are Achilles Heel of the security grid. Their inability to curb drug trade and alleged complicity with the traffickers has to be addressed immediately. The BSF will now have to understand that the focus of the Deep State (ISI) has shifted to less guarded sections along the IB and raise the bogey with Ministry of Home. The required surveillance equipment and QRTS as in Jammu and Kashmir will have to be deployed all across the IB while parallel efforts to beef up HUMINT are in progress. We must take heart that the militants were unable to destroy any high value targets or harm foreign trainees and families of the air warriors .The next strike is already being planned and we must be ready with a debilitating iron fist. 

 

-- The writer is an analyst of matters related to Defence, Geo Strategy, International Relations, Covert Ops and Counter Terrorism. He tweets under the handle reachanshul and can be reached at anshul.anand@india.com