In phone calls made as part of an ongoing secret dialogue between India and Pakistan, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval confronted his counterpart, Lieutenant-General Nasser Khan Janjua, with evidence challenging Islamabad’s claims to be unable to locate terrorists involved in last year’s attack on the Pathankot Air Force base, highly placed government sources have told The Indian Express.
The discussions on the Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorists, conducted over a dedicated hotline in early October, show that the dialogue between the two NSAs has survived a series of India-Pakistan crises — notably last year’s cross-Line of Control strikes on Lashkar-e-Taiba camps.
Officials familiar with the dialogue said it centred around granular intelligence on the movements and locations of key suspects Kashif Jan and Shahid Latif.
The conversations saw Doval press Janjua for the arrest of the suspects, who Pakistani investigators had earlier claimed they were unable to locate. Janjua called back days later to say investigators were still unable to locate the men.
Doval’s confidence in the dialogue process has frayed, sources said, with the NSA becoming increasingly convinced that Janjua may be unable to act against jihadists because of resistance from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
The Pakistani NSA’s ability to take on his former military colleagues on India-related issues, a senior diplomat said, has also been undermined by the removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who hand-picked him for office.
However, the sources said, New Delhi has chosen to continue the dialogue, seeing it as a useful tool to manage future crisis and to gauge Pakistan’s intentions on terrorism.
Doval declined to respond to questions from The Indian Express on the status of his dialogue with Janjua.
Facing intense pressure from the military and its religious right-wing allies — who unleashed violence in several Pakistani cities on Saturday — Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s government has shown little inclination to follow Sharif’s move to build bridges with India by acting against jihadists.
“The NSA’s decision to press Islamabad on the Pathankot case was driven not so much by any hope of action, but to test Islamabad’s intent under the changed circumstances,” an official said.
Earlier this month, a Pakistani court released Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed from preventive detention, noting that the government had failed to prosecute him despite claiming the alleged 26/11 perpetrator was a threat to national security.
No significant terrorist attacks have taken place since last year’s Indian military strikes across the LoC — the consequence, intelligence analysts believe, of Sharif’s pressure on the ISI.
But the growing power of Pakistan’s military has led some in India’s intelligence services to fear that terrorist attacks could pick up again.
Even though Islamabad has held Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar under what it describes as “protective custody” since January, Bahawalpur-based sources confirmed to The Indian Express that at least half-a-dozen individuals held by Pakistan’s intelligence services in the wake of the Pathankot attack had been released without charge.
Abdul Rauf Asghar, Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar’s brother and the group’s military chief, also continued to operate openly from its Bahawalpur headquarters, sources said.
The India-Pakistan NSA-level dialogue began at a meeting in Bangkok on December 6, 2015, where the two men met along with Foreign Secretaries S Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry. The meeting came six days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Prime Minister Sharif agreed to resume dialogue at a one-on-one meeting in Paris, following growing tensions over terrorism.
Doval and Janjua continued to speak through the Pathankot Air Force base crisis, sources said, with the Indian NSA regularly relaying evidence gathered by Indian investigators. The information paved the way for Prime Minister Sharif’s foreign policy advisor, Sartaj Aziz, to publicly admit that the Pathankot attackers had called the Jaish’s headquarters in Bahawalpur.
Later, Doval endorsed plans to allow officers from a special investigation team set up by Pakistan to visit the Pathankot Air Base, in a first-of-its kind visit to a sensitive Indian military installation. The team also met with India’s National Investigation Agency, where it was handed case-related evidence.
However, the Pakistani NSA told Doval the investigation team had been unable to locate individuals whose call and internet records showed had been in touch with the perpetrators.
Key among them was Kashif Jan, revealed by intercepted telephone calls to have remained in constant phone contact with the attackers. In Facebook chat messages obtained by NIA, Kashif Jan also told his friends that he had played a role in organising earlier attacks in Kashmir.
Shahid Latif, who was deported from India in 2010 after serving 17 years in prison on terrorism-related charges, was also identified as significant figure in the Pathankot operation, based on witness statements and his online records.
In spite of the failure of the Sharif government to deliver on the Pathankot perpetrators, government sources said, the two NSAs continued to speak — notably after India’s cross-LoC strikes on Lashkar-e-Taiba forward positions in September 2016.
New Delhi’s growing frustration, passed through the NSA’s dialogue, is thought to have led to an October, 2016, push by Prime Minister Sharif to confront the Pakistan Army. Karachi-based newspaper The Dawn reported Sharif had ordered action against the Pathankot perpetrators, and instructed officials to push forward with their prosecution of 26/11 suspects.
New Delhi believes the showdown led the Army to throw its weight behind efforts to dethrone Sharif, a process that ended with his controversial removal from office on corruption charges.
“It seems to us that Pakistan’s government and intelligence services are deeply divided on how it wants to handle the jihadists,” a senior diplomat said. “The civilian government understands the peril jihadist operations against India can expose it to, but the ISI is loath to let go of useful assets.”
“The Pakistani NSA,” he argued, “kind of sways like a pendulum between these two poles of influence, depending on which has greater power.”