By Sudip Talukdar*
There has been no clarity about the terror attack on the Pathankot air base as insinuations and allegations fly thick and fast on how the entire operation should have been handled. The Modi government in general and the defence minister and the national security advisor (NSA) in particular, sound defensive about their belated and fumbling responses to the latest act of depredation, often issuing statements that contradict the facts on the ground.
The decision to deploy the National Security Guard (NSG) after a prodigal waste of time not only highlights grave bungling, despite the availability of credible intelligence, but also questions the ability of crack infantry divisions and Para-Commandos to do the job. Their past record, combat worthiness and vast field experience, forged over decades of counter–terror operations in some of the most challenging terrains, remains unmatched and would have ensured a swift and befitting retribution. After all, why would some of world’s finest militaries bother to send their special forces for specific training in asymmetric warfare by the Indian Army if not for handling these exigencies?
In politics and public perception, optics shapes credibility. It conveys how serious any government is about protecting national interests and its citizens. The Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval’s feeble defence of the botched up operations and insistence that the NSG team comprised army men barely served any purpose. Nor did the defence minister exactly cover himself with glory when his utterances took on a personal hue. It is not their job to act like a brigade or battalion commander at the tactical level, a task best left to those trained for the purpose, but provide leadership during a crisis. Now the Army Chief has been roped in to tow the official line.
Pathankot has deflated some of the hype surrounding the NSG and the Indian Air Force Garuds. Even in a subsidiary role, Army columns eliminated all of the six fidayeens, three on the very first day itself and the fourth one later, after he had injured a quartet of NSG commandos in a grenade attack during an engagement, according to Daily Mail report. The Army’s armoured vehicle blasted a building, killing two other jihadis holed in there. Some reports suggested that a DSC jawan had killed a terrorist. Unfortunately, elements of 1 Para Commando, stationed at the air base, were not involved in operations, the report added.
What Lt. Gen. Prakash Katoch, an ex Para-Commando himself, told the media is significant. He pointed out that “the Army Special Forces would have been a better option, as they do regular exercises inside bases. (The decision makers) did not even know the type of Special Forces we have”. There has been a steep escalation of lethal level with the terrorists planting more than a dozen, live, booby-trapped grenades, in the undergrowths around the airbase, to cause maximum casualties after their deaths. One of the grenades, tied to a slain terrorist, killed Lt Col Niranjan Kumar, an engineer-sapper on deputation with the NSG.
Add to it is the deleterious turf wars that feed on the very system perpetuating the practice, stifling innovative approaches and solutions, besides keeping vital domain knowledge and strategic assets out of reckoning. Unfortunately, the Army may have been an unwitting victim of the ‘us and they’ syndrome, for none of its fault. The most conspicuous example is that of the highly disciplined veterans being kept out of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), post early retirement, on specious grounds.
Turf wars will also render the Army advisory on avoiding combat fatigues in the wake of Pathankot attack, inoperative. The CAPFs and some state constabularies, ditching the khaki, have appropriated the patterned uniforms for daily use. What earthly purpose or utility is being served by combat fatigues in peaceful civilian environment is beyond fathoming. After all, militaries use leafy patterns on tunics and trousers as a mode of camouflage in a jungle terrain, not to break up crowds with a baton. Policeman seldom understand how a soldier’s emotions are tied to his uniform, a source of honour and pride, for which he stakes his very life.
The home ministry zealously protects its sprawling turf with a plethora of spook, intelligence and security agencies under its control. But it might have unwittingly become the biggest hurdle in strategic matters. In
the game of one-up-man-ship, the steady encroachment on strictly military domains can only be counterproductive in the long run. For instance, the northern borders need more military muscle than lightly armed Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which can neither defend the space nor handle the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, but only encourage greater incursions. The force stays put at the home ministry insistence.
The Army wanted a lieutenant general to head the NSG for operational reasons, especially in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai attack, when bungling and red tape considerably delayed the arrival of Special Action Group 51 and 52. They are the Agency’s ace combat wings, manned exclusively by Para Commandos. Predictably, the government rejected the demand at home ministry’s behest. Similarly, the ministry had also insisted on replacing Assam Rifles, an Army adjunct, with the BSF on the Indo-Myanmar border.
The BSF has a none-too-enviable record in curbing drug smuggling or illegal immigration on the Punjab and West Bengal borders, respectively. Disturbing reports have lately surfaced about how BSF constables, acting as pawns of drug mafia, in cahoots with politicians, may have facilitated the movement of terrorists through the drug route and into the airbase. Should not the home ministry put its own house in order before flexing muscles?
If IPS officers are seamlessly integrated with their parent ministry, then why are Army officers being left out of the defence ministry? They would have injected the required degree of professionalism and domain skills. Functionaries heading security agencies and CAPFs enjoy a tremendous clout and proximity to politicians, which works to the detriment of the Army. State police chiefs have even equipped their security details with sophisticated weaponry denied to their opposite numbers in olive green.
The British feared and despised the patriotic fervour of our revolutionaries, just as their inheritors disdain the soldiers’ devotion to duty. It is a passion that propels them to scale steep mountains, ignoring acute hunger, pain and privation, in order to dislodge the enemy. Why would they want to erect memorials to revolutionaries or soldiers? This is the kind of attitude that lies behind political parties raking up dead issues, post Pathankot, about Army columns allegedly spooking New Delhi. An editor of Vinod Mehta’s stature had dismissed the original report as a planted story and dared the daily to do its worst when it slapped a Rs 100 crore defamation suit against him.
*Sudip Talukdar is an author and strategic affairs columnist. He can be reached at: [email protected]