13 January 2016

Why NSA Doval Is Being Unfairly Targeted

Sudhi Ranjan Sen
Among the many questions raised about the attack at the Pathankot Air Force base, the most debated ones concern Delhi's role, India's capabilities and the strategic response to the terror attack.
One of our soldiers died in active combat with the terrorists.
This terror attack appears to be an example of Narco-Terrorism, where routes and "assets" used to smuggle narcotics into Punjab from Pakistan seem to have been exercised for terrorism. 24-year-old Ikagar Singh, a taxi driver, received a call from Pakistan before heading out from his home in a village just 500 metres from the border. On the night of December 31 he was found with his throat slit at a bridge six kms from the border. Subsequently, Gurdaspur police officer Salwinder Singh, his friend Rajesh Verma, and cook were kidnapped. The terrorists used the police officer's vehicle to reach the vicinity of the base. What lured Ikagar? Why was Salwinder Singh travelling without his gunmen or, for that matter, taking a longer route - these are intriguing and essential pieces of the plot. Interrogation of Salwinder Singh is expected to unravel further details.

I reported on and witnessed the operations from a distance; I visited the Pathankot base a few hours after the six terrorists were declared killed. I can confirm that it was difficult operation given the expanse - the base is spread over approximately 2,000 acres and about 1,500 families live inside the base.
The terrorists infiltrated India on the intervening night of 31st and 1st January. By 3.40 pm on January 1, the available intelligence was analysed, the threat discerned and disseminated to all stake holders including the Indian Air Force.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in consultation with the Army and IAF Chiefs and the heads of the Intelligence Bureau and the RA&W deployed Para-Commandos, National Security Guards and additional infantry soldiers. Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir too had been alerted. The Indian Army moved in by early evening, and the NSG reached the base by about 6.30 pm on January 1. In contrast, it took 12 hours to deploy the NSG commandos in Mumbai on 26/11. And if you go back further, the Crisis Management Group couldn't even meet before the hijacked IC-814 left Indian skies in 1999. The NSG then could take-off from Delhi only as the hijacked aircraft was landing in Dubai.
A general alert was sounded in Pathankot. The local market was shut down by 6 pm in the evening. The Indian Army and the local police even conducted a search operation near the base on the evening of the 1st. Yet, the terrorists managed to enter a high-value military asset and spend 24 hours there undetected. This is unacceptable. Why couldn't the Air Intelligence Wing detect that terrorists had entered the base? Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has said that there were some "gaps". To put it in simpler terms, this is similar to thieves entering a house despite residents being told that a theft is likely. The Indian Air Force - and specially those commanding the base - will have a lot of explaining to do.

The National Security Adviser Ajit Doval too has come in for flak. And that is unfortunate because every resource that was required was mustered much in advance and deployed. A lot of has been made out about his decision to deploy the NSG, the specialist counter-terrorist force. The NSG was deployed with the consent of the Chiefs - General Dalbir Suhag and Air Marshal Arup Raha - keeping in mind a possible hostage situation. When the NSG is deployed, its commandos move with linguists and negotiators to handle hostage situations. Neither the Indian Army nor the IAF can do this job. Also, the operation was led by Major General Dushyant Singh of the NSG, who had also commanded a formation in the same area and was thus aware of the terrain. Issues of command and control which some experts have raised, therefore, appear to be without merit.

Consider also that the two groups of terrorists were confined to a small area - 250 metres by 250 metres - and not allowed to move around too much. It is also perhaps one of the few terror attacks that we were prepared for - specific intelligence helped us identify the targets much in advance and put together a cogent plan on how to thwart them. The fact that sharp actionable intelligence had been gathered is not providential but an indication of our capabilities.

Also at diplomatic level, in a major break from the past, India has for the first time provided lethal platforms to Afghanistan - four attack helicopters- much to the annoyance and discomfort of Pakistan. At the same time Prime Minister Modi has also tried to assure Pakistan about India's intention in Afghanistan. India's Afghan-Pakistan policy shows that it can send guns to Afghanistan and roses to Pakistan at the same time. And, finally, after the attack, India has put Pakistan on an unsaid deadline to act on the information shared.

(Sudhi Ranjan Sen is NDTV's Editor Security and Strategic Affairs)

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