The failed terror attack on the strategically located Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Pathankot, Punjab, on January 2 was an obvious attempt to derail the dialogue process between India and Pakistan. Around the same time that the airbase was targeted, there was an attempt to storm the Indian Consulate in the Afghan city of Mazhar-i-Sharif. Prompt action by Afghan security forces foiled that attempt. Afghan officials said the militants who tried to storm the consulate were well trained and highly motivated.
The Foreign Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan were scheduled to be held on January 15. The dates were announced soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s private residence in Lahore on December 25 on his way back from Moscow. The Indian authorities said the terror attack, which took place barely a week after Modi’s visit, was the handiwork of the Pakistani radical group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The JeM leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was one of the three prisoners freed by India in 1999 in exchange for the Indian Airlines plane that was hijacked to Kandahar.
A militant Kashmiri group, calling itself the United Jehadi Council, has claimed credit for the attacks in Pathankot and Mazhar-i-Sharif, but the Indian authorities have dismissed their claims. The group claimed that it carried out the attacks to avenge the hanging of the Kashmiri separatist leader Afzal Guru in 2013. In June last year, Pakistani terrorists, who had infiltrated across the border, surprised the Indian authorities by staging an attack in Gurdaspur, another town in Punjab.
The attack on the Pathankot base, which went on for almost three days, claimed the lives of seven security personnel, including a senior Army officer deputed to the National Security Guard (NSG). Six terrorists involved in the attack were killed. The terrorists had crossed the border from Pakistan into Punjab, hijacked cars, including a vehicle belonging to a Punjab police officer, and headed towards the IAF base. Their intention was to sneak in and destroy the strategic assets of the IAF such as fighter planes in the base.
In Pakistan, Al Qaeda, Tehreek-i-Taliban and other such groups have attacked 31 military installations. The Pakistani Taliban attacked a key naval base in Karachi in 2011 and 2014, causing serious damage. The terrorists who sneaked into India probably wanted to replicate that kind of attack. But although they were able to infiltrate the perimeter of the Indian base, they could only go as far as the living quarters of officers.
The JeM, unlike the Pakistani Taliban, has been focussing mainly on the Kashmir issue. For this reason, it is believed that some sections of the powerful security establishment of Pakistan treat this particular terrorist outfit with kid gloves. Pakistan has banned the JeM, but many of its leaders are allowed to operate freely. The group and its leader were involved in an assassination attempt on General Pervez Musharraf when he was President. But there are also indications that the Pakistan Army, which has a decisive say in the formulation of foreign and defence policies, is now more committed to the eradication of terrorist outfits from its soil, including groups such as the JeM and the Taliban, which it nurtured.
Pakistan’s Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has pledged to root out terrorism from the country by the end of 2016. The attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014 and the targeting of Army officers’ children by the Pakistani Taliban was the game changer. Sunni extremist groups in Pakistan are also targeting minority Shias on a regular basis. The Army’s anti-terror fight is focussed on groups such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Many of the leaders of these two outfits have been taken out. In December, Pakistan promised a speedy conclusion to the trial of the seven men accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which was carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
In a statement issued after a high-level security meeting on January 8 attended by the chiefs of the Army and the Inter-Intelligence Services (ISI) along with the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and the National Security Adviser (NSA), it was emphasised that the people of Pakistan “have evolved a political consensus for action against all terrorists and terrorist organisations without any distinction, and have resolved that no terrorist would be allowed to use Pakistan’s soil for committing terrorism anywhere in the world”.
Intelligence failure The Indian government has come in for criticism on the way it handled the latest terror attack. There was a failure on the intelligence front, with various government agencies acting at cross purposes. The hijacking of the Punjab police officer’s car by terrorists disguised in Indian military uniforms should have alerted the authorities about the impending danger. Police Superintendent Satwinder Singh’s car was hijacked on the morning of January 1. His complaint to his seniors was not taken seriously; it was seen as a case of “armed robbery”. The terrorists were allowed to roam freely for more than 24 hours and then stake out the periphery of the Pathankot airbase. The base was guarded by the Defence Security Corps (DSC).
