By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th March 16
A war of words has broken out over the government’s decision to allow five Pakistani counter-terrorism officials, including one from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and another from Military Intelligence (MI) to visit the Pathankot Air Force Base. They are in India to investigate the fidayeen attack from January 1-4, when four-to-six terrorists crossed the border from Pakistan, sneaked into the air base and killed seven Indian military personnel before getting killed.
The Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have charged the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government with endangering national security by allowing the Pakistani joint investigative team (JIT) into the base. On Tuesday, as the JIT officials flew from Delhi to Amritsar and then drove to Pathankot, Congress protestors gathered outside the air base with black flags and placards reading “Pakistani JIT go back!”
In Delhi, AAP minister, Kapil Mishra, alleged an “ISI-BJP coalition” and asked: “Why is ISI being served biryani by Modi?”
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had earlier ruled out allowing the Pakistani JIT inside Pathankot air base. However, after a political decision to co-opt Islamabad into the investigation, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is learned to have cleared their entry into the air base, subject to being allowed to visit only the “non-technical areas” that the terrorists had breached.
These include areas not directly involved in flight operations, including airmen accommodation, kitchens and messes, family quarters, schools, etc. No access will be granted to “technical areas”, which are directly related to flight operations. These include aircraft hangars and pens, logistics installations, ammunition dumps, radar centres, air defence missile batteries and flight control facilities. The terrorists had failed to breach the “technical areas” during their attack.
Objections to the JIT’s visit centre on two allegations. First, that the JIT’s visit serves no purpose since Pakistan has never been serious about investigating terrorist attacks launched from its soil. Second, that allowing Pakistani officials entry into the air base would give away sensitive details, compromising operational security.
Ajai Sahni, of the Institute for Conflict Management says: “Pakistan has never seriously investigated a single terror attack, including 26/11 (the Mumbai strike of 2008). By hosting the JIT, we will allow Pakistan to falsely claim that they are doing what is needed. We must wait until Islamabad satisfies us that it is seriously cracking down on anti-India jihadis.”
Sahni says Islamabad is yet to do even a tenth of what Bangladesh has done against terrorists that were targeting India from its soil. “The burden of proof lies on the country from where terrorists operate. Dhaka has fully demonstrated its bona fides. Islamabad has not even begun to”, says Sahni.
Others, like former IAF officer, Air Vice Marshal (Retired) Manmohan Bahadur, say the Pakistani JIT visit serves no investigative purpose, but achieves a strategic aim. “If the visit serves to deny Pakistan an excuse for avoiding action, it serves a strategic aim. Nothing would be lost by allowing the team to visit”, he says.
Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, who has served at Pathankot as a fighter pilot and later oversaw the base as chief of western air command points out “there is nothing that a Pakistani visitor to the air base can see from the ground, which cannot be seen from commercially available satellite photographs. The IAF has already done a security assessment and I fully endorse it.”
Tyagi says the IAF has designated areas where the JIT can go and others where it cannot. “Areas that are at all sensitive will be physically screened off”, he says.
Tyagi also points out that commercial flights use about 30 operational IAF bases on a regular basis, without endangering security. “If scheduled civilian flights and hundreds of passengers can fly daily in and out of airports as sensitive as Srinagar, what will the Pakistani team gain from driving through a screened, “non-technical” route in Pathankot.”
Another former air chief, Fali Major, endorses Tyagi’s opinion. “In today’s world, software like Google Earth gives everyone a view into military installations. Military intelligence users can get high-resolution Russian satellite imagery that is far more useful than a ground visit”, says Major.
Another expert, who wishes to remain anonymous, says secrecy exists mainly around communications and radar frequencies, and combat tactics. “The infrastructure on the ground is pretty much the same on every combat air base. What needs to be safeguarded is digital electronic frequencies and codes, and mission tactics. The Pakistanis are welcome. They will glean none of that”, he says.