Pathankot via Gurdaspur: Take the Jammu and Kashmir route for the way ahead

Pathankot via Gurdaspur: Take the Jammu and Kashmir route for the way ahead
Photo Credit: Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
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December 2015 witnessed euphoria, when fast moving events in the diplomatic field led to promises of at least some mutual efforts between India and Pakistan towards peace.

That euphoria is now replaced with dampened spirits after the events at Pathankot air base. The social media feed from Pakistan, as also the responses from the establishment, are offering nothing positive.

Why Punjab?

It is important to remember the July 2015 terrorist incident at Gurdaspur that was handled exclusively by the Punjab Police, who neutralised the terrorists and refused any assistance from the Army. The terror group from Pakistan had infiltrated through the Dinanagar route from across the international border; the launch pad for terrorists being the general area of the Shakargarh Bulge. This strike took place in the North Punjab area for a couple of reasons, not the least among them being the inability of the terrorists to infiltrate through the Kashmir region and the area south of the Pir Panjal. With the Jammu region also having been strengthened and the Jammu and Kashmir Police having good coordination with the Army, the state became a difficult area to operate in.

Gurdaspur was like testing waters and most analysts did recommend that greater security be accorded to the entire North Punjab area. This was because of the relative ease of infiltration and the short distance to the numerous high profile potential targets around Pathankot. One of the other major reasons is that the area is the confluence of three states – J&K, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, with the terrain offering excellent cover.

The Punjab government probably failed to act on this recommendation and got misled by the successful operation by Punjab Police at Gurdaspur. In the intervening period between July 2015 and the year-end, a look at the J&K counter terrorism model may have contributed much to the effectiveness of security in North Punjab.

The J&K model

A Unified Command exists under the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, with both Corps Commanders of Kashmir Valley and Jammu region acting as security advisers to the chief minister. The Army is given primacy as the lead agency. Top functionaries of all security forces and intelligence agencies are part of the Unified Command.

Under the Corps Commanders, with the co-chairmanship of the Director General of Police, top functionaries of their zones and formation commanders of the Army, there exist Core Groups which meet at least once a month and more often during crisis situations (as in 2010) to take stock of intelligence, the situation and the future events. There are similar sub core groups down the chain right up to the brigade level where intelligence functionaries form a very important element. With experience and regular interaction, the intelligence sharing system is now robust and everyone just needs to pick up the phone to speak to each other – and they routinely do. Operations in Srinagar and Jammu city remain the purview of the Director General of Police, who can request for assistance from the Army. However, all other operations in the countryside and the vicinity of the Line of Control are either conducted by the Army alone (counter infiltration) or jointly by the Army and the Jammu and Kashmir Police, with command in hands of the Army. Admittedly, the Armed Forces Special Power Act or AFSPA (1990) plays an important role in this. The Central Reserve Police Force plays an important role in control of civil strife and, in counter terror operations, assists in sealing and responding to protests.

The above model if adopted with required modifications for North Punjab would ensure timely intelligence sharing and tasking whenever contingencies arise. Most importantly, there would be confidence building among the functionaries with much quicker informal consultation leading to early response.

It should be remembered that with the Pakistan Armed Forces suffering heavy losses at their various installations, at the hands of terrorists (the Army Public School, Peshawar strike on 16 Dec 2014 comes immediately to mind), there will be increasing tendency of Pakistan-sponsored terror groups replicating the same in India. Intelligence, both operational and tactical, has to form the core of the security regime adopted.

Lessons from Pathankot

Whenever intelligence is available, authorities must not hesitate to ask the Army’s assistance. The Army can provide prophylactic security, search and destroy operations as well as response to neutralise terrorists once they have been discovered. No other organisation has this capability, which is why the overall command of such operations must exist with the local military commander, with advisers from all other agencies. The Army has the capacity to provide equipment, communications, liaison, logistics and facilities for command and control. It frequently practices mobilisation for conventional operations which enables very early placement of resources.

The only deduction from the above is that while 100% effectiveness against terrorism can never be granted, sensitivity to threats and cooperation with good understanding of the capabilities and of various security forces can greatly assist in offsetting a potentially negative event sponsored by Pakistan. That did not happen in Pathankot. The route of infiltration was the same as during Gurdaspur strike and it was not sufficiently secured. Generic intelligence inputs in late December 2015, with inputs from the arrested Pakistani spy and god-sent actionable intelligence, after a series of botch-ups by the terror group, could not be responded to in the required time frame.

To beat it all, the tasking went awry with wrong choice of troops, no command and control structure and no methodology of information dissemination. There will be much to learn from the experience, as there always is, but immediate lessons and learnings must be implemented because this is not the last such event: there is more waiting to happen.

Walking the talk

On the political-diplomatic side the situation is decidedly tricky. Prime Minister Narendra Modi invested much in the peace efforts which came from his side. The question which was being asked related to the trust factor: Whether Nawaz Sharif could be trusted and, more importantly, could his wily Army Chief be trusted?

It was presumed that presence of the ex-Armyman, Lt Gen Janjua as National Security Adviser, proved Pakistan Army was on board. While the Pakistan government has expressed condemnation of the Pathankot events, the Pakistan Army too should have been publicly more remorseful. Not being so appears to go against the presumption that it is on board. The absence of Gen Janjua from Lahore visuals of Modi’s visit also creates doubts.

What is in it for India? Approaching peace talks and calling them off each time due to actions of terror groups isn’t exactly a very prudent thing to do.

My first suggestion after Modi visited Lahore was that the dialogue needed to be secured from contingencies by a very early meeting of NSAs to thrash out responses to a possible negative event which everyone seemed to be anticipating. It may not be too late as yet. One more such event would mean the end of dialogue for many years. The Pakistan establishment cannot afford to fall back to linking this to the United Jihad Council under Syed Salahuddin and give it a flavour of local home-grown reaction. We are well past that stage and the world would not accept that either.

What is also disturbing is the international response, from responsible nations which too have been victims of international terror. Calling the terrorists “gunmen” and not “Pakistani terrorists” is sacrilege. India, as one of the earliest sufferers of this scourge, deserves better. This should be conveyed in no uncertain terms to the concerned nations and media houses.

It is yet early for a final political diplomatic decision. Many things will still have to be considered, not the least the political opinion within India. There appears to be some form of agreement that engagement should continue, albeit with another track of activity to target Pakistan’s erring rogue establishment. How this could be done needs greater thought although it always remains within the ambit of scope. This is the policy being currently followed by Pakistan as well.

A last word on the need for deliberate operations once a contact has begun in a terror standoff. Not too many people in India are exposed to the details of how counter-terrorism operations are conducted. This continuous bleating about the length of time taken by security elements to clear a target and sanitise it does no good and leads to hurry and thereby more casualties.

Hopefully, we are wiser after the event.