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Pathankot Terror Strike – Modi’s Christmas Day Investment Jeopardised

Paper No. 6056                                  Dated 11-Jan-2016

By Bhaskar Roy

On December 25, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprang a surprise on the people of India by paying an impromptu visit to Pakistan when returning home from Kabul.  It was Pak Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday and also his grand daughter’s wedding.  Modi called Nawaz from Kabul to wish him and Nawaz in turn, invited Modi to drop by since he was overflying Pakistan.  Modi agreed and was warmly received by Nawaz.  The two prime ministers talked for around 90 minutes, and agreed on a “composite” dialogue between the two countries.

The Indian foreign ministry in New Delhi was taken by surprise.  Many in India hailed Modi for his “master stroke”.  A new kind of prime minister had arrived.  An argument doing the rounds stated that left to foreign policy wonks and bureaucrats (including intelligence agencies) the bilateral relationship would never move forward.

Comparisons were made with US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 leading to normalization between the two countries.  Unfortunately, these wise heads had no knowledge about the background.  It was China that was keen on the breakthrough.  Few people here remember Mao Zedong’s ping-pong (table tennis) diplomacy with the US.  Mao wanted an arrangement with the US to counter the Soviet Union.  Good relations with the US would also ease pressure from Japan.  Finally, it was the lure of American technology and eventually, US investments that influence Mao.

In the case of Pakistan none of the above reasons exist.  Nawaz Sharif may be interested in trade and commerce with India.  He is a businessman, and a large part of the pie would come to him and his extended family.  Sharif plays many games.  He was fully briefed by the Pak military on the Kargil attack, but pretended he was in the dark.  The Sharif family has close contacts with right wing Islamic groups.   His younger brother, Shabaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab, funds the NGO Jamar-Ud-Dawa (headed by Hafiz Saeed), which is a known front of the banned Lashkar-e-Toiba (Let).

Sharif burnt his fingers once trying to take on the army.  He was hounded out of his job and kicked out of the country, till the Americans and the Saudi’s came to his rescue.  He became prime minister once again, but as more of a screen for the army to tell the world that they respect democracy.  Gen. Raheel Sharif’s predecessor, Gen. Asfaq Kayani played this charade very well.

Not only India but the international community as a whole was shocked when the Pakistani terrorists attacked the Pathankot air base in the early morning hours of January 01, 2016, barely eight days after the Modi-Sharif celebratory meeting.

Six terrorists were finally eliminated at the cost of the lives of seven military personnel.  Hard evidence and circumstantial evidence unearthed till now, based on intercepts of calls by the terrorists to their handlers in Bahawalpur, Pakistan and other sources point to the Pakistan based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad, headed by Maulana Masood Azhar, a terrorist himself.

There is information that the terrorists were likely trained in Pakistan’s Chaklala airbase or a dummy air base to familiarise them with the layout of air bases.  They were heavily armed, and those recovered have Pakistani markings.  Had the terrorists got through to the strategic area of the base where fuel storage, ammunition dumps and other strategic assets are located, the base would have been reduced to ashes.  The Pathankot base is a forward tactical asset, about 40 kilometres from Pakistan’s border and was involved in the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars.  Recent arrests of Pakistani spies operating in India revealed they were collecting military information especially an air bases for Pakistan’s ISI.

Jaish was apparently used by Pakistan’s military-intelligence instead of LeT because the LeT is under international focus, and Jaish and Masood Azhar were under the cloud of the Pakistani establishment for other reasons.  Jaish needs survival and the “deep state” in Pakistan needs Jaish at this point.

The issue is the regularization of India-Pakistan talks.  The question in India is – should the talks continue unhampered even after the Pathankot attack which some experts feel was an act of war?

When in the opposition, the BJP used to raise the dust and sharply criticize the congress and the UPA government for their apparently weak Pakistan policy.  The BJP promised the electorate if they were voted to power, they would take a tough position on Pakistan and give a hard hitting reply to any anti-India transgression.  They came to power with an overwhelming majority.  Are they confused now?  If so, why?  If not, what is their new policy?

