Probing Pathankot terrorist attack: How wires got crossed in Delhi

The Indian Express investigation shows, points who took what decision – and who did not in the Pathankot air base attack.

Pathankot/ Chandigarh/ New Delhi | Updated: January 9, 2016 10:11 am
Pathankot: Army personnel move in vehicles during the operation against the militants at the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on Monday. PTI Photo (PTI1_4_2016_000047B) Army personnel move in vehicles during the operation against the militants at the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. (Source: PTI)

(Reported by Deeptiman Tiwary, Sagnik Chowdhury, Pranav Kulkarni and Praveen Swami in New Delhi)

ON Christmas Day in 1999, an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked soon after it took off from Kathmandu, by terrorists seeking the freedom of over a dozen terrorists incarcerated in Indian jails, the most important of them Masood Azhar, the cleric who would go on to found the Jaish-e-Muhammad. The Cabinet Secretary ordered the Crisis Management Group, made up of key Secretaries to the Government of India, to be summoned.

Read: Behind the Pathankot breach, 3 lights turned upward and airbase staffer detained

The team was left to improvise as best it could. Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, one insider recalls, tried calling numbers for police and airport decision-makers in Amritsar, where the plane had stopped to refuel. The numbers had changed, they discovered — and by the time new ones were found, it was too late. Punjab Police officers, meanwhile, had been asking for authorisation to block the aircraft’s exit from the parking bay, and attempt a storming — a task that they would have accomplished with ease, since the terrorists had no automatic weapons on board at that stage. The authorisation, though, never came.

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The memory of that affair, say those who have worked with Ajit Doval, still haunts the National Security Advisor. It was his task, along with his Intelligence Bureau colleague Nehchal Sandhu, the Foreign Service’s Vivek Katju, and the Research and Analysis Wing’s Anand Arni, to negotiate the hostage swap — handing over men he had helped track down and arrest.

Read: Fence floodlights that didn’t work, gaps in border patrol, patchy police response

“In a long-gone age of English cricket,” an acquaintance recalls, “those who took to the field were divided into ‘gentlemen’ amateurs, and professional ‘players’. Doval was a player.”

9.00 am, January 1: Players & Gentlemen

Few staff had arrived at work when the first warnings came in, dispatched from Amritsar to the Intelligence Bureau’s counter-terrorism centre in central Delhi. The Amritsar station’s messages were stark: assessments by local police and intelligence officials all concurred that four, perhaps five, armed terrorists, were loose somewhere in Punjab.

Intelligence officers saw the messages at around 9.30 am, government sources say, but did nothing. Their reason: there was no reason for anyone to imagine that this was a matter that might need central government intervention.

Read: Pathankot attack: BSF zeroes in on two intrusion theories — a tunnel, Kashmir route

Then, as the afternoon wore on, something happened which dispelled all thoughts of lunch: Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh’s cellphone, stolen when he had been carjacked the previous night, had lit up. There was no doubt left: a major military base around Pathankot was at imminent threat.

Doval chaired a meeting with the chiefs of the three armed forces, and the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, at 3.30 pm. Bases were put on alert. The Air Officer-Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Air. Command flew to Pathankot at about 4.45 pm, followed by two groups of the National Security Guard.

Also read: On Dec 31, 9 Pakistan calls on taxi driver’s phone; one incoming, eight outgoing

Everything seemed to be going perfectly — and then, what many hailed as a coup for Doval and his team turned wrong, as the firefight raged on. In the days since, Doval has become the target of criticism, both from the opposition and from his opponents inside the government. The Home Minister and Defence Minister have come under fire, too, for premature proclamations of victory.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national security apparatus has been force-fed crow by its critics. That, this third part of the investigation has found, points to long-unresolved issues of control and command in India’s crisis-response system.

Read: Pathankot attack: BSF zeroes in on two intrusion theories — a tunnel, Kashmir route

The NSA, thus, took all critical meetings through the first day. Though Home Minister Rajnath Singh was kept informed on decisions, Ministry of Home Affairs officials say, he was not consulted prior to orders being issued, nor asked for approval. Even though the National Security Guard falls under the Home Minister, orders on its use and deployment bypassed him.

It wasn’t until after 3.30 am on the morning of January 2 that Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar came into play. In his hometown, Panaji, Parikkar was told that fire contact had been made inside the airbase. He cancelled a scheduled afternoon meeting with local Bharatiya Janata Party legislators, and flew to New Delhi.

Read: Pathankot attack: Terrorists hid for 20 hours before strike, says Home Ministry official

There, that afternoon, Parikkar met with the service chiefs, Defence Secretary G. Mohan Kumar and Doval to discuss events on the ground. Their 90-minute meeting was largely spent reviewing the state of play on the ground “There wasn’t a lot left to discuss”, an official familiar with the meeting told The Indian Express, “because all the critical decisions had already been made the previous day”.

Everyone in New Delhi appeared to be preparing for sundowners at close of play. “I congratulate our armed forces and other security forces on successfully neutralising all the five terrorists in ‘Pathankot Operation’”, Rajnath Singh tweeted just before 7 pm.

