The Indian government’s public handling of the Pathankot attack raises several serious questions which show that the lessons from 26/11 or other terror attacks haven’t been learnt. At least 7 Indian defense and security personnel have died in the terror attack on the Pathankot Air Force base.
The golden rule for communications during operations normally is for the commander on the ground to decide what to put out and to do this him or through his information officer. In Pathankot, the absence of a coordinated communication strategy in an operation that was reportedly coordinated from the start by the NSA, meant a great deal of information confusion.
Pathankot is obviously not an urban attack like Paris but the crisis communication lesson there was clear. Contrast this with the Paris attacks, where no ministers or officials spoke prematurely and the French expertly controlled the information narrative with their President giving regular messages of reassurance.
The casualty list is of 7 dead and 20 injured, is way too high, especially for an attack that was anticipated and for which specialist NSG commandos were put in place in advance. There is a heavy deployment of security in and around the air force base. A terror alert has also been issued for most parts of northern India, including national capital New Delhi.
Pathankot is a military area and nearby Special Forces or infantry battalions could easily have been mobilized. While the big-picture from Pathankot is the impact it will have on Prime Minister Modi’s political gamble on a peace move with Pakistan, it is equally critical to answer these questions from the internal handling of the encounter.
Nobody expects the government to put out a running tactical commentary while an encounter is on but in an age where perception is everything surely putting one person in charge, and giving out regular information bulletins to provide clarity on facts that can be revealed and perspective on what can’t be put in the public domain should be the basic minimum. This is what Army Headquarters did on a daily basis during Kargil, for example.
There could be multiple reasons for this attack. The Pakistani military may have been stung by the recent Modi and Nawaz hug at Lahore and wanted to immediately assert its supremacy overnight. It was more of a repeat of Musharraf backstabbing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after his bus trip to Lahore, with the Kargil intrusions.
This time Army Chief Raheel Sharif has orchestrated the terror strike in Pathankot, for the involvement of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is implicit.
This assault on the Pathankot base follows a fixed pattern that watchers of India-Pakistan relations are wearily familiar with: every major diplomatic overture for peace is preceded or quickly succeeded with a major terror attack on Indian soil, designed specifically to put a spanner in the works.