It did not take long after the Christmas Day holding of hands between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Lahore for India and Pakistan to be back in a familiar rut. The terrorist attack in Pathankot rightly infuriated Indians who now want action against its perpetrators. Talks between the two countries are now on hold again until such action is taken.
We have seen this movie before. In the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, India’s anger resulted in scuttling dialogue with the relatively new PPP government led by President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
Pakistan’s leaders, under pressure from the international community, promised full cooperation in investigating the terrorists involved in the attack. Arrests were made, a trial initiated and after many rounds of finger-pointing, talks were resumed.
The Mumbai attackers have yet to be convicted. Hardliners in Islamabad say there is insufficient evidence to convict anyone, which surprises Pakistan’s international critics. It seems incredulous that evidence is hard to find in a country that managed to execute one of its elected leaders after a trial universally deemed flawed and has kept many others in jail for years without bail or conviction.
There is no dearth of Pakistanis who believe that both Mumbai and Pathankot were a black operation of India’s own security services. Such a state of denial creates parallel universes in which one side wants the solution to a problem the other denies even exists.
The terrorists and their backers use well-timed attacks for two effects: One, to keep hostility between India and Pakistan alive; and two, to keep recruiting and training terrorists with an apocalyptic vision of a battlefield that stretches from Kabul to Kolkata.
Most Pakistani civilian leaders, and some generals, realise that Pakistan falls right in the middle of that battlefield. They know that they, too, are as much targets of jihadis as secular Afghan leaders or Indian civilians. Pakistan has witnessed vicious terrorist attacks on its own soil, resulting in many deaths, including those of schoolchildren in the December 2014 attack on a Peshawar school.
The result of that realisation should be to end all ifs and buts and eliminate all jihadi terrorist groups in Pakistan. But it is difficult for some Pakistanis to give up on the dream of keeping alive the Kashmir issue with the help of militants.
Just as hardliners voice fantasies of “false-flag attacks” that no one else in the world believes, the “India is Pakistan’s eternal enemy” crowd insists that terrorists who target India should not be seen as bad guys, unlike terrorists who strike in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world.
For their part, pan-Islamist jihadis do not care about the nation-state of Pakistan. If promoting India and Pakistan conflict advances their cause of polarising the world between Muslim and non-Muslim, so be it.
Whenever India talks of punitive action against Pakistan or decides to suspend dialogue, the jihadis win by attaining their objective of intensifying polarisation. The extremists do not care if Pakistan suffers as a result of their actions. They have no state to protect, and only seek bases and territory to operate from — for global jihad.
Suspending the India-Pakistan dialogue each time there is a terrorist attack gives jihadis a veto over talks between the two nuclear-armed states. After all, the mere possession of nuclear weapons does not create deterrence. Regular negotiations between nuclear-weapon powers are also necessary.
Perhaps India and Pakistan can continue talks without illusions in the same way that the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union spoke regularly to one another during the Cold War.
Meanwhile, India should continue to reach out to Pakistanis who want to protect their nation-state and ensure its progress in the contemporary global environment. This vast segment of Pakistani civil society wants their country’s establishment to understand that the time for using the jihadis as an instrument of bleeding India is over.
The Pakistani establishment, however, is too wedded to its decades-old “group think” to be able to move against all jihadis. The temptation to view “boys trained by us” as strategic assets is great, as is the willingness to defuse crises created by jihadi actions through clever public relations and legal manoeuvres.
It does not matter whether the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad (or for that matter, even the United Jihad Council) acted with the blessings of the ISI or without. As long as such groups are allowed to organise and operate within Pakistan, the government would have to take responsibility for acting against them for attacks anywhere in the world, including across the border.