On Saturday heavily-armed Pakistani terrorists attempted to storm the Air Force base in Pathankot, triggering a day-long gun battle in which three security personnel and four infiltrators were killed. With the obvious intention of destroying fighter jets and attack helicopters housed there, the group of terrorists in army fatigues attempted to storm the base which is barely 35 km from the International Border with Pakistan. The attackers were believed to have infiltrated from Pakistan and there was speculation that they may belong to Jaish-e-Mohammad. Pakistan condemned the attack, offering “heartfelt condolences”, and saying it was committed to “partner with India” to eliminate terrorism in the South Asian region. Despite strong indications that the attack was carried out by the Jaish-e-Muhammad, New Delhi reacted cautiously. Saturday’s attack came a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impromptu Christmas Day visit to Lahore. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had travelled to Pakistan on December 8, two days after the off-camera meeting between National Security Advisors Ajit Doval and Lt Gen (retd) Naseer Khan Janjua in Bangkok. Despite Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s assertions that India would present a “befitting reply” to the attack, reports on the ground suggest that basic response mechanism of the state had failed. An Indian Police Service officer of the rank of Superintendent had reported the presence of five heavily armed men in army fatigues at 2 am on January 1. However, his report was not taken seriously by the relevant authorities. It was only around 7 pm that the Punjab Police finally woke up to the possibility of a terrorist attack. Eventually, on the following morning, the Pathankot airbase was attacked. Operations are still underway in the perimeter of the airbase to capture other suspected terrorists believed to be part of the plot. According to latest reports, seven security personnel have been killed so far, with five militants gunned down.
Authorities in Punjab and the Centre must address the problem of a porous international border and its devastating implications. During the years of insurgency in the 1980s, the entire border with Punjab was fenced, with heavy patrolling and constant vigilance by the State police and the Indian armed forces. Such measures had significantly reduced the amount of direct infiltration into the State. Today, however, the fence stands torn by monsoon floods and covered by long tall elephant grass, under which infiltrators receive adequate cover. Such a scenario leads to constant slackness and oversight in surveillance. Moreover, drug cartels on either side of the border are known to have links to Pakistan’s intelligence service. Senior officers of the armed forces have raised their apprehension that these cartels are trading information for safe passage into Pakistan. Strategic experts have also commented that the Punjab Police, which was a strong counter-terrorism force in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have been rendered toothless today. All the resources given to them in previous decades lie crumbled and antiquated. What’s worse, the Centre had reportedly downgraded the State in terms of expenditure of security, with a Central initiative for police modernisation left by the wayside.
The attack on the Pathankot airbase, which followed similar attempts in Gurdaspur and Udhampur last year, has yet again confirmed a recurring pattern. Past attempts at peace between both nations have been usually followed by incidents of violence. Suffice to say, the attack on Pathankot follows a similar pattern. Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic bus ride to Wagah was followed by the all-out Kargil War between both nations. After the 26/11 attacks, when both sides decided to resume peace talks after much consternation, terrorists from the Indian Mujahideen conducted bomb blasts through crowded localities in Mumbai, killing 26 people. It is, therefore, abundantly clear that certain elements in both sides are hell-bent on derailing the peace process between both nations. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the Pakistani state establishment remains fragmented, with its army and intelligence agency often undermining the civilian government, India must use all the tools in its arsenal, both military and intelligence, judiciously to protect its border. Moreover, the Indian establishment must continue to pursue political dialogue with Pakistan, since derailing them now will only further undermine the civilian government’s position in Islamabad and strengthen the hands of anti-India elements across the state establishment.