(Reported by: Kamaldeep Singh Brar and Navjeevan Gopal in Pathankot; Kanchan Vasdev and Nirupama Subramanian in Chandigarh; Deeptiman Tiwary, Sagnik Chowdhury, Pranav Kulkarni and Praveen Swami in New Delhi)
LONG after the fighting, a fire continued to rage across the Airmen’s Mess and the pile of discarded furniture in the yard outside. The last terrorists inside the Air Force base in Pathankot had held out since early on Sunday morning, January 3, firing from inside the building and a nearby patch of elephant grass. The Airmen’s Mess was where they were killed, set alight by explosives and gunfire from armoured personnel carriers. As the National Investigation Agency sifts through the detritus of the battle, there’s a strange fact facing them.
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Four bodies of terrorists have been handed over, clad in military fatigues, and explosives strapped to their bodies. There are four recovered assault rifles and four pistols — the standard kit of the fidayeen, along with ready-to-eat chicken and rice, painkillers, and vials of perfume. Just four.
“It is possible that two more bodies were blown to pieces, as the Airmen’s Mess disintegrated,” an intelligence officer familiar with the case told The Indian Express, “and we have sent forensic samples for examination. The thing is, we would have expected to find their weapons in the debris, and nothing’s surfaced”.
The unresolved issue of just how many terrorists attacked the base is emblematic of the growing questions over just how well-organised operations to eliminate them were.
Intelligence Bureau agents have even, government sources say, been able to identify, with a high degree of confidence, the men who sent them to their death. The Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar, his key aide Maulana Ashfaq Ahmad, Hafiz Abdul Shakoor and Kasim Jan: these men, they say, spoke to the terrorists in intercepted phone conversations.
Everything that transpired once the firing began, though, is lost in the haze of battle. That, in turn, The Indian Express investigation shows, points to worrying signs that the outcome of the operation was as much good luck as good management.
January 2, 3.30 am: First fire
EVER since 10.10 pm, the airbase was preparing for battle: the first team of National Security Guards landed there then, to be followed, a few hours later, by a second one, standing by if the terrorists ended up taking hostages from the more than 10,000 members of military families living there. Two teams of the Indian army’s crack special forces were stationed at the Mamoon Army base next door, along with six mine-protected vehicles. Everyone braced for an attack on the Air Base, or another military facility.
Inside the Defence Security Corps’ mess, a few hundred meters from the building where the NSG was waiting, Jagdish Chand was brewing tea for the guards who would soon be ending their shift at the base’s perimeter wall. Fifty-eight-year-old Chand, a cook, had just been transferred to Pathankot from Leh, arriving a day earlier.
Drawn from retired soldiers, typically in their late 40s or early 50s, the DSC is responsible for security duties at many defence installations across the country.
The cook, officials involved the operation have told the NIA, likely looked up when he heard gunfire outside — and then, perhaps, saw a man with a gun running into the mess kitchen. The terrorist was shot dead, perhaps after Chand fought him to the ground, before being killed by a second attacker.
Even though the base was prepared for a classic fidayeen attack on its gates — men, armed with grenades and assault rifles, trying to shoot their way on the technical area tarmac — no one had expected they were already inside.
Located by thermal-imaging equipment on board Air Force helicopters, the terrorists had moved rapidly after jumping the 11-foot wall around the base. They first faced a patrol of Garud commandos from a contingent of 24 men who had come in the night before with the Commander-in-chief of the Western Air Command, Air Marshal S B Deo.
The Garuds, the Air Force’s in-house commando force, opened fire near the military engineering service’s mechanical transport facility, and claim to have injured one terrorist standing near the perimeter wall. In the exchange of fire, Garud Corporal Gursewak Singh was shot dead.
Following this exchange of fire, the terrorists ran into the DSC mess. It was then that they killed the cook, Chand. Subsequently, Kulwant Singh, an unarmed guard, tried to grapple with one of the terrorists, but was shot and killed in the unequal struggle. Three other DSC guards were killed, claimed by a grenade the terrorists threw as they ran into the building.
Large swathes of the airbase, home to families and unarmed personnel, had been left unguarded, simply because no one thought the terrorists would be able to penetrate the perimeter with such ease.
The Army says, in private, that it had thousands of armed personnel available who could have been drafted in to secure the premises — men who would, moreover, have then been available to lock down the base once the firing began. No one, though, had ever planned or prepared for such an assault, a mistake that had cost five men their lives.