Read: Pathankot attack: NIA chief visits crime scenes

The Home Minister’s score, Parikkar told defence reporters later, was one in excess, but he also clearly shared the feeling business was done. “I compliment the security forces for swift and effective response”, Parikkar tweeted at 9.18 pm. “I salute the brave martyrs for making the ultimate sacrifice while protecting our Motherland”.

6.00 am January 3: Caught behind

MINISTERS, it soon turned out, had played a false shot. Through the night, security forces had maintained a cordon around the encounter site, but had stopped hunting through the area — a prudent tactic to minimise unnecessary casualties. Early in the morning, though, the National Security Guard detected fresh movement around a building used to billet Air Force personnel. Intense fighting broke out again, as the terrorists were trapped in a patch of elephant-grass near the airmen’s billet.

Read: Terrorists also spoke in Kashmiri, says Gurdaspur SP in FIR 

Rajnath Singh, perhaps wisely, deleted his tweet, and left for a two-day, pre-scheduled visit to Assam. “The Home Minister has inputs from all possible agencies and sources, and he had tweeted on the basis of available information at the time”, a spokesperson for the Minister told this newspaper. “When the situation changed, that particular tweet was not found compatible with the current situation and was removed”.

For his part, Parikkar few to Tumkur, in Karnataka, to visit a helicopter facility operated by Hindustan Aeronautics. He had the opportunity to discuss the operations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi there, for the first time since intelligence reports had first come in.

Late that night, after Modi’s return from Tumkur, the Prime Minister met with Foreign Secretary Subramaniam Jaishankar and Doval. The meeting, which lasted two hours, focussed on the consequences the attack would have for the peace process with Pakistan.

No discussion, highly-placed sources said, took place at the meeting on the details of the search-and-cordon operations in Pathankot. Doval himself had chosen to avoid offering directions to commanders on the ground-though he was forced to step in on at least two occasions, to resolve feuds over overall control between the Army and National Security Guard.

Through January 3, the government did little to address snowballing criticism of how long the operation was taking — intervening only through a less-than-comprehensive briefing to the media led by Union Home Secretary Rajiv Merishi.

In Pathankot itself, no effort was made to explain to journalists outside the airbase that periodic explosions and gunfire were clearing operations by the security forces, not active fire contact. “The failure to explain this clearly”, a Home Ministry official admits, “cost the government its credibility. It gave the impression we had something to hide”.

For the next two days, much of the Cabinet remained just as ignorant as the public of exactly what had happened. The Prime Minister finally called a Cabinet meeting on January 6, where Parikkar briefed his colleagues on events. Notably, Rajnath Singh was away-an absence that many in government read as an expression of displeasure.

In a statement to this newspaper, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson denied the Minister’s absence was significant. “The Home Minister had to attend an international conference on women police”, a spokesperson said. “The Home Minister and Prime Minister had spoken about this prior commitment and that the Home Minister would be attended this programme”.

Asked by The Indian Express on Jan 6 if the Foreign Secretary talks were on track, a top government official involved with the India-Pakistan process had said: “Nobody can give an answer to it because nobody knows yet. As I said, it will depend on many things. Let us see what action Pakistan takes.”

Lingering questions

The questions, though, are far larger than a Minister’s pique. The Pathankot attack could easily have spiraled out of hand. Had military families been taken hostage, or aircraft hit, an India-Pakistan crisis might conceivably broken out. The evident failure of the government to communicate amongst itself and to the public-the consequence of highly-centralised decision making-might easily have proved a far bigger liability. Key decisions would have had to be made with no direct political sanction.

Firefights of the kind that have broke out after the Pathankot attack aren’t new — and the fact that they continue to haunt Indian security decision-making shows that fundamental issues in managing crisis haven’t been resolved.

After the hijacking of Indian Airlines IC 814 to Kandahar, the Cabinet met for the first time on December 31, 1999 — the same date that Jaish chief Masood Azhar was released in a hostages-for-prisoners swap, and 16 years to the date the assault team which targetted Pathankot. The meeting, intelligence sources said, saw a sharp attack on the swap, negotiated by the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, along with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh.

The essential argument made by the critics — notably then-Home Minister LK Advani and Defence Minister George Fernandes — was that their ministries had been bypassed in critical decision-making, undermining the Cabinet system.

In the course of the 26/11 crisis, the Cabinet Secretary did not even convene the Crisis Management Group, with power concentrating in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office, represented by his National Security Advisor M K Narayanan. Then-Home Minister Shivraj Patil, forced out of office for his poor handling of the crisis, reportedly told confidantes he was blamed for events he had almost no role in.

Now, an even more powerful NSA is facing criticism for an even more centralised decision-making process. The question, instead, is a political one: is the NSA’s office to be the fulcrum of Indian strategic decision-making in the future, wielding greater power than the Ministries of Defence and Home?

This fundamental question, a product of the unprecedented power of the Prime Minister’s Office under Modi, is likely to be debated for quite a while.

Tomorrow: The airbase and its neighbourhood