The DSC, a unit set up by the Defence Ministry to guard military bases, comprises Army veterans. Military analysts argue that a more specialised and better-trained force is needed to guard high-value military facilities. The government, after prematurely announcing on the first day of the attack that the terror threat was neutralised, had to rush in the NSG to flush out the remaining terrorists. A retired army commando told Frontline that the Army should have been given the job of taking on the terrorists. “Trained army commandos would have finished the job in a short time,” he said. The military has blamed the government for relying only on the NSG to tackle terrorists. The Central government claimed that it had given advanced warning to the IAF that there was an imminent threat to its base. The Punjab government blamed the Border Security Force (BSF) for not checking infiltration across the border. Infiltration has not stopped despite the border fencing. A sharp rise in cross-border smuggling of drugs originating from Afghanistan has had an adverse impact on border security. The highly lucrative illegal trade in narcotics has had a corrupting influence on the BSF and the police force in Punjab, the government said.
Soon after the Pathankot attack, India gave a virtual ultimatum to Pakistan to take immediate action against those involved in the Pathankot attack. In response, Nawaz Sharif stated that Islamabad would not hesitate to take “prompt and decisive action” if the involvement of Pakistan-based elements in the attack was proved beyond doubt. On January 11, the Pakistan authorities announced that they had made some arrests in Bahawalpur, the hometown of Masood Azhar.
According to the Pakistani media, the arrests were made on the basis of clues provided by the Indian authorities relating to the Pathankot attack. Pakistani security agencies have carried out raids in Jhelum and Gujranwala. Nawaz Sharif has constituted a joint investigating team to look into the possible links between the terrorists involved in Pathankot with groups and individuals based in Pakistan.
The Indian government insisted on “visible steps” to be taken by Islamabad. The External Affairs Ministry stated that it had provided “actionable intelligence” about those complicit in the Pathankot attack. “As far as we are concerned, the ball is now in Pakistan’s court,” a spokesman of the Ministry said, when asked about the possibility of bilateral talks proceeding as scheduled.
“The immediate issue before us is Pakistan’s response to the terrorist attack,” he said. During his telephone conversation with Nawaz Sharif, Modi called for “firm and immediate action” against those involved in the Pathankot strike. Nawaz Sharif told Modi that the terror attack was a ploy to sabotage the peace process that they had initiated together.
The international community wants talks between the two countries to continue. United States Secretary of State John Kerry urged both the countries to keep the talks going “despite efforts to thwart the process”. China said the terror attack on the Indian military base was done with the intention of disrupting the talks between Islamabad and New Delhi. “India and Pakistan are important countries in South Asia. The improvement of relations between the two countries is of paramount importance to regional peace and stability. China hopes that India and Pakistan can enhance their cooperation and dialogue regardless of these disruptions,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
In New Delhi, there were loud calls for cancellation of the talks. There were suggestions that the terror attack could have been the handiwork of the “displeased” Pakistan Army, which was apparently not kept in the loop by Nawaz Sharif about his meeting with Modi. Pakistan’s National Security Adviser (NSA), Lt Gen. (retd) Naseer Khan Janjua, was a close military colleague of Gen. Raheel Sharif. It was the secret talks between Janjua and his Indian counterpart, Ajit Kumar Doval, which laid the groundwork for the resumption of talks.
By the second week of January, tempers cooled down a little in Delhi. Ajit Doval was forced to retract his statement made on January 11 that there would be no Foreign Secretary-level talks on January 15 and that India would continue with the talks “only if Pakistan takes action”. That the Indian position has mellowed was apparent from the statement made by Home Minister Rajnath Singh on January 12. He said there was no reason to distrust Pakistan’s assurance that it would take effective action on the inputs given by the Indian authorities about the perpetrators of the Pathankot attack. The talks are likely to be delayed for a short duration.
Meanwhile, there are reports that the NSAs of the two countries will hold another secret meeting before the Foreign Secretaries meet in Islamabad. If this happens, it will be good news for the peace process as “non-state actors” will no longer be allowed to disrupt state-to-state relations.