4.00 am: Hide and seek
THE National Security Guard joined battle, sources familiar with the operation say, inside minutes. They first engaged the terrorists near the base’s bakery, known to generations of military families in Pathankot for its cookies and cakes. The terrorists, though, melded away just as contact began. This began a lethal game of hide and seek, with forces trying to pin down the terrorists and force them to expend their ammunition — and the terrorists darting away, to avoid just that outcome.
For the NSG and the small Army Special Force contingent, the first task now was to ensure the the terrorists didn’t make their way north, towards the Air Base’s family housing, or south and south-east, where combat jets, helicopters and air-defence missile batteries were housed. The gates to the hangers were less than 500 m away.
Inside hours, both the terrorists who had stormed the DSC mess were dead. “We were pretty sure that they had not infiltrated the technical area”, an Air Force officer said, “because if they had they’d have been blowing up aircraft by then”.
Fighting broke out again at around 10.00 a.m., after more terrorists were spotted near the Airmen’s billet-the third point of contact. The army’s special forces, reinforced by several more columns who had been called in once the fighting broke out, had located the group.
“We did the search but once contact was made, we were told to hand over to the NSG”, said a military official present at the base. The official said that though this was done as seamlessly as possible, it slowed operations down, as the terrain and location of the terrorists had to be explained to the NSG’s officers.
The fighting dragged on. At one stage, the forces contemplated bringing down the airmen’s billet, using explosives. The option, though, was rejected after it turned out there were still airmen trapped inside. In the afternoon, the Army had covered the evacuation of the Air Force personnel inside, firing from a BMP2 armoured personnel carrier, and a Casspir mine-proof vehicle. Soon afterwards, explosives tore the building apart.
Late that afternoon, the Air Force Flew Mi-35 attack helicopters low over the base, their armour-plating protecting them from fire, to make sure all was well. Two more terrorists were detected at 3.30 pm, near a patch of elephant grass. The men were engaged, once again — and killed.
Even though the army has said, in public, that there was “excellent synergy” between the multiple forces involved in the operation, and that the decision was taken after consulting the Army chief, private assessments by serving officers are less emphatic.
“The NSG has never been trained to go after terrorists inside the semi-rural setting of a large military camp”, one officer said. “We do it all the time in Kashmir. Last year, we did an operation in Arnia. Five terrorists had were detected inside the the camp around 3 am, and by 10.30 am it was all over”.
In fairness, it had taken just three and a half hours longer for the Pathankot operation to come to an end — and that over considerably greater terrain. Bar the NSG’s Lieutenant-Colonel Niranjan Kumar, who died when he moved a body under which the terrorist had left a grenade as a booby trap, there were no fatalities after the initial contact.
3.00 pm, January 4: Recrimination
Eighty four hours after it began, late on Tuesday afternoon, Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar was finally able to address the press. Behind the scenes, though, the recrimination had begun. The Air Force was less than happy that the seniormost officer at the base, Air Marshal Deo, had no role in operations. Brigadier G S Belvi, in charge of the army contingent, only had to defer to a military colleague, Major-General Dushyant Singh — but it still ruffled military feathers since his boss, the Director-General of the NSG, is a police officer.
The essence of the Army’s critique is that there was no reason why, with nearly 15,000 troops present just around the Air Base, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had to call in the NSG. Like all hindsight, this criticism seems fair because the hunt went on for so long — but had hostages been taken, the failure to have the NSG on hand would also have been an issue.
Far more important are the larger lessons. Had the Intelligence Bureau not intercepted telephone conversations by the terrorists, and set off the alarm, it is possible the terrorists would have managed to enter deeper into the base, hit aircraft, unchallenged, or inflict heavier casualties.
There has been no explanation of just why a vital base didn’t have better perimeter security, and electronic surveillance systems, even though similar attacks on bases just across the border in Pakistan had lead to the losses of multi-million dollar combat assets.
Had a proper lockdown system been planned and rehearsed, moreover, the lethal hide and seek at the base wouldn’t have gone on for quite so long. In this sense, it’s clear military planners didn’t learn important lessons from 26/11, where forces had to respond on the fly — with far from optimal consequences. Pathankot was an embarrassment, not a 26/11-type catastrophe, as some have claimed. It could, only too easily, have proved otherwise.
(Tomorrow: Meanwhile, in Delhi)