New Delhi :
Defence experts have deprecated the “lack of coordination” in the handling of the terror strike at Pathankot air base and questioned the multiplicity of agencies involved in the operation that continued for the third day today.
At the same time, the experts said there was no need to act in haste as the terrorists have now been “cornered” and rushing things would increase casualties, which stand at seven defence personnel, including one Lt Col of NSG.
They batted for better coordination between Indian Air Force and the Army in guarding air bases in case of exigencies like the one at Pathankot in Punjab.
“There is a lack of coordination. We have multiple agencies—the NSG, Punjab Police, Garud Commandos of air force and the army involved in the operation.
“The army is well-equipped to handle such cases and this should have happened from day one, when the attack took place,” said former army chief Gen. VP Malik, who added that it was easier to fix accountability that way.
“The entire operation could have been handled better and the army should have been called in much before as the cantonment is next to the base,” he added.
Malik felt that the security forces were “complacent” in the initial stages of the operation, when attackers were killed on the first day, but noted that after sustaining the casualties, they would have become “cautious”.
Lt Gen. (retd) HS Panag, former GOC-in-C, Northern Command, too, spoke about the need for better coordination and help from the army. He said that army infantry should have been deployed just when there was a security alert in order to protect the air base.
He also suggested that glaring lacunae existed in forces like Defence Security Corps (DSC), which is the first line of defence for guarding air bases.
Voicing a similar opinion, Lt Gen. (retd) Raj Kadyan said there should have been a “single point command” for dealing with the operation and the government has erred in following the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which gives army the charge of handling such a situation.
What went wrong?
The terrorists who attacked the IAF base in Pathankot came in groups of four and two and the bigger group was ticked off by their Pakistani handler as to why they have fallen behind in reaching the target when their accomplices had already entered the complex.
Official sources while giving this information today said two gunmen from the group of six Pakistani terrorists might have entered Pathankot air base in Punjab before a state Police SP was kidnapped by them and much before an alert was sounded about their presence in the area.
There is “high probability” that at least two terrorists have entered the Indian Air Force base before Punjab Police SP Salwinder Singh, his jeweller friend Rajesh Verma and Singh’s cook was kidnapped along with an SUV on December 31, the sources said.
Verma, whose throat was slit but survived, told his interrogators that he had heard the four terrorists, who boarded the vehicle after hijacking it, talking to their handlers, believed to be in Pakistan.
The handler apparently ticked off the four terrorists saying why they could not enter the air base as two other terrorists have already reached the target to carry out the attack last Saturday.
The four terrorists told their handlers that they were on their way but could not reach the base as there were several police pickets on the way, according to details of investigations.
There is also possibility of these four terrorists entered the Pathankot air base in the morning of January 1, much before an alarm was sounded in the area to secure all vital installations later in the evening of that day, sources said.
The hijacked vehicle was also found near the air base. Crucial hours were lost in verifying the Punjab Police SP’s claims that he was kidnapped along with two others by the terrorists.
Sources said that police officers whom the SP had informed about the terrorists initially did not take him seriously due to his “dubious past”, thus leading to some crucial hours being lost.
Sources said that immediately after the alarm was sounded, security at all vital installations, including the Pathankot air base, was enhanced to the highest level to make it difficult for the terrorists to mount an attack.
Security agencies believe there were six terrorists and they were divided into two groups—one of 4 and the other with 2 members.
The top security brass of the government knew by January one that Pathankot air base would be the target of the terrorists, who were still at large and steps were taken immediately to beef up security.
First priority for the government was to secure the assets parked in the technical area and a NSG team comprising about 160 commandos was dispatched and they were deployed along with other special forces to guard the assets in the inner periphery.
The terrorists who raided Pathankot air base may have entered India assisted by a drugs racket along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border and the heavy arms and ammunition used by them could have been dispatched from the neighbouring country before they crossed the border.
Security agencies suspect that the terrorists crossed the International Border in Punjab through a “controlled operation” by a gang involved in the smuggling of narcotics, fake Indian currency notes and arms.
The possibility of the involvement of some security personnel with the smuggling gang cannot be ruled out as there have been inputs in the past about some elements being linked to the establishment of the drugs racket, the sources said.
A detailed probe and questioning of some people involved in the racket could unearth the conspiracy, they added.
Speculation is rife that the heavy arms and ammunition used by the terrorists in the attack were sent over from Pakistan much before the terrorists crossed the International Border.
There is a high probability that the arms were sent through the drugs racket and dumped at a designated spot from where the terrorists collected these after crossing the border through a route used by the smugglers, sources said.
“Smuggling network in Punjab has to be probed,” they said.