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

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  1. S
    Jan 9, 2016 at 5:57 am
    This report is poorly written and needs to improve on the clarity of presentation.
    1. K
      Jan 9, 2016 at 5:59 am
      By no stretch of imagination can this operation be termed a failure. Terrorists were already in the vicinity of the air base (or in the air base premises as per some accounts). That they were not able to achieve what they had set out to do (damage national ets / create a hostage situation) speaks for itself. If a couple of Ministers jumped the gun in declaring the operation as complete it perhaps stems from a politician's instinct to be the first to claim credit for any success. The big learnings are 1) Border security (esp in Punjab where the ruling elite is seen as being complicit in smuggling) and 2) Security of our defence (and other vital establishments) - the perimeter security of as important a base as Pathankot was non existent except high walls and barbed wire on top. The Air Force under Parrikar and BSF under Rajnath should work out plans to bring in modern survelliance technology at the Border / Air Bases - they cant blame Mr Doval for these rather than indulge in turf battles. I am glad that Mr Doval did not hesitate to do what was right without bothering about niceties in such a crisis. May be thats what saved the day.
      1. A
        Jan 9, 2016 at 5:01 am
        More important News: Afgan beat Zimbabwe by 5 runs. Newzealand beat sri lanka by 3 runs!!!!!!!That was also FIXED like Patankot!!!!!!
        1. B
          Jan 9, 2016 at 7:29 am
          Now that Modi Bania has visited stan, braMINIONS do not want to chid that country. That would be going against the views of Modi. So all those who would have drawn their daggers out against stan are now folding their tails and playing safe. For those PATRIOTS, their brahMINION PATRIOTISM is more important than towards country. Because they don't belong to any country other than their pre-migration central area.
          1. R
            Jan 9, 2016 at 7:02 am
            Just bomb all our dams on our side. Flood that useless country. A few million less s will be of immense benefit to India.
            1. K
              Jan 9, 2016 at 1:19 am
              Looks like IE has set out on an agenda to character asinate all BJP people. Somebody jas rightly said IE is the biggest Dhimmitude media. After triggering the outrages of fake christians under threat, fake intolerance, fake DDCA scam, now IE is after Doval. Who needs enemies when you have IE.
              1. T
                Jan 9, 2016 at 7:24 am
                Let it be clear once for all Feku56 can never be Indira hi who IN her address to the Country over AIR on a cold foggy Dec 1971 morning declared " the Nation is at war" and stan lost its Eastern Wing for all times
                1. T
                  Jan 9, 2016 at 7:18 am
                  When HM informs PM that he has a meeting and expects PM to guide and PM's silence means HM u presence in our cabinet meet with DM briefing his first hand report about IAF airbase attack by Pak terrorists means HM is just a dummy
                  1. R
                    Jan 9, 2016 at 4:41 am
                    So Rajnath Singh was in Asom! Defense minister was in Panaji! Modi was in Tumakura! Were they all on a new year bash even after knowing that an air Base is attacked? That douche Rajnath Singh flew to Asom after knowing that the base is attacked? AMAZING!! What sort of s they would? MODIOTS. If it were RAM temple, every SB will be strategically planning the murder of all other religions.All of you s, RESIGN!!!
                    1. O
                      Jan 9, 2016 at 4:49 am
                      Operation slow motion to OPERATION "WHY SHOULD I BOTHER" Shame on you BJP. You fumbled in 1999, you fumble in 2015-2016. Who asked you Modiot to go to stan? Are you such a DUMB!
                      1. b
                        Jan 9, 2016 at 4:51 am
                        I strongly believe that Akand Barat should solve the problem.
                        1. A
                          Ajay Singh
                          Jan 10, 2016 at 7:09 am
                          The position of NSA was created, among other reasons, precisely to fill the sort of need that arose in Pathankot. Cabinet ministers are politicians and the Secretaries to the Government are bureaucrats - both with no experience or competence with regard to security matters. Professional experience is required. At the same time a crisis such as this requires coordination between different arms of the Government apparatus which report to different ministries and even to different governments (state and Central) - for example the NSG falls under the MHA of the GoI whereas the Army and Airforce fall under the MoD; and the Punjab Police under the Punjab Govt. It is for this reason that the NSA - reporting directly to the PM and utilizing his delagted authority - coordinates in a crisis and umes the operational control he needs to. Criticism from egoistic politicians and grumbling from status-conscious generals, air marshals, inspector generals and secretaries afterwards need not be taken too seriously. As far as I can see the current NSA did very well in this situation and the crisis itself was handled well, except perhaps for the handling of the media. In future not all NSAs will have the same background in intelligence or police work or the breadth of operational experience the Mr. Doval possesses; for example they could be former diplomats. However, by ensuring that expert professional input is part of the decision making (through mandatory inclusion of the armed forces chiefs, intelligence chiefs, police chiefs and the foreign secretary) the management of such situations in future would be equally well handled. As for the management of information for the public, rhere needs to be a dialgue with the media to evolve a system for reporting durign and after a crisis; the media itself as before needs to make a serious effort to rid itself of amateur reporters and editors; and to curb the tendency to sensationalise and to jump to conclusions based on half baked information in the midst of an ongoing operation.
