Exactly a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Lahore, hoping to “turn the course of history”, his ambitious project is being tested by fire. This weekend’s terrorist attack on Pathankot was no surprise; indeed, many in India’s intelligence community had predicted it. Each past effort at peace, after all, has provoked similar strikes. It is too easy, though, to attribute the strike to unnamed spoilers. The more complex truth is that while Pakistan’s all-powerful army seeks to avert a military crisis that would drain its energies at a time of grave internal turmoil, it does not seek normalisation. Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has made it clear that he will not accept the status-quo on Kashmir. The strike on Pathankot, carried out by the Inter-Services Intelligence’s old client, the Jaish-e-Muhammad, serves a very specific purpose. It signals to Indian policymakers that the Pakistan army can inflict pain, but at a threshold below that which makes it worthwhile for New Delhi to retaliate. Barring reflexive hawks, after all, no one would argue that it makes sense for Delhi to risk even limited conflict after the strike on Pathankot.
How, then, must India respond? Three elements are key. First, Delhi must resist the temptation to call off the dialogue Prime Minister Modi initiated. Talking is not surrender. Even nation-states locked in combat, after all, use their diplomatic tool-kits. Delhi must, however, bring to the table a clear agenda for the actions it expects Pakistan to take on terrorism — and, critically, a roadmap for what it is willing to do in return for those demands being met, such as movement towards the demilitarisation of Siachen. Second, even as it talks, Delhi must consider what elements of national power it can marshal to deter Pakistan from continuing to sponsor jihadist groups. India has many excellent reasons to avoid crisis-inducing steps, like the use of military force, which would hurt its own economic objectives. However, there is a wide range of steps, including economic measures, which could bring pressure to bear on Pakistan.
The third and most important lesson, though, is this: India just doesn’t have the tools it needs to protect itself against terrorism. That it took Indian troops over 18 hours, and the loss of at least seven lives, to defeat four poorly trained terrorists whose attack plans were known, makes it clear that few of the lessons of 26/11 have been learned. India desperately needs a programme of counter-terrorism capacity-building, based on the honest admission of weaknesses and a clear roadmap for change. The BJP had promised just this in its election manifesto, but the Modi government is yet to even begin the process. Terrorism is defeated not by angry talk but calm action — and the time to take it is today.