Before the window shuts again

The real difference between 2008 and 2016 is Gen. Raheel Sharif, who has been seen with his men out there, whenever and wherever there have been terror strikes in Pakistan

February 10, 2016 12:59 am | Updated November 17, 2021 03:14 am IST

The Pathankot airbase was stormed by militants on the intervening night of January 1 and 2. It resulted in the death of seven security personnel.

The Pathankot airbase was stormed by militants on the intervening night of January 1 and 2. It resulted in the death of seven security personnel.

It’s yet another moment of potential cooperation between India and Pakistan that might not last. Post-Pathankot, the two countries have shown some maturity in keeping the rhetoric down. Some hope has been rekindled, with Islamabad promising an “investigation” into any Pakistani links the attackers of the Indian airbase may have had, and New Delhi keeping its cool.

A little over a month has passed since the terrorists, said to belong to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), attacked the Indian airbase, coming across the International Border unhindered.

Though Pakistan has not registered a first information report in the Pathankot attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promised to investigate the leads provided by the Indian establishment. The proof of the investigation will, needless to say, lie in the arrest and prosecution of the militant hand in Pakistan that is likely to have guided the Pathankot attackers.

After the Mumbai attacks too, there was a similar moment of cooperation where it appeared that none other than the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate would travel to India, but the initiative was stillborn.

Arrests were made by Pakistan soon after the 26/11 terror strike, but the failure to prosecute Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, believed to be the operational commander of the Mumbai attacks, and Hafiz Saeed, big boss of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), stand out as major negatives.

The recent deposition by LeT operative David Coleman Headley has re-opened the wounds of Mumbai. If the two countries are not careful, these wounds plus Pathankot can hit the nascent process of cooperation hard.

The story of two Generals

There are, however, some significant differences in context. The Pakistan of 2016 is not the Pakistan of 2008. In 2008, the man who mattered, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was busy undoing all the gains made by his predecessor Pervez Musharraf. Gen. Musharraf in his second term had adopted a friendlier stance towards India’s, as well as Pakistan’s, domestic battle against terrorism. The November 25, 2003 ceasefire, agreed upon by Gen. Musharraf and the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, suddenly saw repeated violations after Gen. Kayani became chief. It was evident that the new chief didn’t agree with Musharraf Mark II’s positive view of India. While the jury continues to be out on how much Gen. Kayani or his ISI associates knew about or sanctioned the Mumbai attacks, the military precision with which the 26/11 LeT attackers went about shooting innocent Mumbaikars was evident to all.

Six years later, on December 16, 2014, came a turning point in Pakistan’s battle against domestic militancy when terrorists attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar, massacring 141 people, 132 of them children. The pressure on the military and the civilian government to act against militants and terrorists was both intense and immediate.

There’s little doubt that Pakistan’s actions against groups engaged in domestic acts of terrorism gained serious momentum after this attack. Nawaz Sharif announced a 20-point action plan to counter terrorism, which included setting up military courts and hanging those on death row for terrorist offences. But the real difference between 2008 and 2016 is COAS Gen. Raheel Sharif, who has taken the lead in anti-terrorist operations in the country. He has been seen with his men whenever and wherever there have been terror strikes in the country. Domestic critics argue that Gen. Sharif’s actions have been carefully choreographed by his publicity managers, but the fact remains that his has been the most consistent position against terrorist groups threatening Pakistan’s own security. Whether it is enough is another matter.

There has been spectacular improvement in Pakistan-U.S. relations under Gen. Sharif; ties under Gen. Kayani had hit an abysmal low, with critical statements about Islamabad from Washington becoming the near norm. Of course, it’s evident that if Pakistan is to conquer its domestic demons, groups such as the JeM, LeT, and the Haqqani network also have to face the music from the security establishment. Pathankot actually poses a robust challenge to Pakistan’s military and civilian establishment. So far, all has been quiet as far as taking on the LeT and JeM is concerned.

A Pakistani analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous, told this writer that the visibility of persons such as Hafiz Saeed had fallen on local television and in the print media after the media regulator issued a notification against publicity for militant groups. In fact, the February 2 speech by Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) “Amir” Hafiz Saeed was not covered by the Pakistani media but received wide publicity in the Indian press.

The blackout of Saeed on mainstream Pakistani media is to be noted. The Narendra Modi government has come a long way on the Pakistan road since August 2015 when India snapped dialogue with the country over a meeting that High Commissioner Abdul Basit had with the separatist Hurriyat leadership. The “drop in” by Prime Minister Modi on Nawaz Sharif in Lahore surprised many in India (and Pakistan), including his many hard-line supporters who favour a harsh policy towards Pakistan.

Days after the trip, Pathankot happened. Contrary to form, the two countries then managed to open a window of opportunity to get at those responsible for the attack on the Indian airbase. This window might not remain open for very long — Pakistan-based terror groups could well be plotting and planning their next attack on Indian soil, just as they did in Pathankot and in Gurdaspur (July 2015). Also, rhetoric levels in India are rising after the deposition of Headley. There’s need to guard against returning to the allegation-denial mode in the India-Pakistan relationship.

For terror outfits, success lies in ensuring that all dialogue between India and Pakistan remains suspended. If the neighbours want to stretch their moment of anti-terrorist cooperation to something meaningful, they must act without losing any time. The forces ranged against such cooperation — as demonstrated by what was attempted after Mumbai 26/11— are formidable.

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