                          1. S
                            Jan 9, 2016 at 3:04 am
                            There should be a thorough investigation of the incident and how to improve it. This kind of problems happen in highly organized countries like US. From where these terrorists entered India and who were the helpers from the Indian side.
                            1. C
                              Jan 9, 2016 at 3:09 am
                              The basic problem with the journalists is that they were not kept in the loop of all the decisions. First of all the w operation was successful. The decision to have NSG instead of Army was because we had to avoid hostage situation. The very fact that they were contained in the perimeter and not close to ets both human and technical was a great job of command of the operation. People who have no idea of strategy write saying sources. It is well known that the sources in the office of this government will not leak information like the previous government. This is the same newspaper which made a claim that there was a coup organized by army chief. We know their credibility.
                              1. C
                                Chandrashekhar Deshpande
                                Jan 9, 2016 at 12:28 am
                                No Power of Center,No decision making, No speed of action who are the responsible? Mr. Modi, Mr. Doval, Mr.Shivshankar? Mr. Rajanathsing? or Military Establishment? The answer is Three fold.One lack of spirit of National Security,Two and that is important 'GharBhedi'(Traitors)in the Form of Punjab Police and certainly the centralization of Power under which No one feel that it is his work all will be looked by PM.
                                1. K
                                  Jan 9, 2016 at 1:27 am
                                  I would not blame Modi or his immediate staff. There are authorities in place in case of any incidence, Doval may have not taken this threat seriously, but that is a calculated risk. India is a big country, there is Punjab police and also the state police, above that the airforce has its own force to protect the area, so Doval may have thought that there were enough personnel on the ground to deal with 5 terrorists. Today India knows that there were moles inside the airforce station that helped the terrorists, we also know that the police was part of the problem. Badal is a liar and he is very much part of the drug culture in India. It is up to Modi to decide if Punjab and Badal need to be nailed to the cross.
                                  1. K
                                    Jan 9, 2016 at 1:22 am
                                    There is still the troubling question as to why would Satveer have his cook and friend instead of the police guard? Why was he driving that late in the night to a place of worship? Where drugs routinely delivered from that area? Did the drug dealers let these terrorists go into India as they were well aware of the police and topography. Why was Satveer's life spared? Big s in the investigations, even a amateur like myself can see the trail of lies.
                                    1. D
                                      Jan 9, 2016 at 10:57 am
                                      Sir you are seriously missing the point here and argument of 26/11 Mumbai incident proposed by you doesn't hold here. When you strike the security establishment of a country at that establishment fails to defend itself let alone the nation it represents is the issue here. This was a tactical action staged by stan and sir you sadly failed to grasp the depth of it.
                                      1. D
                                        Jan 9, 2016 at 10:22 am
                                        The repercussions of Pathankot attack and the damage done are enormous and that is regionally and internationally. By striking at the heart of Indian security system by staging "non-state actors", stan has certainly proved its point that India is no longer part of the regional counter balance power equation when considered against China in South Asia. Handling of Pathankot strike by the terrorists badly would certainly be an understatement.
                                        1. D
                                          Dinesh Singh
                                          Jan 9, 2016 at 4:21 am
                                          The real problem is pseudo bravado of cowardice BJP leaders. They brags like lions but in crisis situation are rabbits and run around as headless chicken. stan knows that and thats why they strike more when BJP is in power. Kandhahar hijacking, Kargil, Parliament attack and now pathan kot. They know that spineless BJP leaders are all talk. Dobhal who is being portra as Rambo/ james boond is like Zaid Hamid of India. He talks to much for a NSA. He should be shown the door and some one capable from RAW/ Army should be made NSA.
                                          1. V
                                            Jan 9, 2016 at 9:45 am
                                            The one bungling during Kandahar hijacking of releleasing Mod Azahar has been causing a lot of problems and caused enormous casualties. The person, who accompanied the Kandahar terrorists, is currently in coma. What is missing in most of such terror attacks, including the Pathankot attack, clearly indicate the slow response of the decision making persons and centralising authority in one/two individuals ignoring the Cabinet. It is surprising and very shameful that for a few thousands,some of our own staff sold the national security. The punishment in such cases should be nothing less than death.
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