Much like in the days after the November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, the knives are out in the aftermath of the Pathankot incident to fix responsibility on the upper echelons of the government for their inability to stop a handful of jihadis from sneaking into the country and for an allegedly "botched-up" operation.
Major decisions pertaining to the operation -- from deploying the National Security Guards (NSG), which supposedly created a confusion of command, to sending veteran soldiers of the Defence Security Corps (DSC) for the combing operation -- were criticised for being knee-jerk and arbitrary. The resultant slugfest, especially between the men in uniform -- representing both the Khakhis and Faujis -- revealed the innate turf battles that define the current state of the Indian security establishment, and by implication, its inherent weaknesses. Lost in this din, though, are the deeper systemic issues that reinforce our enduring vulnerabilities to such attacks.
Despite many efforts for "sweeping reforms", the national security establishment, like many arms of the State, continues to thrive on mediocrity and complacency...
For one, the bone of contention -- whether the decision to hand over the reins of the operation to the NSG instead of the army was a prudent one -- itself looks insignificant. That the NSG was designated as the pivot of our counter-terror strategy after the 26/11 attack, along with an ambitious plan to position it across the country for a rapid reaction capability, clearly justifies the decision to dispatch the force to Pathankot. Further, the attack happened in an IAF base, guarded by the Garud force (not a counter-terrorist unit), which made it contingent for the NSG (composed of commandos drawn from the army) to be deployed at the first sign of an imminent terror strike. Though it has considerable experience in confronting terror elements (owing to the many attacks on army camps in Jammu and Kashmir, besides its Rashtriya Rifles exposure), it is worth considering that the army has been far from eager to have its forces being deployed for counter-insurgency operations and internal security requirements.
While the swift decision-making, howsoever centralised in one person or group, pursued in this instance needs due appreciation, the relative effeteness of many other structures within the security apparatus underlines the continuing challenges in creating a durable counter-terror strategy for the country. Despite many efforts for "sweeping reforms", the national security establishment, like many arms of the State, continues to thrive on mediocrity and complacency, which, in turn, points to a corrupted national ethos and systemic decay that has the potential to subvert the country's progress and governance initiatives.
Following the 26/11 attack, a series of structural reforms were proposed in the security set-up --notably, establishment of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the regional hubs for NSG deployment in various states, the setting up of a National Intelligence Grid (NatGrid), the plan for a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) -- along with various other initiatives to enable a qualitative improvement in our counter-terror infrastructure and strategy.
[T]he efficacy of the NSG redeployment plan has been doubted even by its original votaries.
While the setting up of NIA has been the only success story till date, the efficacy of the NSG redeployment plan has been doubted even by its original votaries. The NCTC plan, meanwhile, met a premature demise at the conceptualisation stage itself, owing to resistance from various state governments and confusion over its command structure and role definitions. The more glaring story of systemic failure is of the NatGrid -- a mammoth data repository connecting key information and intelligence databases -- which has not taken off even after seven years and hundreds of crores being spent since its conception. Then, there is the perennially pending case of police reforms, supposed to reinvigorate the federal policing structures, ridden by corruption and inefficiency, and yet expected to the first responders in a terror incident.
Who is to be blamed for this state of affairs? While terms like "comprehensive restructuring" and "sweeping reforms" have become clichéd, one wonders why such symbolism and half-hearted measures are repeated after every major terror incident, or rather, why systemic transformation remains a difficult mission for this nation. This cycle has continued after Pathankot as well, with suggestions like a national security doctrine, legislative oversight and even the call for a Chief of Defence Staff, being mooted from various quarters as elements for yet another restructuring exercise. While some of these proposals might be constructive, the actual question that the nation has failed to ponder on is whether such reforms will actually make a credible difference to the manner in which our national systems function.
Will any initiatives for restructuring make sense when their fundamental purposes are lost in meaningless heaps of red-tapism and bureaucratic languor?
Can perfunctory measures redress the decay that has crept into our governance systems, despite revolutionary movements like Right to Information (RTI) and Whistle Blowers Protection Act? Will any initiatives for restructuring make sense when their fundamental purposes are lost in meaningless heaps of red-tapism and bureaucratic languor? Why do gaps exist in the international border and across the Indian coast for drug smugglers and terrorists to sneak in? Can such spaces exist without the knowledge of local policing and political institutions? Is a systemic rot or national sense of complacency allowing this status quo?
A striking aspect about contemporary India is that while the nation is rewarding young talent and incentivising fresh thinking in the corporate and economic spheres, the national security establishment continues to be a vestige of antediluvian workmanship. Even as a former minister unapologetically termed the DSC veterans at Pathankot as "armed gate-keepers" not fit enough to take on terrorists, the political leaderships over the years had no inhibitions in converting national institutions into re-employment shelters for retired bureaucrats and military officials. For that matter, even the many review committees that have recommend "sweeping reforms" in key sectors have most often been spearheaded by officials who would have hesitated to pursue any such radical measures while in office. (I couldn't hide my chagrin after witnessing an Indian-American in his late 30s leading a US Senate Armed Forces Committee delegation to India recently, after serving as senior advisor in the White House.)
[T]he debate within the military community should actually veer towards examining whether our Special Forces could successfully pursue a cross-border mission on the western flank...
This being the general shape of our national security edifice, it makes the average citizen wonder whether the grandiose declarations of reforms and "punishing the enemy" have any iota of realism in them. With the Army Chief proclaiming that his force is ready to take up any operational challenge, the debate within the military community should actually veer towards examining whether our Special Forces could be able to successfully pursue a cross-border mission on the western flank (without triggering a nuclear conflagration), if the political leadership decides to initiate a hot pursuit or target the terror camps across the border, as reportedly undertaken in the territory of an eastern neighbour recently. The last time we debated this eventuality -- a la Cold Start doctrine -- the results were inconclusive!
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