The good & the bad of Pathankot operation: from a soldier's viewpoint
Good: Specific intelligence inputs about the Pathankot air base as the likely target of terrorist attack on 2 January were available at the highest levels of the government. This is borne out by the order to the 51 Special Action Group (SAG) of National Security Guard to move to Pathankot in anticipation, and the pre-placement of an army column near the air base.
Bad: The certainty of intelligence inputs about the number of terrorists led to confusion during the operation. The security forces were prepared to deal with four terrorists. But, as the operation progressed, the number turned out to be much higher.
Good: Planning for securing the air base and deal with the terrorists was done centrally in Delhi. It included advance positioning of 51 SAG, use of Garuda commandos and securing of the road near the entry gate by an Army column. Acting on the intelligence inputs, the Army also moved and deployed its units to secure Mamun Cantt.
Bad: The turf war between the various forces - the NSG, the Army and the Air Force - was not anticipated. Banking on assured intelligence of four terrorists coming through a car at the gate, planning for contingencies like a higher number of terrorists or terrorist ingress via the fenced wall was not carried out. This led to avoidable losses and embarrassing situations during the operations.
Good: Operations were limited to a small area of a large air base. No aircraft or helicopter in the technical area - neither qualifies as a strategic asset - was damaged during the operation. Similarly, no family member of any IAF personnel came under threat during the counter-terrorism operation.
Bad: The conduct of operations - be it leadership, command and control, minor tactics, house clearing drills, non-employment of explosive clearing equipment - was poor.
Six terrorists, who have been trapped within the restricted space of a military base with neither a hostage situation nor any unarmed civilians in danger cannot last for four days against India's premier counter-terrorist force.
The very high number of casualties of security forces, both fatal and non-fatal, in an operation of such an extended duration, which saw attack helicopters and BMPs (infantry fighting vehicles) being employed perhaps for the first time in an internal security situation, reflects rather poorly on the operational performance of our forces.
Good: Intelligence collection, collation and analysis were done centrally, leading to rapid deployment. The management of situation in the pre-encounter stage, with clear, firm orders to specific forces for specific tasks, was exemplary.
Bad: After the first engagement between the terrorists and security forces, the management of the operation floundered as chaos and confusion reigned roost. Thereafter, everyone from the NSA to the home secretary to the IAF station commander to the Army brigadier to the IG, NSG were portrayed as running the operations.
Management capabilities at both the operational level and the institutional level were found wanting. The CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) never met once during the four-day period. It is a direct indictment of our long-standing systemic weaknesses which have further exacerbated in the personality-dominated model of national security.
Good: The media behaved responsibly by eschewing broadcast of live images or unverified inputs in the initial stages of operations. With rumours about higher fatal casualties of security forces circulating on social media, the mainstream media did not voice them.
Bad: There was a complete lack of communication from the government till the second day. No information was available from authorised public relations representatives of various defence forces or the ministry about the number of casualties or terrorists.
The initial Press Information Bureau brief was sketchy and had no details, which led to a flurry of source-based reports on social media about the management of operation at the highest levels. The briefing by the Union Home Secretary on the second evening showed his lack of knowledge about the security forces involved. The government's communication strategy, or rather the lack of it, made it a bigger disaster.
Good: All countries, including the United States, France and even Pakistan, condemned the terror attack and issued statements in India's support. The prime minister conveyed to his Pakistani counterpart the need for quick action against the terrorists. Moreover, by not naming Pakistan in any of the official statements, the government stayed on course for engagement with Islamabad.
Bad: Delhi's lack of options to get Pakistan to act against terrorists on its soil which hurt India was again made public. That is going to hurt India in its bilateral talks with Pakistan over terror.
Good: No major political party called for calling off India-Pakistan talks or politicised the issue while security forces were conducting operations at Pathankot.
Bad: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's personal image of a strong leader who will prevent terror attacks or handle them with clinical efficiency in double-quick time has taken a beating. That he was tweeting about Yoga as soldiers were dying in Pathankot, while his home minister was in Assam and his defence minister in Goa, has hurt the government politically.
Politics is often driven by perception and the optics of a government at sea in the middle of a terror strike is not likely to help.
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