By Ashok K Mehta
20 January 2016
While it is difficult to tell whether Pathankot, like Peshawar, will be a turning point in Pakistan Army’s policy on counter-terrorism, I believe that we could be in for a surprise: As relative to Lashkar, Jaish is more dispensable
It is difficult to tell whether Pathankot, like Peshawar, will be a turning point in Pakistan Army’s policy on counter-terrorism. The Peshawar carnage led to the crackdown in North Waziristan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the National Action Plan which has substantially subdued the Pakistan Taliban, the bad terrorists. Will Pathankot mark the beginning of a slow assault on the good terrorists in Punjab, starting with the Jaish-e-Mohammed?
The lockup and conviction of JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar and the sealing of Jaish offices and seminaries will constitute the minimum satisfaction for India as retribution for Pathankot and start of the dialogue process. Most Indians believe Pathankot will follow the Mumbai path of delay and deceit without any outcome. I am part of a minority which believes we could be in for a surprise: As relative to Lashkar, Jaish is more dispensable.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leap of faith on Christmas day was not just the result of instinct or intuition but also hard politics. The turnaround in Paris abandoning coercive diplomacy in deference to the emerging geostrategic reality in Afghanistan and the extended neighbourhood was a necessary risk to remain in the loop of regional transformation.
In that sense, both Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif are signalling a common resolve towards jointly combating terrorism by urging Pakistan’s Army chief General Raheel Sharif to end the categorisation of terrorist networks. His popularity rating soared to 90 per cent after operation Zarb e Azb. He will probably think twice before acting against the Punjabi Taliban.
Still, Pakistan’s response to the Pathankot attack is monumentally different: No chorus of denial, no effort to pass it off as a Research and Analysis Wing job, no usual litany of laments — Pakistan is a victim of terrorism, that culprits are non-state actors not under state control, etc.
Instead, what followed was outright condemnation by the Pakistan Foreign Office, two telephone calls by Mr Sharif to Mr Modi, expressing anguish and regret and pledging to take prompt and decisive action against perpetrators of the attack, three high level meetings including two with Gen Sharif and Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar followed by sealing of some Jaish offices and arrest of Jaish cadres linked to Pathankot.
The handout after the Corps Commanders’ meeting on January 6, called for zero tolerance on terrorism. For the first time, all political parties except Jamaat-e-Islami, and members of civil society condemned the attack. Even the print and electronic media was rarely balanced with one legislator from the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) advocating on Geo TV, conduct of military operations in South Punjab. His co-panelist, a Lt Gen (retd) Amjad Shoaib insisted that the appointment of Lt Gen (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua was an indication that the Army was on the same page on talks with India as Mr Sharif.
Writing in Dawn, former Pakistan envoy to India Ashraf Jehangir Qazi warned that a repeat of Mumbai would expose Pakistan to ridicule and ignominy among many Western countries and could lead to international sanctions. He urged the Pakistan Government to fulfil its legal and international obligations in following up on leads provided by India.
On its editorial page Dawn recommended dismantling of JeM infrastructure of terrorism. An Indian journalist apparently close to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has revealed that his counterpart Lt Gen Janjua assured Mr Doval: “Khuda ki kasam mein Jaish ki aisi ki taise kar doonga.” Such a catalogue of reactions following a terrorist attack sourced in Pakistan in India is unprecedented especially mild outrage of civil society and the media. President Obama’s State of the Union message in which he clubbed Pakistan with Afghanistan as a country that could see decades of instability and become safe haven for new terrorist networks should make the Army think.
On New Delhi’s part, it broke the spell of recurring cancellations of talks as it surprisingly announced that both countries had decided to hold Foreign Secretary-level talks in the very near future. The veto held by spoilers on India-Pakistan dialogue was ignored. India praised Pakistan for its actions against JeM as an important and positive first step. It added: “We welcome the visit of Pakistan’s Special Investigation Team to whom our investigation agencies will extend all necessary cooperation to bring perpetrators of Pathankot to justice”. If and when SIT arrives it will be the first joint probe of a terrorist attack, directed from Pakistan in India. The Pathankot attack is also the first major terrorist attack against a strategic military facility in India.
Both countries are clear victors. Willy nilly Pathankot vindicates New Delhi’s stand that terrorism takes priority over other contested issues including Kashmir but it does reflect that talks and terror can indeed go on as long as Islamabad is prepared to crack down on terrorist groups targeting India based on its soil.
The gradual dismantling of terrorist infrastructure in Punjab would be a welcome second necessary step for progress in talks. Once the dialogue process has begun, both the leaders need to commit not to target each other from their soil or in a third country. With Lashkar reined in after Mumbai and Jaish likely to be restrained, no major attacks ought to happen. That presumes that the Pakistan Army and the ISI are likely to support the dialogue in the short-term.
Resumption of talks will certainly not mean that infiltration, violence and terrorism will taper off in Kashmir. On the contrary, the United Jihad Council has announced plans for reinvigorating the freedom struggle in Kashmir. Status quo in Kashmir is unacceptable to the Pakistan Army as the satisfaction differential is seen to be weighted heavily in favour of India.
Pakistanis refer to Kashmir as the mother of terrorism. A sincere and earnest mechanism to address the Kashmir issue will send the right signals about intent and dilute the casus belli for terrorism. The transformed dialogue process offers a unique opportunity for Mr Doval to ascertain whether the Army is fully on board and has complete control over ISI as well as non-state actors. Foreign Affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz is known to say: “Pakistan has influence but no control over Afghan Taliban which is based on its soil.”
India has given Pakistan a long rope. A number of balls are up in the air. Gen Sharif has to decide whether jihad or India is the real threat. After investing huge political capital Mr Modi has realised that sustained engagement with Pakistan is the only viable option. But to make it work, he must carry a big stick backed by a strong internal security architecture.