Updated: March 1, 2019 7:43:28 am
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement in Parliament, that Pakistan had decided to release Wing Commander Abhinandan, captured when he landed in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir after ejecting from his MiG-21 Bison that had taken a hit from Pakistan Air Force planes, has lifted a cloud of anxiety.
Pakistan has acted in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, to which it is a signatory. India and Pakistan have an informal understanding for returning security personnel who have crossed over into each other’s territory. In this instance, however, given the context of the heightened tensions and war-like atmosphere in which it is taking place, the IAF pilot’s release is even more welcome.
Khan said the decision was made as a “peace gesture” toward India. Certainly, it should mark the beginning of the de-escalation process between the two neighbours, after India’s paradigm-changing aerial strike in Balakot, and the demonstration by Pakistan the very next day that it would not hesitate to rush to the brink.
As nuclear powers, both countries know well the risks inherent in escalation — the language used by both sides has mirrored that in varying degree. India called its strike a “pre-emptive”, “non-military” operation aimed at a terror training camp. Pakistan could have chosen not to retaliate, but when it did, it said it targeted “non-military” targets to demonstrate its “right, will and capability for self defence”.
Now, Pakistan’s decision to release the IAF pilot is a timely opportunity to turn the page on the last two days and begin the process of finding a way forward. US President Donald Trump’s statement earlier that “decent news” would come in from India and Pakistan shows what happens in the region doesn’t stay in the region — it is a worry for the world.
The storm has, hopefully, passed. But the issues that brought the two countries to this edge remain. Unless these are addressed, it will be difficult to strike normalcy. Pakistan has contested India’s assertion that its jets hit a Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp in Balakot. But it cannot deny that the JeM and its leadership are present in Pakistan, and that the organisation runs seminaries and training camps that churn out jihadi cadres, with the stated goal of carrying out terrorist attacks in Kashmir and in India.
So does the Lashkar-e-Taiba. If Imran Khan genuinely believes that terrorism has hurt Pakistan, he should pay attention to this “infrastructure of terrorism”, as the world now describes it. His reiteration of the offer to talk with PM Narendra Modi would be seen to be meaningful if he and the Pakistan Army show that they can switch off support to these terrorist groups. Until then, building trust between the two countries will remain a tough task that can be derailed by the next provocation.