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On the Edge




By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, January 08, 2016


The Pathankot air base saga and a nearly simultaneous attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif has turned out to be the real “existential” challenge to the India-Pakistan relations, resurrected recently from the ruins of acrimony and hostility.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was quick to ring up Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Colombo to condemn the strike in Pathankot, and committed “prompt and decisive action against the terrorists.”

A press statement by the Indian Prime Minister’s office said Sharif promised “to act on the intelligence given by India about suspected handlers and the mastermind of the terrorist attack.”

During the telephonic conversation, Mr Modi called for “firm and immediate action” against those involved in the Pathankot strike. “Specific and actionable information in this regard has been provided to Pakistan,” Mr Modi was quoted by the Indian external affairs ministry to have told Mr Sharif.

The Indian National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Nasir Khan Janjua held a similar telephonic dialogue, which helped in quelling the scornful noises resonating in much of the Indian media.

Unlike the Indian statement, according to a Pakistan national daily, the statement issued by Mr Sharif’s office did not contain any explicit commitment about action on Islamabad’s part, but said: “Our government is working on the leads and information provided by the Indian government. We would like to investigate the matter.”

Equally measured response came from the Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who admitted “gaps in security” but refused to drag Pakistan’s name into it. All he said was that “once the investigations are over, things will become clear, and every security detail cannot be discussed openly.”

There is no way around talks

So far so good. All this sounds good and augurs well for both neighbours. They seem to have survived the storm arising out of these attacks. Critical will be whether they stay on the same path in case another terror attacks hits the Indian or Afghan interests.

But the timing of the brazen Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif assaults is intriguing, and has thrown up many questions. Kashmiri militants – we are told – were the common denominator to both attacks. In both cases, militants reportedly were on a mission to “avenge” Afzal Guru’s execution.  Intriguingly, following a lull of several years, the Jaish-e-Mohammad took the centre stage in both cases.

Were these two coordinated incidents planned really by a Kashmir-centric group? Were these two well-coordinated false flag operations – a microcosm of a pincer movement – to mount pressure on Pakistan ahead of the quadrilateral talks on Afghanistan set for January 11? Or were these actions motivated by the anti-peace lobbies in all the three countries, ie the spoilers?

In either case, such events have the potential of derailing the dialogue, particularly in view of the battering that the Modi government raked in for a few days. The Indian investigators will need quite a lot of probing and soul-searching to answer how the attackers carrying AK-47 assault rifles with makeshift rocket launchers attached, mortar rounds that could be fired from the launchers, pistols, and 50-60 kilograms of ammunition, made it to the base.

Equally damning for Pakistan – potentially a big sticking point in the next round of talks – is the claim of responsibility for Pathankot by the United Jihad Council, a conglomerate of 16 Kashmir-focused groups. If this claim is really true, then it lands Pakistan in further trouble because it gives India even a stronger reason to call for action against the UJC leadership, including its chairman Syed Salahuddin.

PM Modi and his cabinet deserve full marks for having enforced caution and restraint in their reactions to the attack. The Pakistani PM also needs appreciation for taking the initiative and reassuring his counterpart of certain action if any Pakistani was found involved in the attack.

And it would be a great leap forward if Pakistan could translate its commitment into action as and when required. The window for salvaging the bilateral dialogue and taking it fruitfully forward is limited. Terrorists will keep testing these limitations but the responsibility of both governments will be not to allow these limitations disrupt the talks.

There is certainly no way around talks and the best way to stay the course will be for an enhanced and regular interaction between the two security establishments. Intelligence-sharing and corresponding action can serve as a huge confidence building measure.

One however would also expect from the Indian establishment to understand the restrictions that the internal socio-political dynamics in Pakistan.

Correction of an old course requires time. Expecting an overnight breaking up of old relations without any reintegration plans in a politically loaded situation is unrealistic and fraught with greater risks than envisaged benefits. Caution, patience and gradual confidence-building hold the key to preventing the dialogue from becoming hostage to the whims of warmongers.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk