By Syed Ata Hasnain
4 Jan, 2016
What operations like the one at Pathankot entail, and why there must be a single point of information for the media for such operations
I remember October 2013 vividly. An alleged intrusion by Pakistan-backed terrorists in the Keran sector of Kashmir was thwarted by the Indian Army with deep speculation on why the contact and operations extended to 15 days and beyond. Heads were being demanded and Kargil II was the label being used by media and others.
The Army was unwilling to engage in public explanation on the nature of operations. I then wrote in The Hindu on 9 October, an article titled ‘An Ambitious Ploy at the Heights’. This was out of a sense of frustration to explain to the public and equally the media, the actual ground conditions (being fully aware of these), why such operations take long, why senior commanders do not ride on their subordinates to expedite and why it was not Kargil II.
The usual perception is that once contact with hostile elements is made by an armed force it is a matter of a few hours before operations are terminated. The public is obviously not sufficiently exposed to have informed perception or have the correct expectations. For that the media steps in and educates, understanding the nuances from experienced veterans, own knowledge of military operations and local conditions.
This brings me to the ongoing operations at Pathankot Air Force (AF) base. I have had many calls to inquire why such operations must take 40 hours or more. To them I explain that if I was on ground I would demand at least 72 more hours to do the job. I would have professional loyalties to my subordinate commanders and men and not place an extra ounce of burden on their already burdened shoulders. What right does anyone have of asking for hastening of operations? It only creates catastrophes and more casualties.
Indian security personnel stand alert on a road leading to the airforce base in Pathankot on January 3, AFP PHOTO/ NARINDER NANU / AFP / NARINDER NANU
Indian security personnel stand alert on a road leading to the airforce base in Pathankot on January 3, AFP PHOTO/ NARINDER NANU
I do remember the number of times we had sneak attempts (I do not label these events as attacks or storming by terrorists) in 1999-2001 in the Valley. The modus operandi was always the same; terrorists attempting to suppress the security at entry gates, running into the garrison and then disappearing.
In most cases the numbers were indeterminate and operations involved room to room searches until we were dead certain that the last terrorist was eliminated. Make one mistake during search and you would have a few dead men. By comparison, the Pathankot Air Force base is simply huge, a couple of hundreds of acres. Imagine if six terrorists sneak inside and there is undergrowth, hangars, technical areas, ATC, administrative areas and family accommodation plus a school and a market place. Does one expect to deliberately search the base in 24 hours and declare that all is well? I know as a nation we have a poor strategic culture but this expectation that the public and the media is having is a little beyond my understanding.
The fault actually is neither with the public or the media. Educate both and you will have people giving correct opinion, except of course the wannabe experts sans any experience. How do you do that? That was a major lesson of 26/11 which is forgotten when it is needed most. Firstly, there has to be an overall commander of the troops on the ground and especially so when myriad forces like the Army, AF Garuds, NSG, BSF and Punjab Police are all milling around. Not an easy decision and it does not come to mind easily either because our experience of such operations is mostly J&K based where the nearest CO or Brigade Commander assumes charge. No one questions it because the Army is the most experienced and well trained force. In the relative peace of Punjab today operations such as these are far and few.
The Army itself may be hesitant to step in (remember Gurdaspur where the Army was asked to lay the outer cordon and later withdrew in frustration). The transition from a small time operation to a large scale one takes time and there is no one readily available to shoulder responsibility unless SOPs exist, commanders are nominated beforehand and three essentials are clear – command, control and communications; add information to that in modern parlance and you have the perfect thing, C3I. Realization of just how big this is comes progressively with someone more senior ready to step in.
In the ongoing operation, the C3I should have progressively rested with a two star Army officer who was readily available (in fact two were there). That done, all forces report to him for directions and there is no individual force bravado. His signals component automatically assumes responsibility for coordination of communications and a senior staff officer sets up a small Tactical HQ which becomes the nerve center. Linked to that Tactical HQ is a small media room/center some safe distance away. A designated officer takes on the briefs for media based upon information being fed from the Tactical HQ. This prevents media from speculating, lacing and wild guesses at casualties based upon supposed insider information. OB Vans etc can all congregate here, hence the safe distance away from the scene of action.
None of the above is new; it is all within the scope of the well-known. However, admittedly it is the realization of transition which is the most difficult decision. For that someone has to be empowered to take decisions and that is what local internal security schemes are all about in the current environment and not simply about aid to civil authorities. Hopefully many lessons will emerge from the operations conducted at the Pathankot AF base, not the least being the fact that North Punjab will remain the focus of the Pakistan based Fisadi (calling them Jihadi gives them semblance of respect they do not deserve) groups and we need to get our act together. In fact the Gurdaspur operations gave enough indicators of this in end July 2015 and warning of the above was given by experienced practitioners.
That brings me to the last point and there will be many more once the post-mortem exercise starts. Visuals continue to reveal the fascination for the combat dress. Despite numerous requests to authorities in the past, including the MoD and MHA, about the necessity of streamlining the pattern of combat dresses never has an advisory or direction been issued. All shades and patterns with myriad jackets continue to be on display. Besides the inevitable confusion this creates on the ground (and the terrorists themselves wear combats) it presents a shoddy picture of the nation’s security forces when viewed by international audiences on electronic media. In this image conscious world, if nothing else, we need authorities to look at this aspect carefully and issue directions after coordination with different forces.
Hopefully the operations will terminate shortly (no expected timelines). I need to sign off with a comment on an oft repeated issue in media reports on 3 January. This relates to the Home Minister’s statement complimenting the success of the security forces and appreciating their valor. I explained on a channel that this must be viewed contextually. The operations by our valorous men in arms have prevented a disastrous situation which could have been akin to losses of the Pakistan Navy and Pakistan Air Force in the not so distant past. A couple of fighter aircraft and helicopters on fire and viewed by international audiences would have cut a very poor image of our security forces. Loss of lives is indeed regrettable but in this cruel world images make for perceptions and it is perception that we battle more than half the time.
Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) is the former Corps Commander of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, and is currently associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group, two major strategic think tanks of Delhi