The Pathankot attack by Jaish-e-Muhammad jihadis based in Punjab, Pakistan, has pushed Indian and Pakistani leaders to try and salvage a dialogue to normalise relations. This followed a meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries recently in Lahore. Both sides say that the foreign secretary talks on the full range of issues confronting them, especially on terrorism, originally scheduled for 15 January, 2016, have been postponed pending a report by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by Pakistan. The soft “postponement” is a significant departure from past practice when an incident like this would have led to outright cancellation.
This time, too, both sides have been careful to send out the right signals to each other about their sincerity in trying to normalise. The Pakistanis have told the Indians that JM’s leader Masud Azhar and some of his lieutenants have been detained and the Punjab home minister, Rana Sanaullah, says the inquiry report of the SIT will be made public. The Indians say they have handed over details of the terrorists to the Pakistanis, including voice samples and transcripts of their conversations with their handlers in Pakistan, and will allow the SIT to visit the Pathankot air base in connection with the inquiry.
For both countries, these decisions weren’t easy to make. The Pakistani military establishment has rarely ticked off the jihadi organisations, let alone detain their leaders, because they see them as strategic assets in the asymmetric military equation with India pending a long term settlement of the core dispute of Kashmir. Even during the regime of General Pervez Musharraf, the likes of Masud Azhar weren’t detained, despite evidence that JM activists had a role to play in the two assassination attempts on Musharraf’s life. The Indians, too, have bent over backwards not to fling the usual accusations at the Pakistani military for sabotaging the peace process. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unusually remarked that he will not allow vested interests in Pakistan and nay sayers in India to dissuade him from continuing on the track of normalisation. In side-lining the Indian defense and home ministers, Manohar Parrikar and Ragnath Singh respectively, from making Pakistan policy – both had publicly opposed the proposed visit by the Pakistani SIT to Pathankot — Modi has sent out a powerful message. He has signalled his determination to move forward in the company of the Indian “establishment” led by NSA Ajit Doval, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar.
Nonetheless, the Pathankot incident cannot be brushed away easily by Pakistan. If the Pakistanis don’t quickly deliver concrete results to show their seriousness of purpose against the jihadis who perpetrated the attack, the Indians will revert to their traditional angry stance of distrust and hostility and the international community will side with them. The Mumbai inquiry and prosecution of Lashkar-e-Taiba activist Zaki ur Rahman Lakhvi is still pending in Pakistan with both sides accusing the other of lack of cooperation. Pakistan cannot now afford to take the same positions on the Pathankot attack without alienating world opinion and exposing its hypocrisy.
This is going to be a tough act for Pakistan to follow. While the jihadi tap has been officially closed for infiltration across the border into Kashmir since 2004 — when the military establishment under General Pervez Musharraf began to toy with out-of-the-box thinking on Kashmir — the jihadi organisations in Punjab and Azad Kashmir are very much alive, with hardliners splintering away to join the Taliban or launch attacks on their own against India as in Mumbai in 2008 and recently Gurdaspur and Pathankot. The establishment policy has been to keep a lid on these organisations under their existing leaders in order to maintain leverage. Any attempt to forcibly disband them or making sweeping arrests would have led to an armed revolt within these organisations against their pro-establishment leaders, with dangerous consequences for a military that already has its hands full containing terrorists from the TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and IS, separatist insurgents in Balochistan, and criminal mafias in Karachi. The recent attack on Peshawar’s Bacha Khan University is a tragic and grim reminder of the enormity of the task at hand.
Under the circumstances, India needs to understand and appreciate the difficulties that beset the Pakistani military as it tries to steer Pakistan out of the clutches of its self-created Frankensteins in order to cope with their unintended consequences. But the Pakistani military cannot expect to get the benefit of the doubt from India and the international community without taking some tough measures. Regardless of its avowed inability to frontally “take on” the jihadi organisations, some concrete action must be taken against their hardliners who continue to create serious problems for state and society, along the lines of the calibrated action taken against the LJ. Indeed, any attempt to soft pedal or obfuscate the Pathankot incident like the Mumbai incident is only going to increase distrust and hostility in India and the international community and rebound on Pakistan.