The attack on the forward airbase in Pathankot on Saturday, perpetrated by terrorists who came from across the Pakistan border, yet again challenges India to find a way of keeping the India-Pakistan peace process on track despite providing a compelling case for New Delhi to give its Pakistan policy another critical look.
The event is being widely interpreted as the response of a hostile Pakistan army to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore in the last week of 2015 to greet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on the latter’s birthday. Intelligence reports indicate a direct planning of this daring assault by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, a sub-set of the Pakistan army, confirming the impression that the Pakistan army was not in alignment with the peace initiatives being taken by the two civilian heads of government.
The Pakistan army’s reservations about a bilateral talks agenda that accords prime importance to the issue of cross-border terrorism first led to the replacement of Sartaj Aziz, a civilian, with a retired lieutenant general, Naseer Khan Janjua, as Pakistan’s national security advisor. And this happened soon after the Ufa summit meeting where the prime ministers of both countries had met for a substantive exchange of views.
The Pathankot offensive was audaciously planned in quick time and daringly executed by militants dressed in army fatigues. They were directed to hijack a taxi and commandeer a police vehicle in order to reach close to the air base and produce a decisive result. The modus operandi employed by the terrorists is reminiscent of the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 — another offensive by the Jaish-e-Mohammad — and the November 2008 Mumbai attack carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Pakistan army, even to this day, mentors both these outfits.
The attack on the Pathankot air base revives three questions that have a bearing on the future prospects of the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship. First, is the civilian leadership of Pakistan prepared to publicly accept the stipulation that violence shall not be used to press for a solution of the Kashmir problem? Second, can Pakistan’s prime minister declare that while the process of evolving confidence-building measures in order to reduce tension along the Line of Control and the International Border in Jammu and Kashmir is on, such disruptions will not come in the way of talks on the economic cooperation front? And finally, will the Pakistan government announce disarming of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its front outfits while expediting the 26/11 trial?
The reality of the Pakistan army dictating the agenda that the civilian leadership brings to the table in bilateral talks cannot be wished away. If our leadership believes our own intelligence agencies then it should firmly tell Pakistan’s prime minister that the argument of deniability, once again advanced by the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence in the wake of the Pathankot attack, just does not hold
any longer. India also has to impress upon the United States, whose persuasive pressure for the resumption of bilateral talks is
only too well known, that red lines will have to be drawn on the issue of terrorism if India’s help in the global “war on terror” is to make sense.
As far as the Pathankot incident is concerned, it is correct to take the line that enemies of humanity are responsible for the attack but it should also be stated that those who mentored such militants would be taught a lesson as well. Then, and only then, will the praise for the valour of our security forces have real substance. The Modi government should not make the mistake that the previous regime committed in the wake of the 26/11 attack — that of accepting the glib suggestion that some “non-state actors” were behind all the mischief of cross-border terrorism, which had afflicted India all these years. Already a section of the Pakistan media has unabashedly questioned the fact that the Pathankot airbase was attacked by elements from within Pakistan.
Modi’s effort to encourage his counterpart to take charge of the political decision-making in our neighbouring country must also bear fruit soon enough. Otherwise Modi’s Pakistan policy could start looking ambiguous.
India has to stick to the three-fold strategy of keeping cross-border terrorism on top of the agenda of bilateral talks, maintaining that India has no problem with bilateral discussion on Kashmir in accordance with the Simla Agreement (that gave no place to any third party like the Hurriyat), and, as a regional stake holder, demanding a role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
At home, India must prepare for an effective and integral response to the threat of cross-border terrorism. When it comes to dealing with terrorism, there is a need to further improve Centre-state collaboration as well as civil-military coordination.
In short, India need not shun talking to Pakistan — but without compromising on the above-mentioned parameters. At the same time, India should continue to bilaterally strengthen its friendship with all the countries in its neighbourhood, even if this means that we simultaneously deal with an unhelpful Pakistan with appropriate sternness.
Modi has handled foreign policy very well so far and he need not allow his approach towards Pakistan — a country controlled by the military — to diminish this achievement in any way. A recalcitrant neighbour promoting faith-based militancy against us has to be countered on the borders as well as on other planes through a comprehensive strategy that is our own and in sync with India’s strategic culture.