A Tactical Success, Pity About the Strategy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi watching a presentation on the recent counter-terrorist and combing operation at Pathankot Airbase on Saturday.Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi watching a presentation on the recent counter-terrorist and combing operation at Pathankot Airbase on Saturday.Credit: PTI

So Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally spoken on the Pathankot operations. He has expressed “satisfaction” over the “the decision making and its execution, the considerations that went into the tactical response. Also noted coordination among various field units …”

The statement clearly reflects Modi’s full backing for National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, whose strategic acumen has been seriously questioned by many reputed security analysts from the armed forces who have had on-the-ground experience of handling such national emergencies as Pathankot.

It is also interesting to note the words chosen by the PM. Significantly, Modi says he is satisfied with the “considerations that went into the tactical response”. In saying so, he clearly avoids the question of strategy adopted by New Delhi – which is the real bone of contention. The entire discussion by experts post-Pathankot has remained focused on the strategy adopted by New Delhi (read: PM and NSA).

“Tactics is about how the NSG and other counter-terror units dealt with the situation on the ground in Pathankot. Tactically, the operation was a reasonable success with the neutralisation of terrorists who had entered the air base. No harm came to the assets on the air base. But there could have been a strategic lapse”, says retd Lt Gen S.Prasad (PVSM).

Gen Prasad’s view has been echoed by many top retired generals who have faced such national security situations while in service. These experienced officers have almost unanimously drawn a distinction between “tactics” and “strategy”. When they talk about a strategic lapse, they are pointing to New Delhi and the political masters who are responsible for devising strategy. The process followed is equally part of the strategy followed in New Delhi.

It turns out now that the processes adopted to devise a strategic response did not include key actors — both political and non-political—in New Delhi. By now it is public knowledge that the ministers of defence and home were not part of the crucial meetings held to decide the strategic response. As per the established doctrine officially laid down, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by the prime minister with the relevant ministers (defence and home) should have met. A separately established Crisis Management Group (CMG) headed by the cabinet secretary and other relevant intelligence and security chiefs should also have met to formulate a strategic response immediately after the receipt of intelligence. This also did not happen.

All along, the NSA conducted emergency meetings with people he deemed relevant. In all probability, the full intelligence was not shared with all the relevant ministers and officials who should have been part of the strategic decision making. In short, the cabinet system of governance got totally short circuited. Of course, Modi has made no secret about his preference for presidential style governance from the day he got elected as PM.

Former army chief  Gen V.P.Mallik has a very interesting insight on how the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had tried to formalise the process to be followed in the case on a national security emergency.

Gen Mallik was army chief as well as Chief of the Joint Staff Committee from 1998 to 2001. He recalls how during the hijack of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 to Kandahar, he had attended the CCS headed by Vajpayee. “Vajpayee was mindful of the processes. Because the three forces’ chiefs were assisting the CCS, I suggested to the PM that the CMG must also have inputs from the forces. Vajpayee ji later agreed to have vice chiefs of the three forces assist the CMG. This had got institutionalised.”

However, these institutions which were developed to deal with national security crises do not seem to have been followed subsequently. Even during the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, these processes were observed in their breach. That must have provided enough encouragement to Ajit Doval, who in any case has a reputation for being preoccupied with operations, to use the pin-pointed intelligence on Pathankot which was available in the way he had wanted. It was possibly too juicy a situation for Doval to pass up. However, the manner in which he conducted himself seems to have caused immense confusion in the command structures – which presumably was changed several times. Doval and Modi have also opened themselves to all-round criticism that the biggest strategic failure was the inability to get a part of the 50,000 armed forces stationed at Pathankot to create an impregnable perimeter defence for the airbase.

Gen Mallik said two or three battalions stationed in Pathankot (1800 to 2600 soldiers) could have been deployed for the perimeter defence within no time without compromising security in any other part of the border.

In fact almost all retired generals have asked this very pointed question. Why was this not done? This question will have to be answered in due course, even if Prime Minister Modi has chosen to laud the tactical success for now. A strong perimeter defence could have prevented the very entry of the terrorists, obviating the need for an operation inside the air base.

  • Jayadeep

    The author has clearly closed his eyes on the fact that both the home minister and defence minister were not available in Delhi on the date. I know the whole operation was bungled up and not able to neutralise 6 terrorists for 3 days and suffering 7 casualties reflects poorly on our operational capabilities and battlefield leadership…but this article is clearly biased on many fronts…not only the facts that members of CCS where not available suppressed, but some really absurd theories of thousands of men surrounding the base to create a fortress is laid out….the person who wrote this has tactical knowledge best reserved for comic books… how long Will the said thousands stand around the base ? What if the terrorists decide to sit out and wait for a week to attack the base?…What If the terrorists see this amusing arrangement and decide to divert their attack on military base instead?…

  • Raja2000

    That the DM and HM were not available that day is no excuse. Crises do not wait for these folks to be available (and the PM to be available). Should the fiyadeen notify the Ministers before they act? The fact of the matter is that some 4 to 6 guys (the actual number is still not known with certainty) held up the air base for some 3 to 6 days (even that is not known with certainty). The country must be run by a bunch of jokers with incompetent and tactless NSGs who cause more damage that done by the guys holding up the air base! And, that is perfectly fine (yeah, he is satisfied) with the Maximum Leader!

    • Jayadeep

      I was replying to authors question why the NSA led the operation and not calling the CCS to meet for taking a decision. The whole events was explained in another news outlet. Since both of them were not available in Delhi, the NSA led the op with “Permission” ….In terms of grave emergencies, you need to be proactive and not wait for political consensus!