Pathankot terror attack strikes at heart of PM Modi’s Pakistan peacemaking

The attack, the second in Punjab in just months, is likely to lead to sharp attacks on Prime Minister’s outreach to Pakistan from the opposition.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Updated: January 2, 2016 11:07 am
PM Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif PM Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif

Exactly a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic Christmas day visit to Lahore, his high-stakes bid to make peace with Pakistan is facing trial by fire. Today’s pre-dawn attack on the Pathankot air base, raises questions about just how serious Islamabad is, about reining-in anti-India terrorism—the cornerstone of the peace process.

The attack, the second in Punjab in just months, is likely to lead to sharp attacks on Prime Minister’s outreach to Pakistan from the opposition. He will then have to choose between weathering the storm, or calling off the dialogue. Little detail is available about the attack so far, but Indian officials allege the assault was carried out by Pakistani cadre of the Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Should credible evidence of this claim emerge, New Delhi is likely to demand action against the perpetrators. The chances Islamabad will do so, though, are low. Today’s attack bear the marks of past Jaish operations: like, the December 2001 attack on Parliament House, where the attackers hijacked an official car, hoping it would be allowed into the complex.

Indian intelligence officers believe the group, entered India along the banks of the Beas, which cuts across the fencing on the Pakistan border, on January 31- just hours after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the two countries “cannot live as enemies”.

Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, has close links to Pakistan’s intelligence services. Even though the organisation is proscribed by the United Nations, as well Australia, Canada, India, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, the US and the UN, Azhar operates openly, from a sprawling seminary in Bahawalpur. He has never been prosecuted for the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814 to Kandahar, carried out to ensure his release from jail. New Delhi has been hopeful that the terrorism-focussed dialogue between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart, Lieutenant-General Nasir Janjua, has the army’s backing.

The attack, though, raises the question of whether Pakistan’s armed forces in fact support the dialogue process, or are seeking to subvert it. Pakistan’s Generals, the scholar C Christine Fair has pithily noted, see India as an ideological, not solely military, problem: “to acquiesce [to India] is tantamount not only to defeating the Pakistan Army, but also, fundamentally, to eroding the legitimacy of the Pakistani state”.

From an Indian optic, two steps would make clear Pakistan’s military has, indeed committed to a new strategic vision. The first would be legal action against the perpetrators of violence against India and the second, the dismantling of the military infrastructure of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

There’s some evidence that Pakistan has, indeed acted prodded along by the United States. Ever since 2003, the violence in Kashmir has declined steadily-and, notwithstanding commentary in the media, official statistics demonstrate it stayed in line with the low levels seen in recent years through 2015.

Even violence levels, which showed an uptick through 2013 and 2014, showed a marginal decline. Moreover, since 26/11, there hasn’t been a single major terrorist attack outside Jammu and Kashmir that has traced back to Pakistan and interrogations of arrested terrorists has shown the ISI is keeping a tight leash on some jihadist groups acting against India.

There is evidence to just the contrary, too, though: the Lashkar’s attack in Gurdaspur could, for example, have claimed hundreds of lives had landmines been planted on a railway line.

In discussions with Indian interlocutors, Pakistan has said it hopes, in the long term, to defang organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad by bringing them into political life. Prime Minister Modi has decided to take the chance on this post-dated cheque—and now has to decide if it’s actually worth more than the paper it is written on.