Like the attacks at Gurdaspur and Udhampur in 2015, the terrorist attack on the airbase at Pathankot is another point on the continuum of the Pakistan Army-ISI sponsored proxy war to bleed India through a thousand cuts. It must be seen as an act of war and must not go unpunished.
The security forces deserve to be commended for safeguarding valuable fighter aircraft and ensuring that the terrorists failed to enter the family quarters at the base. It was a difficult counter-terrorism operation, but one from which many important lessons have emerged.
Despite the colossal cost of construction, the triple-wire fence along the international boundary has proved to be ineffective in blocking infiltration, especially in riverine terrain. Also, the integrity of some of the border personnel was compromised. The home minister must identify the weaknesses and have them rectified.
The airbase at Awantipur in Kashmir was attacked by terrorists in 2001. Yet, the Indian Air Force persisted with rudimentary perimeter defences in frontline airbases. With no electronic surveillance and insufficient perimeter patrolling, the terrorists scaled the perimeter wall to enter the Pathankot base. The Defence Security Corps, guarding India’s air bases, does not have the weapons or the rigorous training necessary to fight well-armed fidayeen terrorists. A regular force trained like an infantry battalion, such as the Rashtriya Rifles, is required for defending such bases.
The cabinet committee on security and the crisis management group do not appear to have met at all. There was confusion about the progress of the operation and the number of casualties. It was also not clear who was in charge of the operation. It would have been more appropriate to have nominated the general officer commanding of the Pathankot-based 29 Infantry Division to spearhead the operation. Also, as a Special Forces battalion of the Army was close at hand, the deployment of the National Security Guard, a paramilitary counter-terrorism force trained for urban terrain, on a military base appeared incongruous.
There is a need for a counter-terrorism tsar for the planning and coordination of operations, but not micro-management. The national security adviser is best suited for this role. A national counter-terrorism centre must be established for holistic intelligence assessment. It was proposed by the UPA government after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, but was opposed by several state governments.
India should pursue a twin-track policy with Pakistan. It should continue to engage the civilian leadership to gradually resolve the disputes. Simultaneously, carefully calibrated military strikes, including covert operations, must be launched against the Pakistan Army and its organs for every act of terrorism sponsored by them on Indian territory.
Finally, India must graduate from a passive to a proactive strategic culture. Inimical elements among India’s neighbours must not be allowed to mess around with the country’s national security.
The writer is former director,
Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.