The Pathankot terrorist attacks – learning points

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.

Defining Success

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.




3 thoughts on “The Pathankot terrorist attacks – learning points

  1. Mithun k

    Very well said Mr. Rahul Vitekar.

    Had read your Post yesterday. Nice one, I must say.

    I fully appreciate your view about “counter & deceive”

    Although my understanding of combat/defence strategy/management etc. is nowhere compared to you, I must mention following:

    I think the Indian Handlers of this task have more of missed on placing right team for right task/place. This initiative should have taken centre-stage for this specific case.

    At the most our side might have failed on “harmonizing purposes” front. But in my view, missing on “clarity of purpose” factor itself would not have been there. That’s too basic & fundamental. ( For eg. if the priority would have been safe-guarding 3000 families of armed forces, even then NSG could have been pressed on second perimeter & army on front with terrorists )

    1. Rahul Vitekar Post author

      I think ‘ clarity of purpose’ is not so basic that everyone knows it. It requires mindful & constant awareness and decision-making. For example, saving our soldiers lives is important & saving our fighter jets/choppers is also important. If the terrorists advance towards the latter, and there is a trade-off, a tough call might have to be made. Do we defend military hardware at all costs? Can we choose to save precious lives by letting some damage be done till reinforcements come in and then terrorists can be neutralized? This ‘clarity of purpose’ is a continuing challenge in military operations. Purpose is tested when you dearly want two things that pull in different directions and can only come at the expense of each other.

  2. Satish Vengurlekar

    My one thought ….
    If one takes pride in the work & feels ashamed if failed, then all other things fall in place.

    Couple of examples from past…

    When Havildar Tukaram Ombale tackles a well armed terrorist at the cost of his life, it is matter of valor & pride for him.
    But 6 well armed terrorist landed in heart of city, is matter of shame to Coast Guard, City Police and Nation.

    2 truckloads of explosives landed in a creak in Raigad, and even after getting intercepted by Customs, they “manage” the customs staff, and bring the explosives in Mumbai is a matter of shame to Nation.
    Pride and Shame are intrinsic qualities/feelings of a Person.
    But a nation can not wait for people’s intrinsic qualities. That is why we have punishment and incentives.

    Did we hear any of those Customs officials being hanged for allowing RDX to enter their Mother land ?
    No we did not. Now that is a matter of shame to entire nation, that these 6 people will roam free after 8 years jail term. Which means they are already free.

    I read that at this Air Force base, sentries (read as Air Force Police) used to allow civilians to enter the base to collect the fodder for Rs 10 / Day.
    Those sentries never felt any shame for compromising the security for few Rs.
    The bigger worry is the superiors also never felt ashamed for allowing this to happen.

    We fought 4 wars. Now that is a matter of shame. Because those are 3 wars too many.

    About your observation ….”And when every unit or sub-unit or organization ends up pursuing its own narrow interest, the collective interest of the whole is harmed”
    Unfortunately this can be true.
    But if this is true, it will be matter of another national shame, because we are talking about 4-5 different military, para-military organizations from same nation.
    When Allied forces landed in Normandy from England, they had only one top commander, he was Gen. Eisenhower. And he was commanding armies from more than 10 countries.
    If the your observation is true, it just shows lack of political spine to make them fall in line.
    So the answer to your question “How do I convince everybody in different units to let go of their narrow interest” is “by giving them a boot”
    No point making the matter more complicated than it really is.

    About … “The parts pull in different directions putting a strain on the whole. This is a challenge for all leaders.”.
    If this is true then this is just mockery of regimental culture.
    After spending Billions of Rs and substantial portion of Budget, if they are going to pull in diff direction they what purpose it serves ?
    Solution for this can be tough decision but extremely simple implementation. Shoot one Gorilla and all monkeys will fall in line. You must be careful in time and selection of Gorilla.
    Harry Truman did not hesitate to **oot Gen MacArthur.

    Until we (as an organization, society, nation) re-calibrate our sensibilities for Pride & Shame, such cases will keep repeating.
    ISRO & DRDO prove what sharp sense of pride & dull sense of shame can do for you.
    BTW, both are Govt Agencies, but have hugely different things to showcase.
    One agency is launching satellites for European countries. Another agency takes 26 years to develop a battle tank (which gets rejected by their own Army).

    May be I am sounding harsh, just my thoughts.

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