In the imperilled world of India-Pakistan relations, things can change drastically very quickly, while ultimately staying the same. In the final week of 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unscheduled stop to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in the first such visit by an Indian leader in 11 years, and in a move that breathed fresh oxygen into efforts to mend the long fraught relationship between the neighbors. But just eight days later, a terrorist attack was launched on an Indian air force base in the town of Pathankot, just 25 kilometers from the Pakistani border, leaving seven soldiers dead. These incidents, and the developments that followed, illustrate just how fractious the relationship remains.
After initially demurring on action, Pakistan has now arrested several members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group. A statement from the prime minister’s office said there are also plans to send a team of special investigators to the air base, and that Jaish-e-Mohammed offices around the country are being identified and sealed. The moves come two days before foreign secretary-level talks had been scheduled to take place and which India had threatened to cancel if Pakistan failed to take “prompt and decisive action.”
But while the Pakistani government might be keen to salvage the recent move towards rapprochement, other elements in Pakistan are working against this.
Observers say that without a doubt, the Pakistani army has a hand in the attack, and that it was in retaliation to Modi’s visit. Pakistan’s military is widely believed to form the bedrock of power in the country, with the elected government merely a prop. At the same time, the attack has revealed the Indian military’s weaknesses in staving off the threat of cross-border terrorism.
Unlike the 2008 attack on Mumbai, which targeted civilian sites, last week’s ambush focused on a small-town military post. In the early hours of January 2, a heavily armed group—which had been staking out its target for a few days’ prior—scaled the fence surrounding the Pathankot Air Force Station. It took the Indian military up to four days to secure the site. In all, seven Indian soldiers died and 22 others were wounded, while all four attackers were also killed. Indian authorities swiftly established that the attackers were from Jaish-e-Mohammed, based on cell phone records.
In the days since, more details have emerged: the militants slashed the throat of a local jeweller, hijacked a police officer’s car, killed a local taxi driver, and hid out for 24 hours in grass ahead of the ambush. However, it is still not clear who ordered the move, and what their objective was. It follows a similar pattern to other terrorist activity where any attempt by India to engage with Pakistan is swiftly followed by an attack. For example, in 1999, then Prime Minister Atul Behari Vajpayee rode a train to Pakistan, which was followed by the Kargil invasion. And last year, Modi and Sharif met at a summit in Russia and agreed to revive peace talks. Not long afterwards a police station in Punjab was attacked.
“Terrorist organizations do not operate on an independent agenda,” says J. S. Bajwa, a recently retired former Indian army lieutenant general. “They are doing it for a larger organization, and here, the ISI [the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency] is one.” According to Gen. Bajwa, who spent many years working on cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere, targets like the Pathankot base are not selected randomly nor with haste, but rather, attacks like these are planned meticulously in advance. “They have all the data on these targets, they have teams prepared, and as soon as situation warrants it, they call up the unit and say, okay chaps, you’re next.” Jaish-e-Muhammed is a Kashmir-based group that was formed in 2000, and is believed to have been involved in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, and the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. It has been listed as a terrorist organization by governments around the world, including the United States and United Arab Emirates.
“If you look at the history of Jaish-e-Mohammed, there is evidence they have been propped up by the Pakistani army,” says Sameer Patil, a fellow with Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House. “We have seen multiple reports that they have had training camps conducted by the Pakistani military. The indirect link is always there.”
Despite the seeming conciliation with Prime Minister Sharif and his own hard-line reputation, Modi’s initial response was to blame “enemies of humanity,” rather than to firmly point the finger at the Pakistani military and the ISI. The Indian military too failed to respond with fire, lending credence to grumbles that it simply isn’t strong enough to fight back. In particular, it has come under criticism for its clumsy handling of efforts to contain the attack and find the terrorists, which took four days.
Gen. Bajwa suggests that India needs to amp up its surveillance of known terrorist leaders in Pakistan, so as soon as incidents occur, “painful punitive action” can be taken against them. He also insists that it is time for the international community to put pressure on Pakistan, such as the U.S. withholding its aid funding.
Sameer Patil says he has encountered ideas of two lines of approach: the first, for India to pursue dialogue irrespective of terrorist activity and work to engage with all sections of Pakistan, from civil society to the military; and secondly, to consider other options such as supporting covert operations in Pakistan such as the separatist movement in Baluchistan province.
“The Pakistani army’s very existence is based on anti-India feeling. If peace is made, their very reason for their existence will vanish,” says Patil.