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Pakistan’s 26/11

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 24, 2011

    Monday’s terror strike on the Mehran naval base must come as a rude wake up call to Pakistan’s military establishment. It is evident that the ISI-trained and LeT/Taliban-supported terrorist groups are now completely out of Pakistani control and the decision makers in that country must acknowledge the writing on the wall. The more they neglect this threat the faster Pakistan would descend into further chaos.

    The incident also has some lessons for India. Both neighbours must immediately review their security practices for the protection of vital and vulnerable national assets which in Pakistan’s case also must include nuclear weapons.

    As predicted, the Taliban and their ilk have staged a near catastrophic attack on Karachi’s naval base. It took over 15 hours for the Pakistani security forces to clear the base of all terrorists. Some 14 lives were lost, and two P3C Orion reconnaissance planes and one helicopter were destroyed. These losses are likely to run into at least USD 100 million. According to reports, there were only six terrorists though they were armed to the teeth with RPGs, automatic rifles and grenades; four were eventually killed but two escaped.

    There are many similarities with the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. A very small number of highly motivated and trained men were used. Had they chosen a civilian target the mayhem would have been catastrophic since when even a few heavily armed terrorists attack crowds many more casualties result and the response of the security agencies is also highly constrained due to fear of collateral damage. Pakistan should thank its stars that the terrorists did not choose a busy market place in Karachi as their target. Even so, they succeeded in causing immense damage.

    It must be acknowledged that this could have happened anywhere in the world. India’s military installations are said to be well guarded but are still extremely vulnerable to such surprise attacks. Unless we change our thinking we cannot defend ourselves.

    It is clear that the terrorists are becoming even more ruthless and their strikes more effective by constantly adapting attack techniques. As propounded by an American scholar John Arquila, the terrorists are increasingly employing innovative tactics of swarming. In simple terms, it is a non-linear approach to offensive action. Like the bees or ants, by using this method, simultaneous attacks are launched on the target from multiple directions using heavy fire power to maximise surprise and damage. The attackers aim to paralyse the response of the defender. The Karachi attack generally followed this approach. Heavily armed terrorists gained entry into the target area and began indiscriminately firing on armed forces personnel engaged in routine activity to confuse the security and numb them into inaction. Add to that the blasts and a fire storm caused by burning aircraft and the chaos was complete. The attackers were then free to exploit their initial success and cause further death and destruction. Since the attackers were ready to sacrifice their lives, killing or effectively disabling them was the only way to restrict damage and destruction.

    This is simply because once the terrorists have gained entry they cannot be eliminated without incurring some losses. Pakistan’s approach to security seems similar to that of India’s. Entry gates are heavily guarded but long perimeter fences/walls are not adequately covered. Mobile patrols are too infrequent, follow a predictable pattern and are often manned by non-specialists such as clerks and technicians working on the station. Pakistan might also have some sort of Quick Reaction Team (QRT) comprising specially trained station personnel but that is hardly a substitute for Special Forces/Commandos. It is indeed very expensive to deploy commando teams at every Vulnerable Area/Vulnerable Point, but such expenses are fast becoming unavoidable. Terrorist leadership takes advantage of these deficiencies and plans accordingly. It is evident that they are technology savvy, quick learners and anticipate the response of the establishment. They moreover have no scruples and hence killing innocent targets does not constrain them.

    Most such military installations in the sub-continent may have a sort of a cordon sanitaire designed to prevent, at least on paper, civilian and trade activities within the close proximity of the boundary walls. But population pressure, administrative apathy and corruption together ensure that in due course slums and unauthorised residential colonies come up right next to the perimeter fencing/wall. Take, for example, any major civil airfield in the region where expensive aircraft are usually parked in the open, often within a few hundred metres of the wall. Losing two P3C Orion aircraft should thus not come as a surprise. These and many other totally ‘defenceless’ assets are there for the terrorist picking. Losses to public property are huge. Such is the slow and grinding response of the state that such incidents continue to happen with sickening regularity.

    The most important lesson for India is not to stop the terrorist at your door but at his. It is almost impossible to prevent damage once he is at your door step. It is imperative therefore that Pakistan is persuaded to stop its Jihadi propaganda that is constantly reminding and encouraging the ordinary folks how glorious it is to die a martyr’s death instead of living an honest productive life. Second, Pakistani school curriculum must remove portions that legitimise the killing of all non-believers anywhere in the world, especially in India. Pakistan must also immediately review its procedures for the security of its nuclear weapons.

    And since these measures would take a long time and demand a fundamental change of mind sets, there is no option for India but to squarely face this grave and existential threat without pinching pennies. We have to train and deploy a sizeable force of commando/special forces type troops to guard vital national assets including civilian areas. Technology must reinforce and support the human being by the installation of more surveillance cameras and even electrified fences. Immigration checks and verifications at various entry points into the country must be made much more stringent and efficient by the construction of suitable databases to screen undesirables from gaining unauthorised entry into the country. And yet we have to ensure that the daily routine of normal life and economic activity of the nation continues unaffected. That is possible only if we are serious about implementing the plethora of recommendations that are given by numerous committees and study groups. The aim should be to stop the terrorist dead in his tracks as far away from the target or indeed the border as possible.