The January 2016 terrorist attacks at the Pathankot airforce base offer many thought-provoking points, especially by melding two perspectives , namely that of an organizational analyst & a strategic analyst.
How does one define success? If damaging precious military hardware and inflicting heavy casualties was their definition of success, do we count it as our success if we thwart this specific plan? The underlying question is, do we let terrorists and their masterminds decide the name of the game? Or do we flesh out a different definition of success? This question has larger implications. An impactful terrorist attack is used by terror sponsors to radicalize and recruit people to their cause. Every plan to counter such an attack must seek to nip such a possibility in the bud. We can create such a plan only if we have a strategic definition of success, in addition to the tactical one being used in foiling the specific terror attack. When you define success in strategic terms, you think about how you can bolster capability for the long-term. You think about how you can raise morale of your combat forces in the act of fighting back. And you think about how you can disorient the enemy to the point where the enemy is not sure what to expect from you. These are just three aspects of what can be called a strategic definition. But they can guide action.
Using Information flow to counter & deceive
A big lapse was declaring the operation to be over before it actually was. There were two terrorists holed up inside. Though it did not happen that way, imagine this scenario. You know there are two terrorists and you are close to sniffing them out. But you declare to the world, it is over and simulate troop movements that suggest the same. If the terrorists have a link-up with the outer world, this can throw them off balance. This is a simplistic suggestion that may not be useful in its specifics, but it is made to expand upon the point that we must use information to counter and deceive. In the event of an ongoing terrorist attack, every information flow in our control that aids enemy combatants is to be reverse-manipulated in our favour. What is required? Political courage, for sure. Also, the willingness to court unpopularity and make tough decisions. It is a tough but necessary decision to blackout news coverage. But if it saves any life, it is worth it. It is a tough decision to put out a red herring news item or a encrypted decoy message because it may backfire to hurt you. But it is worth considering if it opens up new possibilities.
Negotiating turf-battles by clarity of purpose
Our security apparatus is made up of multiple units. In Pathankot, the NSG was called in to fight on army turf. The Punjab police and BSF were also a part of the puzzle. To the simple-minded patriot, we are all different units arrayed on the same side but pulling together as one unified force. It doesn’t quite work out that way. Organizations develop a personality, a character all of their own. Not unlike individuals, they think themselves to be unique & therefore separate from the rest of the world. They believe it worth their while to stake their time, effort and energy into pursuing their own narrow interest. And when every unit or sub-unit or organization ends up pursuing its own narrow interest, the collective interest of the whole is harmed.
The parts pull in different directions putting a strain on the whole. This is a challenge for all leaders.
How do I convince everybody in different units to let go of their narrow interest for the sake of the ultimate interest- the one that makes us all come together? For the security apparatus, that ultimate interest is the inviolable security of our entire country. If multiple units do not sync perfectly, they compromise this ultimate interest. How can leaders negotiate turf battles and achieve this sync? It is by putting clarity of purpose at the very heart of all planning and all operations.
Whatever you plan, you always remind yourself about why you are doing it. And you crosscheck every strategy and every action-plan against this reminder. In the case of Pathankot, how would this have played out? When you consider intervening with NSG into the scene, you check for purpose in its finer details. You realize the NSG is there to stave off and tackle hostage-taking situations. Being strategic makes you bring in the morale of stationed army troops. You ask how NSG deployment will affect subsequent esprit de corps of the troops on the whole. You factor in the overall, long-term purpose of the troops stationed out there? And figure out how to reconcile the short-term deployment of NSG with the long-term purpose and presence of stationed troops. This thinking has to happen before one is rushed on by the turn of events. You are better prepared for the trade-offs and the compromises that need to be made. Because you know what is right in the first place. By virtue of having clarity of purpose.
The mission of every unit stands out in sharp relief due to clarity of purpose. Mission answers the question – why do we exist. Purpose points us to the mission. For example, the purpose of the BSF is to protect the territorial integrity of India. BSF’s mission is to secure India’s borders. Once infiltration has taken place and the infiltrators are deep into our territory, it should not be expected of the BSF to pursue the infiltrators because strictly speaking, that is not their mission. They should not fare well in this task. Indeed if they do well, that is unexpected success that demands reflection and points to the need to change!
The purpose can be shared with sister units, and can dovetail into a special purpose revolving around a task or a situation. However,it is the mission that decides what a unit or organization can realistically do or achieve. The army’s purpose, just like the BSF, includes protecting territorial integrity and so is it the purpose of counter-espionage agencies. But their missions are like streams flowing into the same ocean – distinctively different from each other. How these streams form tributaries, where they meet and where they diverge; all of this can be negotiated if we have one overarching clarity of purpose. This overarching purpose harmonizes the specific purposes and missions of all units. Doing so builds long-term capability and raises morale. We are then free to build deception into other things so that we can disorient the enemy.
To sum up, the Pathankot terrorist attack reveals what we need to work on.
- We must negotiate turf-battles by clarity of purpose. More specifically, we need one overarching clarity of purpose that then harmonizes the specific purposes and missions of all units.
- We can harmonize the specific purposes of all units much better for a task or a situation if we define success in the broadest possible strategic terms. You know you are on the right track when what you do is building capability for the long-term, raising the morale of the forces, and disorienting the enemy.
- You can disorient the enemy best when you use information flow to counter and deceive. Call it dirty tricks, call it undercover operations, call it sleight of hand, the end result is that the enemy does not know what to expect from you.