Providentially, the jihadis, who entered Pathankot Air Base and killed seven security men and injured another 20, have not achieved their main aim — which was clearly to derail the peace dialogue even before a preliminary meeting between India’s and Pakistan’s foreign secretaries in mid-January. If talks remain on track, it is because both sides have demonstrated unusual restraint. Mr Modi blamed the incident on “enemies of humanity who can’t see India progress”. And Pakistan’s foreign office condemned the terrorist attack and proposed to “partner with India... to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism afflicting our region.”
Yet, it was a close run thing. Had the terrorists inflicted mass casualties in the family lines, or entered the technical area and blown up some fighter aircraft, India’s forbearance would have been seriously strained. By good luck India’s intelligence agencies were forewarned on Friday, the day before the attack, by telephone calls the terrorists foolishly made to Pakistan. This intelligence, which went straight up to the NSA, provided precious hours to beef up security at potential terrorist targets — a list headed by the Pathankot Air Base. The means for this were readily available from the nearby Pathankot cantonment, India’s biggest, which houses two infantry divisions and two armoured brigades (over 50,000 troops).
In effect, knowing that armed terrorists were prowling the vicinity, the NSA left the Pathankot Air Base in the hands of Defence Security Corps (DSC) jawans; a handful of air force Garud commandos; and the NSG contingent. The DSC, composed of retired military veterans well past their prime, can hardly repulse a well-equipped and motivated terrorist suicide squad. The NSG is not a first responder, and is neither trained nor equipped to protect sprawling air bases; it is meant for pinpoint operations like hostage rescue or flushing out terrorists holed up in a house.
It is revealing that not a single Pathankot casualty is from the army. The hapless DSC jawans took most of the casualties. The NSG took unacceptable losses, including an officer killed from a booby-trapped terrorist body. The army knows this ploy well and approaches terrorist bodies in J&K with caution, knowing the jihadi’s dying act could have been to activate a grenade and lie on it.
But in New Delhi, the flawed initial allocation of resources set the stage for further bumbling. Eager to crown Mr Doval with credit, even before the operation was done, his cultivated troupe of journalist cheerleaders began tweeting his brilliance. A sample tweet: “Ajit Doval take a bow. Superb counter action, moved NSG on Fri(day) brilliant synergy…”. Another: “Hats off to those in nat(ional) security/int(elligence) op(eration)s/ military/Punjab pol(ice) who haven’t winked in past 24 hours to exterminate the vermin 4rm (from) across.”
Perhaps taken in by this drivel, which was being corroborated by credit-seeking air force commanders on the ground, top political leaders joined the premature victory chorus. Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted at 6.50 pm on Saturday: “The nation is proud of its brave security forces who have always rose (sic) to the occasion. I salute our forces on successful operation in P’kot (Pathankot)”. At 9 pm, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar joined him in saluting the martyrs. At 10.05 pm on Saturday, the prime minister tweeted with finality: “In Pathankot today, our security forces once again demonstrated their valour. I salute their sacrifice.”
It took just a few bursts of terrorist fire in Pathankot on Sunday morning for these sonorous statesmen to be unmasked as national security amateurs. Stepping in to explain the continuing casualties that day, Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi – clearly a votary of the police tradition of throwing troopers into action without training or equipment – declared the Pathankot attack was not a security lapse, because “when weapons are in use, [a] few security personnel are bound to be injured.”
This attack comes on the heels of dialogue resumption, exactly as predicted by analysts in both India and Pakistan. It underlines the fact that New Delhi’s penchant for calling off talks in response to a serious terrorist strike provides an attractive incentive to jihadi groups to launch such strikes. After all, terrorist groups stand to lose the most from improved Indo-Pakistan relations. New Delhi must state clearly that it will continue talks through even the most heinous terrorist attack — and through the inevitable Indian response that will follow such an attack.