The Pathankot attack seemed like a déjà vu moment for the India-Pakistan bilateral, coming shortly after the Christmas 2015 surprise Lahore visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the approach of the Pakistan-based terrorist groups in Pathankot is evidence that a new template of terrorism is now in play, aimed to expose Indian weaknesses and cause long term harm to strategic military assets. This has upped the security ante dangerously. So far, Delhi’s response has been slow, and the terrorists have the upper hand.
The new template has moved beyond the frequent infiltration by low-level terrorist cadres and movement into civilian areas (Jammu and Kashmir-style), into a more sophisticated, meticulously-planned, long-term, detailed operation, hitting at hard military targets, with well-greased local support networks and exploitation of social vulnerabilities such as drugs. This new format has made the cross-border challenge the gravest ever, especially because our response is entrapped within old doctrines and conventional thinking.
By all measures, Pathankot was a brilliantly-planned terrorist attack, with the clear stamp of military precision. Our security agencies treated it initially like a traditional terrorist assault. It took two days to recognise that it needed a far more sophisticated response, and act on it. India should expect more such emboldened attacks, and this is the time to frame and roll out a well-coordinated approach to security emergencies like Pathankot, hijackings and hostage-taking.
Some improvements have already been put in place since December 1989. Then, the daughter of then union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was kidnapped and released  in exchange for five terrorists. In the 1999 Kandahar hijacking and hostage-taking, the national response was also weak – and retrospectively lethal. The outcome of both was a Ministry of Home Affairs initiated guidelines on hostage-taking and a strong anti-hijacking policy , which emphasised no negotiations with terrorists. India has not faced another hijacking since then, so it is unclear how the policy will work when tested.
The 2008 Mumbai attacks were again a long-planned, successful military-precision terrorist operation. Our excruciatingly slow response resulted in heavy losses and exposed the lack of a meaningful policy framework. Post-Mumbai, a substantial region-wise National Security Guard (NSG) presence  was established – untested till Pathankot.
At Pathankot, the vacuum was not in the NSG’s actions, but in the political decision-making which was ad hoc and un-institutionalised. A well-conceived and organised policy framework would have put into action a series of steps from political decisions to operational procedures. These include:
1. A well-defined chain of command, both political and operational;
2. Inter-agency co-ordination,spanning civilian agencies like the National Disaster Management Authority, law and order enforcement machinery like the city and state police, the paramilitary and central and military intelligence agencies;
3. Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs – the crucial determinant of a well-institutionalised policy;
4. Channels of communications both internal and external. Internally, the use of encrypted communication networks during on-going operations, as well as data collection and real-time monitoring; externally, a code of conduct for the news media; and
5. Regular review and updating of the SOPs and test drills to determine their functionality.
Institution-wise, India has some agencies which act as decision-making bodies during crises. One is the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), chaired by the Prime Minister, which includes home, finance, defence and external affairs ministers, and the China Study Group (CSG) comprising the National Security Advisor and secretaries of home, defence and external affairs ministries. (The latter was formed in 2011 specifically to expedite decision-making on the frequent border incursions by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, but its fate in the current dispensation remains unknown.)
What is required is a crisis management mechanism which will bring in the political vision of the CCS, the administrative experience of the bureaucrats in the CSG, and the operational experience of the armed forces. The National Security Council which was established in 1999, was to be that mechanism, but its authority has been negated because of the lack of an institutionalised policy framework as outlined above.
India does have a well-organised intelligence system that sniffs out terrorist conspiracies. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India set up the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), which brought together over 25 security agencies for analysis and dissemination of terror threat inputs, to ensure co-ordination on actionable intelligence. The MAC is still an experiment; it has not moved to the next level of operationalisation because of opposition from the states to establish the National Counter Terrorism Centre  – a central agency mandated to perform the functions of intelligence, investigation, and operations. Several chief ministers including PM Modi as the Gujarat Chief Minister, wouldn’t sign up, fearing that the NCTC’s operational powers will encroach upon the powers of the state and thereby affect the federal distribution of power.
Nor does India have sufficient intellectual capacity on Pakistan, our perennial security challenge and national media obsession. There are no dedicated research centres which study and analyse the social, economic, political and security developments in that country. Research emanating from these studies would have been a valuable input for the policy makers. The only entity with some research capability is the Centre for Pakistan Studies in New Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia- but its role in policy-making remains opaque.
The Pathankot attack is an opportune time to put in place a well-coordinated approach for future emergency security situations. The task becomes urgent as Prime Minister Modi continues on his bold foreign policy path, raising India’s profile and broadening our sphere of influence even as he hopes to functionalise a dysfunctional bilateral like Pakistan.
Sameer Patil is Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, at Gateway House.
This article was originally written for Firstpost and published on 7 January, 2015.
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