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Reverse swing: Five lessons from Pathankot

What India must do—and not do—in its war against terrorists

Written by Tunku Varadarajan | Published: January 10, 2016 12:24 am
Pathankot attack, pathankot air base attack, pathankot attack, pathankot attack investigation, punjab sp car abduction, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Pakistan pathankot attack, modi in lahore, mazar-i-sharif attack, indian consulate attack, mazar-isharif indian consulate attack, india news, indian express column The operations at the Pathankot Air Force base continued for almost 48 hours, that left 6 terrorists, 1 civilian and 7 security personnel dead. (Source: PTI Photo)

The terrorist attacks on the Pathankot airbase and the Indian Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif just days after Narendra Modi’s chai-pe-charcha with Nawaz Sharif in Lahore have prompted predictable responses in India: calls by hardliners to cancel talks with Pakistan, and by pragmatists and liberals to keep those talks on track, not to mention the usual paroxysms of patriotism on Arnab Goswami’s TV show.

Here are five lessons to be learned (or as is customary in India, ignored) from the incidents.

1. There’s a connection between Modi’s visit to Pakistan and the terrorist attacks, but not a fundamentally causal one. Rather, the visit was a trigger for carefully laid plans in a pre-existing terrorist playbook. The idea to attack Pathankot didn’t first arise on December 25, when Modi touched down unexpectedly in Pakistan. Such attacks are months in the making. India needs to be alive to the probability that Pakistani terrorists and their ISI handlers have plans to attack every major military installation within range of Pakistan. There are also plans, surely, for assaults on Indian nuclear installations and naval bases, as well as Indian diplomatic missions from Ankara to Bangkok.

Does India have blueprints in place to protect each of these installations and missions? If Pathankot is any indication, India’s readiness — on a scale from Israeli-level preparedness to Inspector Clouseau — is just a notch above the bumbling Frenchman.

2. Pagdi sambhal, jatta. Punjab is a cesspit of corruption and drug smuggling, ruled by a venal family and party that have brought India’s most dynamic province to its knees. India cannot afford such mismanagement of a strategic border state. Corruption not only distorts the local economy and politics, it destroys morale, creating the perfect conditions for terrorist infiltration and attack. Now that it’s apparent that terrorists (and the ISI) have widened their incursive focus beyond Kashmir, India cannot let any of its western border states be so rotten.

3. Modi’s Bollywood-style visit to Pakistan was wonderful theatre, in keeping with his increasingly personalised mode of diplomacy. But one man, however charismatic, cannot be a substitute for a rational system. India’s Pakistan policy needs to be less mercurial. Talks between foreign secretaries (and India’s is a particularly able man) are scheduled for January 15. They must not be suspended. A clear deadline and table of Indian expectations should be given to Pakistan: “You have until [date] to give us satisfaction.” 

4. While India’s right to keep diplomatic channels open with Pakistan, it must also continue to pursue extra-diplomatic policies that hurt its errant neighbour. There must be no softening of its refusal to play cricket with Pakistan. This point may be difficult for non-Indians (and non-Pakistanis) to grasp, but cricket is the most eloquent way to make clear that there can be no normal relations with a state that harbours terrorists.

5. Finally, if further proof were needed that the United States is the best thing to have happened to diplomatic Delhi in a decade, it has been furnished after Pathankot. Washington has condemned the attack in robust terms, and has made clear that Pakistan must take decisive action against the group involved. The U.S. has grown tired of Islamabad’s game of “good terrorist, bad terrorist,” and is the only world power with the incentive and will to help India secure itself against terrorists from Pakistan. India must now activate its diplomacy in the U.S. to get the Obama administration to act tougher on Pakistan, especially as relations with India enjoy bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.



The writer is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. | Twitter: @tunkuv

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More From Tunku Varadarajan
  1. M
    Jan 12, 2016 at 8:48 am
    I think that in stan there are some people who are deathly opposed to India, but that most people there are concerned with their own lives and their struggles to earn a decent living. India must develop a strategy to defend our bases and possible targets in a very robust fashion and also develop a capacity "for special forces" like the US has, to attack and destroy any of these adventurers who come over thinking they can create havoc with a few casual jihadi's.
    1. K
      K SHESHU
      Jan 10, 2016 at 7:02 am
      The security in India continues its pathetic state riddled with corrupt officers in the states as well as central police and armed forces. These lapses amount to big security risks.
      1. A
        Aditya Banerjee
        Jan 11, 2016 at 8:04 am
        Stop the water when another attack takes place. Be prepared to do it within 12-24 hours of the attack. Resist all world pressure to do anything for 3 days. Have the prime minister, home minister and army chief blast in public that we are teaching a lesson to a terrorist nation. Then release the water after 3 days. stan will be a changed nation.
        1. H
          Jan 10, 2016 at 3:01 pm
          The articles reminds of the people who claim that they have predicted an earth quake, after the quake only. Things are still unclear as to who and how the strike was done. However expert suggestion from Tunku have already come as above.
          1. B
            bala Raja
            Jan 10, 2016 at 4:33 am
            The author repeats the same cliched statements about maintaining the talks, cricket and the US. The point is, India has to show that it has a backbone and the ability to respond fiercely when attacked. The same Israel cited above would not have sit idle. The sad fact that India lacks the ability to carry out pointed strikes within Pak border, and the endemic corruption in India that mortgages national security to selfish interests means that the citizens have to pay with their lives each time. The Pak army seems to have mastered the art of inflicting pain anywhere within India with smaller strikes through organizations it controls. There is no point in talking to the "civilian Govt" of Pak, since the Govt means nothing. The Pak army, of course, will "condemn" attacks, will tell US it is doing everything it can, that it is also a victim of terrorism, even while planning other attacks on India. The only solution is to show resolve by punishing Pak at every instance with a response that makes sure they will not try something again. But first, India has to grow a spine.
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