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On January 2, a handful of militants attacked the Indian air force base at Pathankot, in Punjab. Indian security officials say that they belonged to the Pakistani-based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed, which India has long accused Pakistan of supporting. The men entered the base by disguising themselves in military attire and were finally subdued after a three-day siege. The fight left all of the terrorists and seven Indian security personnel dead. Even though the militants failed to achieve their goal—the destruction of large numbers of aircraft—they nevertheless exposed the vulnerabilities of a major air base.
This was the second foreign terrorist attack in Punjab within a span of six months—though the first at a military base, which is uncommon. The last attack had taken place in Gurdaspur in July 2015 and had led to the deaths of seven policemen.
First and foremost, the attacks reveal the inadequacy of Indian security. On this occasion, Indian intelligence failed to utilize advanced warnings of a possible attack; these same men were believed to have hijacked a vehicle of a senior Punjab police official shortly before the onslaught. Further, Pathankot is a major military base, and barely 50 miles from the international border with Pakistan. Yet it lacked adequate protection to deter the attack.
In fact, after the hijacking, the air force authorities could apparently only deploy patrols from the Defense Security Corps, a security force composed of mostly retired military personnel, due to a failure to anticipate a carefully orchestrated terrorist attack. The DSC personnel are neither suitably equipped nor trained to engage in counterterrorism operations. Although they bravely confronted the terrorists, and lost their lives doing so, they were woefully unprepared. Not only did they lack the requisite counterterrorism training, they had only standard issue, self-loading rifles. The terrorists were armed with sophisticated assault rifles and hand grenades.
The Indian minister of defense, Manohar Parrikar, has ordered a high-level inquiry into the attack. But it will be months before the results will be made available. In the meantime, it is critical that India assess its seemingly risible approach to dealing with what are becoming routine terrorist attacks.
Past strategies have been inadequate. For example, in the wake of a brazen assault on the Indian parliament in December 2001, allegedly by Jaish-e-Mohammad and another Pakistani terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, India mobilized around 500,000 of its security forces along the Indo-Pakistani border. But it took nearly a month to move its troops, which undermined the element of surprise. Pakistan responded by sending roughly 300,000 troops to the Line of Control in Kashmir. A long military standoff followed.
Since then, India has toyed with the idea of swift, calibrated retaliation against terrorist targets within Pakistan, but the country has not yet made such moves. Even after the November 2008 terrorist attack at multiple sites in Mumbai, India chose not to respond militarily. Apart from organizational limitations and bureaucratic hurdles, India’s policymakers have not embraced this rapid-response strategy for fear that Pakistan might retaliate with nuclear weapons. This strategy, what security analysts refer to as “deterrence by punishment,” is thus off the table.
Without a military option, India could, instead, shift to deterrence by denial. Pared to the bone, this strategy would require India’s security establishment to dramatically improve not only intelligence collection but also rapid dissemination of key information to the relevant security forces. More important, it would require improved surveillance of the Indo-Pakistani border. India has already taken important steps to install border fencing and deploy routine patrols at porous points. But as the latest attack has revealed, these efforts need to be coupled with electronic security measures. There were no electronic sensors at the military base, and as a consequence the terrorists managed to enter undetected via a drain grate.
India also needs to expand and enhance counterterrorism training. Even the national security guards who were flown in to tackle the crisis, although well trained and well armed, were not dedicated counterterrorism units. India does have dedicated counterterrorism forces, but they were not deployed at the air base because no one had anticipated that terrorists would launch such a brazen attack. Furthermore, the guards lacked knowledge of the terrain of the vast air base, which undoubtedly hampered their efforts. That is why it took over three days for them and other air force and army personnel to suppress only four to five attackers. If a counterterrorism unit had been on hand at the air base, it would have had greater familiarity with the terrain and would have been better suited to tackling the militants.
Despite multiple and recent efforts to improve relations with Pakistan, India has not been able to assuage the terrorist threat. Between 2003 and 2007, India’s previous government had pursued a set of negotiations popularly known as the “composite dialogue,” a diplomatic project that sought to resolve more than half a century of disputes between the two countries. Some analysts have argued that these talks came quite close to producing a blueprint for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Unfortunately, they foundered in 2007 with the ouster of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Any hope of their revival, for all practical purposes, ended with Lashkar-e-Taiba’s terrorist attack on Bombay (Mumbai) in November 2008. The dialogue was suspended thereafter.
The attack on Pathankot brings to mind a similar offensive, by the Vietcong against the United States during the Vietnam War. In February 1965, the Vietcong attacked Camp Holloway, located at the U.S. army base near Pleiku, Vietnam. Within 12 hours, the United States had launched retaliatory strikes against the North Vietnamese and escalated its stakes in the war. Later, in a press conference, U.S. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy justified the strikes in a press conference by saying, “Pleikus are like streetcars”—there was always another attack on its way.
As history has shown, the Vietnam War was a failure. As many scholars and analysts have argued, the United States failed to evolve its counterinsurgency strategy in a timely manner in Vietnam. Instead, it mostly pursued a conventional war against an elusive enemy. India’s vast military forces, although well suited to fighting conventional conflicts against its principal adversaries—Pakistan and China—are still not configured to deal with urban terror attacks. To prevent future attacks, it needs to have dedicated, local paramilitary forces dispersed across vulnerable areas of the country. If India fails to adopt an adequate counterterrorism strategy, there will always be another Pleiku—or, in this case, a second Pathankot.