The January 2 terrorist attack on an Indian Air Force base in the Punjab garrison town of Pathankot is just the latest note in what has become a wearily predictable tune. India initially announced at the start of the attack that it would continue to seek to exploit the opening that followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lahore. But the long period of time it took to end the attack and the ongoing revelations of Indian incompetence have wrong-footed Modi’s administration and increased its need to appear strong to its citizens. As a result, it has retreated from its initial assertions and the future of the talks is in doubt. Whether or not talks continue, the India-Pakistan dialogue is too important to be held hostage by these constant aggravations. If the United States is really invested in keeping the dialogue on track, it should work with India to improve its homeland security capacity so that the next attack will have a far smaller chance of derailing the process.
The United States has proven time and time again that it is unable or unwilling to exert leverage on Pakistan to detain terrorists on its soil — as seen in the case of Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed. Saeed has had a $10 million U.S. government bounty on his head for more than three and a half years, but he continues to regularly appear at public rallies in Pakistan, often sharing the stage with elected officials. Pakistan also has a history of arresting terrorist leaders (like Saeed) under U.S. and international pressure and then quietly releasing them when the rest of the world has moved on. There’s no reason to believe that the situation will be different for the architects of this attack, the leaders of terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad. In the long term, there are tools that the United States can use to push Pakistan to cease its support for terrorists groups, but these will require time, and in any case success is far from certain.
The United States can’t stop elements of the Pakistani state from supporting groups that attack within India, and it can’t make Pakistan catch and punish the leaders of the groups themselves. But it can at least help to stop future incidents from derailing the peace process. If the attackers had been caught before they even arrived at the airbase, or before India’s muddled response managed to turn the attack into a multi-day siege, or before seven Indian servicemen were killed, it would not have had nearly the impact on India-Pakistan relations that it is proving to have.
In the case of Pathankot, the now well-documented incompetence of India’s response allowed the terrorists to make a larger splash than they would have if India had reacted effectively. Furthermore, media revelations of this incompetence have embarrassed the Modi administration and raised the political cost of continuing to pursue dialogue with Pakistan. According to Indian media, the United States informed India that the Pathankot terrorists had crossed the border, but India was unable to act effectively on the intelligence. U.S. help to improve India’s homeland security measures could help minimize the impact of (inevitable) future Pathankots.
A recap of what went wrong at Pathankot helps illuminate where U.S. help would be most beneficial (as well as the large marginal improvements that could come from a slight upgrading of India’s defenses). First, despite the dense military presence around Pathankot, the international border between Pakistani and Indian Punjab is highly porous; both areas have long been loci of trafficking in drugs and people. Senior leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal, which currently rules Punjab and is a partner of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, have been implicated in the drug trade.
India believes that the attackers took advantage of existing smuggling routes. It appears possible that both the taxi driver who gave the attackers a ride before being murdered by them and the superintendence of police, whom they supposedly kidnapped, were not innocent bystanders but were in fact involved in cross-border trafficking. And the attackers must have been sheltered somewhere in northwest India for the days between when they crossed the border on or around December 25 and when they launched the attack on January 1.
Second, the attack shows that India’s military facilities are relatively soft targets. Thanks to U.S. intelligence, India knew by December 26 that militants had infiltrated across the border. But despite the fact that Indian security agencies had nearly a week to prepare, and knew that the Pathankot airbase was the likely target, the base was only lightly guarded by Defense Security Corps guards (retired soldiers with little special training who are effectively static security guards) and a 200-man contingent of National Security Guard (NSG) commandos. As many have pointed out since the attack, the NSG, although highly trained in hostage rescue and similar operations, is not trained in perimeter security and the force at Pathankot was not large enough to secure the 24 kilometer (15 mile) perimeter of the base anyay. To top it off, trees were allowed to grow surrounding the perimeter of the base, and the floodlights in one section of the perimeter were not working on the night of the attack. Penetration of the base was low-tech: one of the attackers simply climbed a tree, bending its tip under his weight. When he touched the top of the wall, he tossed a rope down to his colleagues.
There’s some good news in all this: despite India’s many own goals, the attackers did not manage to do much damage at the base, implying that they were not particularly well-trained or competent. The list of failures also makes clear the wide scope for U.S. assistance. Despite powerful politicians’ links to the drugs trade, the widespread realization that trafficking routes can be just as easily used by terrorists looks like it might strengthen the Indian government’s resolve to close its borders. U.S. government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Border Patrol, have vast experience in breaking up drug smuggling networks, interdicting drugs crossing international borders, and building cases against drug smugglers. The United States should offer India the services of experienced international liaison officers who can share what they’ve learned about best practices in this area, as well as law enforcement technology. (The ‘Cheel’ micro unmanned aerial vehicle now being jointly developed by the U.S. and India could be useful in border surveillance, for instance.)
Whether or not a revivified counter-narcotics program gets off the ground, Modi has asked India’s military to ensure that its border facilities are “impregnable fortresses.” The U.S. can help in this process too, offering both advisers and donations of relevant technology to improve basic perimeter security improvements at India’s northwestern bases. It could start by cutting back the bushes.
Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.