One step forward, two steps back

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 19, 2018

Life after Pathankot A curious affair by all accounts, the terrorist strike at the airbase in Punjab has cast a long shadow over Indo-Pak diplomacy AKHILESH KUMAR

Sukumar Muralidharan

India and Pakistan are stubbornly persisting with a policy of mutual pain, with no thought for the human cost involved

Spontaneity takes intense preparation. However, all the hard work in choreographing a diplomatic event often goes unrecognised. Few have stepped up to claim credit for setting up a media spectacle on Christmas day, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a very casual detour to Lahore on his way back from Kabul. It happened to be the birthday of his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, and preparations were underway for a grand-daughter’s wedding. No better occasion to bond with the family.

Bureaucracies on both sides swallowed customary invective and foreign secretaries stepped up to carry forward the dialogue. The good cheer lasted just long enough for a predictable cast to force itself back onstage. On New Year’s Day, an Indian airbase in Punjab, just a few miles from the international border, came under attack. That situation was tidied up after a few premature declarations of victory, only for a group of armed marauders to raid India’s consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Apoplectic news anchors declared war and Indian intelligence produced a dossier establishing the complicity of Pakistan’s state agencies. Yet again, a new beginning bumped into a dead-end.

Given the predictable outcome of yet another effort to resume dialogue, questions were asked about the forces that drove it. An Indian businessman’s hand was identified as possibly influential, since he stood to gain materially from trade with Pakistan. Larger global agendas were also advanced as a factor since the US has long been promoting reconciliation in the cause of pacifying Afghanistan.

Even if the Pathankot raid cast a long shadow over diplomacy, it was a curious affair by all accounts. A 24-hour warning went ignored, allowing armed marauders to enter a highly secured perimeter. A senior Punjab Police official whose car was hijacked as the raiders set course towards Pathankot, managed to talk his way out of trouble. A taxi driver they encountered, not quite so lucky, had his throat slit.

As the attackers began their rampage, security and intelligence agencies were scratching their heads to figure out if the two events flagged by Punjab Police had a terror dimension. The Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, then took charge, entrusting the holding operation to a poorly trained and lightly armed force, while flying in commandos from the National Security Guard for the mopping up. Vast army garrisons in the neighbourhood remained spectators.

With the last of the six intruders out of the way, a war of words broke out between the official security and intelligence agencies. As the questions swirled around the conduct of just about every individual — including the Punjab Police officer who had escaped the intruders — agreement crystallised around the singular point that Pakistan was to blame. For reasons yet unclear, the specific group identified was the Jaish-e-Mohammad and a démarche served on Pakistan called for the arrest of its founder and chief, Maulana Masood Azhar.

Azhar has an old history with India, having been arrested in 1995 in Kashmir while drumming up support for the Pakistan cause. In retaliation, militants controlled by Pakistan’s intelligence directorate had kidnapped six foreign tourists in the Valley to bargain for his release. The Indian side held firm, wore down the kidnappers and perhaps secured the transfer of the hostages to one of several militant groups it had domesticated.

Nothing more was heard of the hostages. Azhar, finally, was sprung from prison in 1999 as part of a deal involving an Indian Airlines plane hijacked from Kathmandu. According to a deeply researched and documented account of the Kashmir kidnap, the portly and loquacious Azhar was operationally inept, having picked up a lasting physical disability from a friendly fire incident while attending an Afghan training camp.

Once India identified Azhar as the person of interest, reports suggesting his arrest led to a brief flicker of hope that engagement would continue. But the normality of a sullen standoff was soon restored, and Azhar just lapsed into complete and well-deserved irrelevance.

Former Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan G Parthasarathy, an influential talking head on TV shows, was quick to offer his counsel. There was no real hurry, he argued, in resuming talks. The greater priority was to “raise the costs for the Pakistan Army internally for its support to cross-border terrorism”. Stretched thin in operations in three of its four provinces, the Pakistan Army should be forced to pay an “infinitely” higher price “in terms of men, material and finances”.

There is little new in the hawkish former diplomat’s prescription. In a rather different reaction, the retired general HS Panag, who has held command positions at the second tier of the Indian Army hierarchy, had much to vent about what he saw as a botched operation at Pathankot. Preparedness was woefully absent, although ample reason existed for precautions. Indeed, India had been “singularly lucky” that Pakistan intelligence had not targeted airbases near the border, “despite Mehran and Kamra”.

These are curious references. The naval base Mehran in Karachi was attacked in 2011 and the air-force base in Kamra (in Pakistan’s Attock district) in 2012. Both involved Islamic militants and inflicted a heavy cost in men and material. Why these incidents should have aroused a retaliatory rage against India is unclear.

Parthasarathy’s strategic advice may have been intended prospectively. But it is important to ask if it is already part of the operational doctrine of India’s neighbourhood strategy. If so, the two countries need to step back from the abyss and consider how far they want to continue the policy of inflicting mutual pain with no concern for gain.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla

Published on February 05, 2016

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