Monday, January 11, 2016
At the political level New Delhi handled the Pathankot terrorist strike wisely. Instead of rushing into kneejerk reactions as before, the Prime Minister's chosen path of dialogue with Pakistan was reasserted. Pakistan was asked to take firm action against those linked to the attack. Nawaz Sharif's phone call to Narendra Modi promising investigation and action pointed to a cooperative mood at the political level in Pakistan. What that would mean in practice is far from clear, given the influence of terrorists groups in that country and the unpredictabilities of the hawk elements in their army.
What needs to be taken more seriously at this point is the weakness in our defensive armour that Pathankot has exposed yet again. Aspects of this weakness have been commented upon by security professionals and former military leaders. These and other views must be taken seriously by the decision-makers of the day so that next time terrorists strike -- as they certainly will -- the response can be decisive and quick.
It certainly was not quick this time. Apparently there was a tip-off by foreign intelligence agents of an impending attack. This did not seem to have been taken seriously enough. In the 26/11 attack on Mumbai also, foreign intelligence reports on suspicious boat movements on the Mumbai coast were not given sufficient importance. The shootout at the Taj Mahal Hotel brought out another flaw in the Indian character -- the impulse to claim credit in moments of crisis. There were commando leaders who spent more time appearing on TV and spreading the impression that they were the architects of victory. There were even local politicians who "inspected" the rubble in the Taj to show that they were in command.
Did similar oneupmanship cause delays in Pathankot? Military units present on the spot with specialised training in flushing out terrorists hiding in forests and fields were not called into action. Instead, NSG units were called in from Delhi although their expertise lay in close-up action and operations like hostage rescue. Among the military assets at Pathankot are para commandos of the army and rapid-action teams thoroughly familiar with the terrain. Yet they were not put in charge of the action. NSG commandos, unfamiliar with the territory and unequal to the action that was called for, ended up with high casualties. Why was the NSG given the upper hand and the more competent locally based army units kept on the sidelines?
Those looking for credit was quick to brief the Home Minister that terrorists had been eliminated in one day's swift action. The Home Minister went public with that claim -- only to cut a sorry figure as engagements with suddenly surfacing terrorists continued for four days. The Defence Minister admitted that there were lapses. The Home Secretary declared that there were no lapses.
This confusion of voices points to an alarming possibility: That we will learn nothing from Pathankot just as we learned nothing from Mumbai. There is no coordination at the top, let alone a system whereby one authorised official alone will brief the nation in crisis situations. There is also no attempt to put in place a unified operational command to tackle national emergencies. Political parties make it worse by jumping to partisan positions when the nation should stand as a united force. It is pathetic to watch television screens exploding with Congress spokesmen attacking the inept government and BJP spokesmen praising the brilliance of the government. These robotic party spokesmen are the curse of our country.
America needed only one terrorist attack to put in place, overnight as it were, an entirely new Home Security Department with sweeping powers. Its no-nonsense approach to security put restrictions on the civil liberties of citizens. But quickly its security and surveillance system became part of the American way of life. Something similar should have happened in India after the terrorist attack in Mumbai. But we are still talking and groping.
The time has come for the Prime Minister to take personal charge of domestic security issues even if its means a sidelining of overseas promotion of Indian goals. He has the power to break the tradition of bureaucratic inertia vis a vis terror threats. He has already shown imagination in calling retired foreign secretaries and security chiefs for what seems to be a running engagement. This initiative should be extended to include political parties. National security is a national responsibility, not a party matter. Those who stay in the middle of the road get run over.