Only those who will risk going too far,” T.S. Eliot once said, “can possibly find out how far one can go”. The poet’s insight is one that Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, both apparently prosaic men, might do well to hold on to as they struggle to salvage India-Pakistan peace from the ashes of Pathankot. In the course of the week, Prime Minister Sharif has taken the right first steps. Pakistan has moved to detain several suspected Jaish-e-Muhammad operatives connected to the attack — some identified on the basis of data made available by India’s intelligence services. Though Pakistan has declined to confirm reports of action against the Jaish-e-Muhammad and its top leadership, New Delhi has welcomed the initial moves. In turn, India has said it will allow Pakistani investigators to visit Pathankot to collect evidence, a move that should strengthen the legal case against the perpetrators. In the past, when peace processes hit mines, the script consisted of Indian threats and Pakistani denial. This time, both sides have said they will negotiate dates for a meeting of their foreign secretaries, signalling a welcome seriousness of purpose.
Few but the most delusional would imagine that this dialogue will presently lead to the dismantling of the jihadist empire underwritten by Pakistan’s military. However, New Delhi must beware the trap of linking future diplomatic engagement with the fate of the Pathankot investigation in Pakistan. This would, for one, give forces in Pakistan’s military establishment who are hostile to normalisation a perverse incentive to derail action against their jihadist clients. Secondly, military retaliation against terrorism will impose asymmetric impacts on India’s growing economy. Finally, disengagement shuts the door on long-term gains. Even if India realises no security gains from dialogue with Pakistan, there are none to be had from not talking, either. Dialogue, though, opens up possibilities for incremental gains on business, resource management and cultural contacts. It thus strengthens those sections of Pakistani society with interests in peace, like the business community and civil society — in other words, precisely those kept out of strategic decision-making by Pakistan’s praetorian military.
There’s little doubt the path ahead will be a fraught one. Pakistan’s military has allowed the Pathankot investigation to move forward because of intense pressure from the US, and some behind-the-scenes nudging by China. For now, the Pakistan army has allowed the peace process to be resuscitated, hoping for progress on its own cherished concerns, like the demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier. In the future, it may well decide to ratchet up the pain again. However, India’s interests are best served by cold-blooded defence of its strategic interests — not the seductive heat of righteous rage.