There are still only theories. How did the terrorists who attacked the Pathankot Air Force Station enter India? How did the terrorists enter the airbase despite an intelligence alert? What is the truth about Gurdaspur police superintendent Salvinder Singh?
The most favoured theory among the security circles is that the terrorists used the smugglers' route, and even the smugglers' conduits. “There are several spots where the border fence has gaps—like rivers, canals. Probably, they used the smuggling route,” said General Dalbir Singh, the Army chief. But he would not second-guess on the matter, as the International Border is not the Army's but the Border Security Force's domain.
Salvinder Singh is being questioned by the National Investigation Agency which has found inconsistencies in his version of the events. But there still are no answers for why he did not alert his staff about his night-out, why he did not take his security detail, and how his jeweller friend Rajesh Verma escaped from the hands of the determined suicide bombers.
The military has zeroed in on the theory that the terrorists entered the base before the alert was received. Sources in the base told THE WEEK that the base commander had declared a sort of curfew as soon as he received the warning. Similar alerts were given to all the military stations in Punjab.
The inference now is that the terrorists were hiding in the base when the security was being mounted around the perimeter. Since the first encounter of the commandos with terrorists took place near the yard, which was just 400 metres from the technical area where the aircraft were parked, it is believed that they were hiding in the elephant grass close by. “The question is, how did the terrorists know that there was a yard inside the airbase where they could hide?” wondered an officer, hinting that there could have been inside help. Security agencies are probing the role of the Facebook spies and their accomplices in the armed forces—like the recently caught Airforce officer Ranjith K.K., who had been honey-trapped by an enemy agent.
Another question that is getting a clearer answer is the terrorists' nationality. “I personally saw some medicine packets which had Pakistani markings. And also some equipment,” said General Singh. All the evidence has been given to Pakistan.
AND, IN AN effort to rescue the bilateral talks at the foreign secretary level, Pakistan swung into action on January 13. A high level committee meeting was convened by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—the third one in a week—to stress its “commitment to eliminate terrorism’’; an offer of a special investigative team was made to India; and, the cherry on the cake was the arrest of the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar on January 13.
“It is a positive sign,’’ said Rana Banerji, former special secretary, cabinet secretariat. “But we will have to see whether these are just cosmetic or temporary moves. In the past they have acted against Jaish. They did that after the Mumbai attacks, too. But then the process of penalising them petered out. We will have to see whether this is a serious move or not.”
While the indications from Pakistan are positive, Indian officials are looking for a little more. Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj late in the evening to discuss the Pakistani offer. While there is no doubt that there would be talks, the next stage of dialogue would hinge on Pakistan's intent. “It is, of course, not business as usual with Pakistan,” said G. Parthasarathy, former Indian ambassador to Pakistan. “It is important to remember that the SIT in Pakistan is headed by the director of the Intelligence Bureau. In Pakistan this is a subordinate organisation and the real power is the ISI. The team of IB will not carry clout and will depend on the ISI and the military.”
National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who is currently in Paris working out the details of President Francois Hollande's India visit—is likely to meet his Pakistani counterpart Lt-Gen Naseer Khan Janjua in Dubai. It is seen as part of the formula worked out to keep the pressure on Pakistan. “It is best to sit across the table and talk,’’ said A.S. Dulat, former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing. “There are concerns that must be checked out.”
The US has been engaging with both India and Pakistan. Sarah Sewall, undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, on a visit to India reiterated that the US would “continue to press Pakistan to take the fight to all terrorist networks” and do everything in its power to “help India achieve justice for the Mumbai attacks”.
PAKISTAN’S ACTION AGAINST JeM and Azhar seems to be a result of this pressure. And, as security analysts point out, it may be enough to salvage its image. “Pakistan would show the willingness to act on the leads so they are seen to be serious in dealing with terror,’’ said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “They have certainly bought themselves time. Is it part of a process that will be a long-drawn procedural one? The offer to send the team is a ploy to put the ball back into India’s court as India would not allow them to visit Pathankot airbase, which will give them a reason to say that India is not cooperating.’’
This flipflop may be just what the Pakistan military—which is said to be not completely on board—is counting on. In Pakistan, which is battling its own terrorism menace and suffered an attack on its consulate in Jalalabad on January 13, the Indian response of not embracing this move with enthusiasm will be viewed as petulant. And then, of course, India could be accused of being not serious about the talks. “If you saw the footage after the high-level meeting chaired by Sharif, it looks as if he is calling the shots. The body language of the Army chief and the director general of ISI seemed to be squirming. Now we can’t read too much into this,’’ said Banerji. The road to Indo-Pak talks has never been smooth; it seems to have hit another speed bump.
WITH R. PRASANNAN AND AJIT DUBEY