On January 5, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval had a candid conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Lt Gen Naseer Khan Janjua on the involvement of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) group in the recent terror attack on the Pathankot airbase. “Khuda kasam, main Jaish ki aissi tessi kar doonga,” Janjua told Doval in a typical fauji style. More than 12 days later, after India gave concrete evidence of Jaish’s involvement, Janjua has started to deliver on his promise to dismantle the Deobandi terrorist group, by detaining Maulana Masood Azhar, the main accused in the IC-814 hijacking case in 1999 and whose radical cadre tried to assassinate former Pakistan president and army chief General Pervez Musharraf in 2003.
The attack not only takes terror tactics against India to a new level, but it has some serious lessons for the Narendra Modi government.
First, the hand-written JeM note recovered from Gurdaspur SP Salwinder Singh’s vehicle on January 1 was dated December 25, 2015 — the day Modi made his surprise Lahore trip to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif. In the terror note, the group sought to avenge the 2013 hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. It also claimed responsibility for attacks in Tangdhar, Samba, Kathua, Rajbagh (Srinagar) and Delhi. The Pathankot attack was followed by a terror attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, within 24 hours with the JeM terrorists writing ‘Afzal Guru avenged’ in their own blood.
The alacrity of response shows that the Pakistan-based terror groups have acquired off-the-shelf capacity to launch a suicide terror module at short notice with deadly effect, both in India and Afghanistan. With Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s imprint visible on the Pathankot attack, it would be safe to assume that the terror strike was engineered to derail the India-Pakistan dialogue, a test of Modi’s resolve and credibility of India’s deterrence.
Second, India must also assume that the attack had the sanction of the Pakistani State; the only question is the degree of involvement of the actors given that the two buddy pairs of heavily armed commando-trained terrorists were allowed to cross the tightly-patrolled international borders in Punjab with the option of attacking either Amritsar airport or the Pathankot airbase.
Third, India should stop expecting the US to force Pakistan to deliver on its promise to eradicate terror, terrorists and their training camps. During his meeting with Sharif on October 22, 2015, President Barack Obama had made it clear that India and Pakistan must together address their mutual concerns of terror. After the Pathankot attack, rather than castigating Pakistan, Washington has only reiterated this view.
In fact, the December 6, 2015, meeting between Doval and Janjua in Bangkok was also an eye-opener for the Indian delegates as they found the ex-soldier Janjua more straightforward while the Pakistan foreign secretary was playing the old tune. When Doval asked Janjua to give one instance of India’s involvement in a terror attack in Pakistan, Janjua kept quiet.
Fourth, Indian intelligence must improve their coverage of the subcontinent. After the global pressure on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the cat’s-paw is now the JeM. Had the Pathankot terror group not deliberately left the message in Salwinder Singh’s vehicle, Indian agencies would have been in the dark. There could have been a disaster with the potential of triggering off a war in case an IAF aircraft was damaged or destroyed in the attack. Indian intelligence agencies must join resources and operate together to eliminate terror or else they would be reduced to being mere alert-issuing clerks.
Fifth, the government must hold the Border Security Force (BSF) responsible for any terrorist infiltration across the international border and refuse to listen to any excuses pertaining to the terrain of the region. The spate of attacks in Samba, Kathua, Gurdaspur and now Pathankot reveal that the terrorists had crossed the border under the BSF’s watch, perhaps using the thriving Afghan heroin drug-network. The home ministry must ensure that BSF officers and personnel are continuously rotated from the area every six months to erase any scope for developing vested interests.
Sixth, it’s time for defence minister Manohar Parrikar to instill some discipline into the military commanders, who routinely give media interviews with impunity, discussing troop deployments and operational details.
Despite Doval taking the decision of deploying the elite NSG for in Pathankot in consensus with the chiefs of the army, air force and navy on January 1, he has been unfairly targeted by the media. This anti-Doval campaign has been orchestrated by the military, questioning his wisdom of not using the Army’s Special Forces to take on the terrorists. In reality, no less than 11 columns of the army, including para-commandoes, were pressed into action in Pathankot. The campaign has been launched by a section of the military using so-called military experts (ex-sevicemmen) because they are disgruntled over their one-rank-one pension demands.
One must remember that Obama fired his top Afghan general in 2010 for talking out of sync with his political masters during an interview. Despite the Indian Air Force chief being briefed in person by Doval and Western Air Commander deliberately stationed at the base, the Indian spot response could not prevent the JeM jihadists from intruding.
Given these circumstances, the question that Modi faces today is whether to blame Sharif for the attack and halt the dialogue process or to delink terror from talks and continue the bilateral engagement.
While it is evident that Pakistani jihadists and their paranoid mentors in Islamabad have used terror to derail the dialogue, India should ask Sharif to fulfil his commitment to eradicate terror groups targeting India. Modi should not let the terrorists hijack his agenda of making workable peace with Pakistan and continue talking to Pakistan if the latter proves its bona fides. The answer to terror attack does not lie in breaking off dialogue with Pakistan, but punishing the perpetrators promptly.