Modi has invested a huge amount of his domestic political capital on Pakistan.  Under him, the BJP led governments Pak policy showed inconsistency in approach, sometimes rushing forward and then making a U-turn.  Then Modi undertook a purely personally structured line without even consulting and taking into confidence his cabinet colleagues.

There was a secret meeting between Modi and Sharif in Kathmandu last year, news about which is now filtering out.  Next was Modi’s brief meeting with Sharif on the sidelines of the climate change summit in Paris.  The most surprising was the sudden stopover in Lahore on Christmas day last December, which surprised even his accompanying aides.  It was an impromptu invitation from Nawaz Sharif and Modi grabbed the opening.

It was baffling for most Indians, but his party spokesmen tried to defend his unconventional approach.  Pakistan is an unusual “democracy” where the civilian leadership has little or no control on foreign policy and security policy.  Such an approach from Modi can be fraught with danger.  Be that as it may future steps must be well calculated.

The Pathankot attack was not planned after Modi’s visit.  The group of terrorists were well trained and heavily armed.  This was planned, as it appears (after US pressure and China’s advice of restraint, trying to encourage India-Pak talks) to scuttle the development.

This time, post-attack, the narrative from the Pakistani side was slightly different.  While the Indian National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval promptly shared intelligence and leads with the Pakistani NSA Lt. Gen. (Retd) Naser Khan Janjua, the Pakistanis did not cry ‘foul’.  Even Sharif, who was on a visit to Sri Lanka, spoke to Modi from Colombo and assured him of full investigation.  On his return from Colombo, Sharif held two meetings on consecutive days.  First was with his civilian administration, when the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief was given the responsibility to investigate into the incident.

The second meeting with the army brass was the interesting one.  A photograph of the meeting showed army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif sitting at the same level as Sharif, not or his junior.  Their body language tells the rest of the story.  Nawaz Sharif is now caught in a cleft.  The only way out for him is to use the old excuse – that the intelligence supplied by India did not stand in court and the leads provided by India came to a dead end.  Unfortunately, however for Nawaz Sharif, Jaish and its Chief Masood Azhar have now used their website to claim that the Pathankot air base attack was their doing.  Is Sharif’s credibility being gradually chipped away by the deep state?

Following the two meetings chaired by Nawaz Sharif a joint statement from the Pakistan’s civilian administration and the military establishment assuring strong action against all terrorists irrespective of their classification appears to be another ploy to deflect international pressure.  The Americans have demanded that Pakistan deliver on its promise to act against the Pathankot terrorists.  The Chinese position showed disapproval of the attack.  Islamabad has to do something.  But statements mean nothing.  Over the years similar statements have come but terrorist attacks on India from the deep state’s so called “non-state actors” continues.

More pressure from the international community is called for.  The situation in the region has changed since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack by the LeT, with design and support from the ISI.  The appearance of the Islamic State on the global stage and its creeping influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan has thrown a new challenge to the international community.  This organisation spares no one, not even Muslims unless they subscribe to their macabre philosophy.

As a side play, the ISI is acting in a surreptitious manner in Bangladesh, funding and guiding the banned terrorist organisation, the Jamaat -ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).   The JMB, in turn, has been ideologically adopted by the Islamic State.

Could the ISI establish a working relationship with Islamic State in the future?  If that happens even remotely, Afghanistan will get into a tail spin and take the region with it.  Even Pakistan’s friends and supporters will not be spared.  Hence the anxiety of the West and China.

India’s expectation that the foreign secretary talks tentatively scheduled to January 15 should take place was stated by foreign ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup.  For the Indian public, conditions set by Swarup remained clothed in ambiguity, suggesting that the Indian government was anxious for talks to resume.

If the condition states that Masood Azhar and others named by India should be arrested, would there be any real forward movement?  After the Mumbai attack, under a lot of pressure, Lakhvi and some others were arrested.  Now Lakhvi is free on bail and there has been no honest movement in the case.

Grandstanding by Indian leaders especially Prime Minister Modi will not help.  Summits are not for negotiations.  In this kind of scenario talks must be at the level of intelligence chiefs to start with.  At the same time costs for Pakistan should be made unbearable.  This does not mean we must counter terrorism with terrorism.  It should be sophisticated and long term.  Pakistan broke up once in 1971.  It can fragment once again.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail