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January 6, 2016

After Pathankot


January 6, 2016

Two significant security-related developments within our region, the terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot airbase and growing Saudi-Iranian hostilities, have again put to test the Nawaz Sharif-led government’s ability to deal with urgent and complex situations.

Although the Pathankot attack can have a direct impact on the recent Nawaz-Modi effort to restart dialogue derailed by the Modi government, for Islamabad there is only one valid policy: stay with the January 15 timeline while transparently cooperate with India to identify the terrorists. The Pakistan FO’s statement that “the government is in touch with the Indian government and is working on the leads provided by it” suggests Pakistan is doing just that.

Meanwhile, the instant conclusions stridently and continually broadcast by Indian channels within minutes of the terrorist attack were based on alleged evidence of midnight telephone intercepts between terrorists and their handlers, a piece of paper with JeM written on it found in the SSP’s car snatched by the terrorists, and on intelligence reports from two days prior to the attack etc. Significantly on the third day of the attack, this joint Indian intelligence-media ‘blame-ISI & Pakistan Army’ campaign, was questioned by a January 4 news report ‘Identity of Terrorists still Unclear’ carried by The Hindu, a leading Indian daily.

This intel-media campaign emphatically targeting Pakistani institutions does pose a peculiar challenge to the Indian prime minister. One, that Modi finds ways to ensure that the instant conclusions of Indian intelligence outfits – that the terrorists were from Pakistan, from Jaish-e-Mohammad and that the army chief and ISI planned the attack – will not prejudice the investigation within India. Two, to deflect the political pressure that this anti-Pakistan campaign will help the Congress party, Modi’s hard-line RSS allies and the Indian public put on Modi to cancel the January 15 bilateral talks.

While the Sangh Parivar’s chief spokesman Manmohan Vaidya’s January 5 statement that “...there is no need to suspend talks. Rather, it (terror) should also be discussed boldly and firmly” indicates that Modi is holding his ground politically, his real challenge will be to prevent Indian intelligence outfits from sabotaging Pakistan-India cooperation in investigating the Pathankot attack.

If indeed Prime Minister Modi is able to stay the course of the January 15 dialogue, then he will have trumped his Congress predecessor Mamohan Singh whose initial resolve to continue with Pakistan-India dialogue after the Mumbai terrorist attacks dissipated under political pressure. Mumbai led to a prolonged break in Pakistan-India dialogue.

However, post-Mumbai developments on the security and terrorism front – including Samjhota, the Gurdaspur and (now) the Pathankot tragedies – all indicate that no sustained purposeful India-Pakistan engagement is possible without bilateral cooperation in the security and intelligence area. Terrorist acts on Indian territory have now become the standard tool for disrupting bilateral engagement and in most cases no one has the answer to ‘who did it.’ Unless systematic investigations are conducted, speculations, conspiracies and unilateral conclusions inform all public discussions about the perpetrators of violence.

Absence of credible investigations works in India’s favour. In popular narrative, within and beyond the region, Pakistan is often seen as the prime suspect. There is historical baggage regarding proxy wars and covert operations that, admittedly at varying degrees, both India and Pakistan carry. However, for several reasons global opinion has in the past worked against Pakistan. Unlike the past, Pakistan is no longer pressurised by whatever remains of this negative global opinion; it is now engaged internally and also regionally in a sustained and relatively serious counterterrorism effort.

However, Pakistan’s commitment to engage with India in meaningful result-oriented dialogue compelled it to propose a joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism. Pakistan has concluded that beyond political commitment, now security-level commitment is required to find resolutions to multiple issues in the deeply troubled Pakistan-India relations. What has followed the Pathankot attack reinforces the need for such cooperation.

There are of course, in both India and Pakistan, elements that would oppose such cooperation. In Pakistan, militant outfits, national, regional and now international – ranging from JUD, JEM, Al-Qaeda, TTP and Daesh – have even publicly vowed to disrupt any Pakistan-India normalisation process and to wage war against the two states. The presence of some elements within the Pakistani intelligence setup supporting these groups cannot be ruled out. Old habits and ideological orientations are not easily eroded.

In India too, while some local presence of these militant groups cannot be ruled out, there have been hard-line groups within the Indian intelligence and the armed forces that are opposed to sustained dialogue with Pakistan, and are instead working to create fissures within Pakistan and between Pakistan and other countries. Pakistan’s own past policies aided such an approach. However, with a near total course correction of Pakistan’s security policies, continued anti-Pakistan tirade from India has reached a point of diminishing returns.

Certainly within Pakistan there is not much to be gained for India and indeed if the Indian prime minister is fully convinced of the need to give up his Pakistan-bashing policy, then framing Pakistan’s government or its army for promoting terrorism will undermine Modi’s own policy.

Against this backdrop, the next essential step must be the revival of the Anti-Terrorism Mechanism agreed upon by Musharraf-Manmohan in Havana in 2006. The purpose of this mechanism was to ensure credible investigations on terrorist incidents including violations along the LOC. India, however, opted not to take the joint investigation route to apportioning responsibility for several terrorist attacks and LOC violations. Pakistan’s proposals immediately after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 and subsequently in September 2013 after several accusations and counter-accusations by India and Pakistan of killing each other’s soldiers along the LOC, were finally rejected.

In most cases, especially in 2013 when the Indian leadership announced in New York through National Security Advisor Shankar Menon its intention to jointly investigate killings along the LOC, the military-media nexus – barring some exceptions – virulently opposed the idea. The idea was abandoned.

The ball is now in Indian Prime Minister Modi’s court. Can he bring around the Indian intelligence’s foregone conclusion regarding Pathankot, and engage in a transparent investigation on the Pathankot attack on the Indian airbase? Pakistan is already engaged in working on the leads sent by India. However, it would be advisable for Pakistan to perhaps keep other interested countries like China and the US informed of the ‘leads’ on Pathankot sent by India.

Neutral observers must ask many questions on the workings of the Indian intelligence agencies, including not having informed their Pakistani counterparts of a terrorist plot they claim they knew about two days prior to the event.

The writer is a national security strategist, visiting faculty at NUST and fellow at
Harvard University’s Asia Centre.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @nasimzehra

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