Pathankot attack details and India's security architecture

After 26/11 Mumbai attacks, this time terrorists targeted the security installation. The attack at the Pathankot Air Force Station, located close to the Pakistan border, began early Saturday. By the evening four terrorists were killed & operations was declared successful by government, but, on next day an NSG official was killed along with five other injured while inspecting a terrorist’s body after some time again firing started from two different locations, security forces realize more terrorists are alive & by evening they were also killed. The whole incident killed seven security forces personnel with 20 injured.

After every terrorist attack, there are shallow attempts by the establishment to fit episodic responses into academic frameworks and proposals for security establishment reforms, but in no time things go back to default mode, until the next terrorist attack.

Issues surfaced in security operation:

This time the intelligence information regarding such incident may happen was available, a foreign intelligence agency had passed on a tip-off about terrorists planning to attack the base. Then why that intelligence was not treated seriously?  Is the response a reflection of the poor quality of general intelligence alerts? Do agencies not able to discriminate between a genuine & fake intelligence. On January 1, early morning, the abducted Superintendent of Police, Salwinder Singh, reported to the local police that his vehicle had been snatched. Despite several hours available to intercept the terrorists in a limited space, New Delhi, in its wisdom, decided to waste time by flying in National Security Guard (NSG) commandos from the national capital, while thousands of trained army soldiers were already stationed all over Pathankot which have been more familiar with the terrain? Does it reflect the poor decision making of senior members of the security establishment or does it hint at autocratic decision-making in New Delhi without professional participation?

This incident happened just after the Indian Prime Minister retuned from Lahore & discussed to initiate the peace talk. Both countries agreed to delay the talks without canceling them. The challenge thrown up by the terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base is to evolve India’s national security doctrine to include its response to non-state actors while carrying on diplomatic engagement with Pakistan.

Another question is who should be held accountable for the casualities & injuries of civilians, Police as was the case of 26/11 & even armed forces in this case. Those who were supposed to act on the terror alerts, those who were supposed to guard the seas and those who were supposed to protect Mumbai, all carried on with their professional lives. There is a need to frame a better accountability system.

What should be India’s Security Architecture?

•   Pathankot has shred to pieces by the cycle of terror responses in India: from processing intelligence alerts, mobilizing first responders, carrying out counter terror operations under a well-defined command-and-control system, minimizing casualties and, finally, obtaining maximum intelligence to thwart possible future attacks.

•   It is time to finally accept the reality and move forward on a broad sweep of reforms in the security establishment. This could be done at three levels — parliamentary oversight, a well-defined national security doctrine and a national security strategy to implement the doctrine, and, finally, an independent federal commission of accountability on security matters.

•   India still has no written national security doctrine, and whatever is practiced as the doctrine, and strategy, is vastly inadequate. It is time to move on from the unwritten grand strategy of working only towards the political unity and preservation of India to a written doctrine that defines India’s role in the world and its commitment to protecting the life, liberty and interests of its people. The doctrine should be accompanied by a security strategy that should spell out the state response to various kinds of security challenges. If it is a terrorist strike, then the decision-makers must know the responses expected of them, and not try to improvise based on their limited awareness. Command and control for such operations should also be spelt out in the document. To frame it political consensus must be evolved, in a publicly transparent manner, to reflect the complex challenge facing the country. 

•   Political misuse of state organs and the complete lack of transparency in their operations have resulted in Indian intelligence agencies emerging as obscure centers obfuscating facts or exaggerating things, mostly to impress political masters or for other vested interests. The lack of accountability has also meant that field operations of intelligence agencies are mostly cottage industries run on fake sources or exaggerated claims. Underlying all of it is the significant financial benefits. 

•   The final result is that even when genuine intelligence alerts are available, they are not acted upon with seriousness. India must constitute a very credible, and permanent, federal commission of accountability on security matters. This is important not just to bring in accountability to the security establishment, but also to ensure that the many insurgencies and terrorist challenges do not result in the intelligence and security apparatus getting a free hand to misuse their powers. Such a commission can also be a watchdog in places like Kashmir and the Northeast, where repeated allegations of human rights violations are haunting political efforts to find peace, and feeding terrorism. It is time to finally show that India can be more than a functional anarchy.