Published On : Tue, Jan 5th, 2016

Pathankot Attack : Yet another security glitch!


Nagpur Today picks up this interesting piece penned by former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah. Omar has chosen to write this piece for NDTV where the article appeared with a disclaimer. We too follow the suit. Read on…

I’ve been holding off on writing this piece for more than 36 hours now. I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to sit down and analyse the fallout of an attack that was still being responded to by our security forces. It’s been a long 60 hours since news of the attack first came in. Once again, we are forced to ask ourselves difficult questions including whether we’ve learnt anything from previous attacks, and whether we truly value the sacrifices of our security forces. Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is a resounding “No”, but I’ll get to that.

I’m not clued in enough about the actual conduct of the operation or the handling of the intelligence that arose from the abduction of a Punjab Police officer in the area of Pathankot to do more than speculate about what might have happened. Like the rest of you, I have a lot of questions that I’m hoping, in due course, someone in the government will take the time to answer. How was it possible that even with prior intelligence about the presence of militants in the area, they were able to gain access to the airbase? If we had moved NSG and army units to the airbase, why were the veteran Defense Security Corps personnel the first responders?

It’s almost as if we wanted the militants to gain entry to the base, rather than deal with them before they crossed the perimeter. Who was briefing the Union Home Minister that he announced, prematurely, the end of the operation, an operation that continued for almost two days AFTER his announcement and congratulatory tweet? Who was directing the government’s media response? It was a shambles, to say the least. We had sources and government-friendly voices in the media patting individuals on the back for a job well done, and when things starting going belly up, the same sources were suddenly blaming the Punjab Police for ignoring vital intelligence. The government insisted on playing down the death toll when it was already clear that it was well past the figure of three that the government had been hard selling. Why? And finally, whose idea was it to have the PM make a speech about the benefits of yoga at a time like this? I’m not suggesting that he should have dropped everything and rushed back to Delhi, but in my opinion, a departure from the script to acknowledge what was happening in Pathankot wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The truth is that for better or for worse, after the 25th of December, 2015, whatever happens between India and Pakistan will land squarely at the door of the Prime Minister. There is no cloak of deniability and no Teflon shield to protect him from any adverse developments – and developments don’t come much more adverse than the deaths of seven brave security force personnel in an attack that has its origins in Pakistan, whether state-sponsored or rogue “enemies of humanity”.

He was happy to be feted for his decision to drop in unannounced to meet his counterpart in Lahore, so now he can’t pass on the criticism for the fallout of this attack to anyone else.

If anything, the quandary the Prime Minister and his advisers find themselves in is one of their own making. They were happy to play politics with similar situations when they were in the opposition and now suddenly cry foul when the same is done to them. Who can forget their “ten Pakistani heads for one Indian head”, or the taunts of Dr Manmohan Singh being a weak PM because he wasn’t ready to annihilate Pakistan every time we faced a terror attack from across the border? What about the oft-repeated “talks and terror can’t go together”? Of course, people are going to dig out the old tweets of people like Mr Modi and Ms Swaraj and ask them what’s changed between then and now, except that now they are in government.

That’s why I’d suggested in a previous column that it was time for PM Modi to call the Congress/UPA leadership to brief them about developments with Pakistan so that this process could be insulated from political attacks. Alas, I think that boat has well and truly sailed.

I was amused to see visuals of the External Affairs Minister consulting former senior diplomats with long Pakistan experience, to frame a suitable response including what to do about the announced Foreign Secretary level talks between the two countries for later this month. A policy, if you can call it that, that has been more about knee-jerk reactions and unplanned impromptu gestures can’t suddenly be cloaked with the respectability of being a well-considered and thought out one. I’ve said this before, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, I’ll say it again – India-Pakistan relations need stability and consistency, not one-off gestures designed to capture one or two news cycles.

Where do we go from here? There will be loud voices and talking heads calling for a complete disengagement from Pakistan. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not the answer because we’ve done it in the past and it hasn’t worked. Instead of routine Foreign Secretary talks, it would be more appropriate for the National Security Advisers of the two countries to meet (away from the media glare again this time), to discuss terrorism and specifically how India would like to see Pakistan respond to this latest attack. Clear goalposts can be established and progress monitored; progress here will allow a certain amount of confidence to be rebuilt; then, the dialogue about other issues can take off from here.

Can we please have no more grand gestures for the time being? If Nawaz Sharif is flying over India, let’s allow him to continue his journey uninterrupted and resist the temptation to invite him to drop in for a cup of tea and a fireside chat. Let’s take the talks out of the limelight and let things continue, preferably at a level and tempo that can withstand attacks like Pathankot or the one in Mazar-i-Sharif.

As for lessons learnt, sadly we seem to be doomed to being forced to accept that we’ve learnt nothing. How can a response, after we had solid intelligence about the presence of armed terrorists, that stretches over three days and costs seven valuable lives and many more injuries not be termed anything other than a grave failure? I’ve seen some people suggest that because the casualty figure was nowhere near Mumbai’s 26/11 death toll, this operation in Pathankot has been a success. If the argument wasn’t ridiculous in the extreme, it may have actually been funny. We still treat our security personnel as cannon fodder – poorly-armed and poorly-trained. We lost a Lieutenant Colonel of the NSG during a bomb/IED disposal which is unacceptable! We send injured personnel to hospital in a private vehicle rather than a critical care ambulance, and yet every VVIP worth their salt has at least one such ambulance in their motorcades at all times. Why? I saw any number of images of personnel with no bulletproof gear what so ever. These are all things that have been pointed out in the past and nothing has changed.

How I wish this is the last such blog post I’ll have to write, but unfortunately, with all the optimism in the world, I don’t believe that to be true – and the next time around, I’ll still be lamenting the lessons we refuse to learn.

(Omar Abdullah is National Conference leader and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir)