India Is Failing to Learn from Terrorist Attacks

Recent events highlight that New Delhi has a long way to go in addressing its security.

In the predawn hours of January 2, six heavily armed terrorists stormed India’s Pathankot Air Force Base, located in the northern state of Punjab and not far from the border with Pakistan.

In the assault’s aftermath, Indian journalists, analysts and officials have lauded the bravery of the deceased (seven security officials died) and feverishly debated how to deal with Pakistan, where Indian authorities believe the perpetrators were from.

They have also, however, focused on a considerably more uncomfortable topic: India’s botched response.

The questions surrounding Pathankot perplex as much as they proliferate. In particular, how did multiple militants manage to enter the country and move around unencumbered for so long, even after law enforcement officials were aware of their presence? As one observer pointed out, the attackers, before launching their assault on Pathankot, “roamed around Punjab in a hijacked vehicle for more than 15 hours, even though information of the carjack was given to authorities; indeed, it was an officer’s car.”

More to the point, how could six gunmen gain unchallenged access to such a highly secured facility? And why did it take several days to end a localized assault?

Some of India’s actions and decisions following the attack were particularly questionable. According to The Hindu, even though thousands of Army troops were in relatively close proximity to Pathankot, the government decided to fly in National Security Guard (NSG) forces all the way from Delhi—265 miles away by air—to lead the operation to secure the base. The NSG is an elite force, but it was reportedly out of its element in Pathankot—unfamiliar with the terrain and surprisingly underequipped (its personnel lacked basic essentials such as proper night vision devices). The NSG was one of three commanding bodies at Pathankot. Another was the Defense Security Corps, an outfit with members described by one Indian defense analyst (perhaps unfairly) as “retired and unmotivated” military personnel. They lack counterterrorism training and were armed only with “standard-issue, self-loading” rifles.

To be sure, the Indian response was by no means an utter failure—and by some basic measures, it was a great success: there were no civilian casualties, and none of the military assets housed on the base were damaged. One analyst argued that the long duration of the response was a reflection not of incompetence and slowness, but of caution and judiciousness meant to avert further casualties.

Still, India’s response was far from flawless. Some pointed to “glaring gaps in planning, command, training and equipment.” Others flatly described it as a “debacle.” Even India’s defense minister acknowledged problems in the response.

A major consideration for New Delhi in the coming days will be diplomatic: should it continue its recently resurrected comprehensive dialogue process with Pakistan? A more urgent question, however, is what India must do to strengthen its counterterrorism capacities. More terror attacks are highly likely if not inevitable in the coming months, regardless of the status of its relationship with Islamabad.

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