The rare Pakistani alert of a possible attack by the Lashkar-e-Taiba during Shivratri has opened up possibilities for counter-terror cooperation but security experts believe it is too early to describe the development as a game changer.
Senior serving and retired security officials agreed the warning from Pakistan was unprecedented, especially in light of troubled efforts by the two sides to improve coordination and cooperation on counter-terrorism in the past.
“It’s not a game changer but it’s certainly a very good development. It could be the beginning of many possibilities,” said AS Dulat, a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency.
“The NSAs are in communication and talking, even if it’s on the phone, and they’re even sharing information...But it’s not a game changer, when we play together, then it can change.”
Baqir Sajjad, the diplomatic correspondent of Pakistan’s influential Dawn newspaper, described the intelligence-sharing as “welcome”, saying it could help in “bridging the trust deficit and enable the countries to jointly deal with the menace of terrorism”.
“But how things move from here would depend a lot on how India reciprocates and assists Pakistan in dealing with its terrorist problem. One should remember that this isn’t something unprecedented, (Former prime minister) Benazir Bhutto had helped India with crushing the (Khalistani) movement,” he told Hindustan Times.
Pakistan’s national security adviser Nasser Khan Janjua, who has been in regular contact with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval since November, conveyed information about a potential strike on religious sites and gatherings by the LeT on Saturday.
This prompted the mobilisation of thousands of police personnel and specialist units of the National Security Guard in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Sources said the alert from the Pakistani side did not mention specific targets but was too important to be ignored.
Adding to concerns was the discovery of five abandoned fishing boats off the Kutch coast in the past three months, the latest on Friday night. This immediately brought back memories of the sea route taken by the 10-man LeT team that targeted Mumbai in November 2008.
Rana Banerji, a former special secretary of the RAW and an old Pakistan hand, said, “This sort of cooperation is certainly new. It hasn’t happened before and needs to be taken seriously. It has probably happened because the Pakistani NSA is a person close to authority.”
India and Pakistan have tried in the past to cooperate on fighting terrorism, which was one of the eight topics under the erstwhile composite dialogue launched in early 2004. The two sides also formed a Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism that facilitated some sharing of intelligence. However, most of these efforts involved civilian officials from the Pakistani side and never led to much.
Janjua, who was appointed NSA in October, is a retired general who has the ear of Pakistan Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif. His meetings with Doval, including secret talks last year in Bangkok, facilitated back-to-back visits to Pakistan by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
More indications of increased cooperation in counter-terrorism emerged in the wake of the January 2 attack on Pathankot airbase by members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Unlike in the past, Pakistan did not deny Indian accusations about the involvement of the JeM.
Though no groups or individuals were named in the First Information Report filed by Pakistani authorities over the Pathankot attack, foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz has admitted that one of the Pakistani phone numbers that were called by the attackers was found to be active in the JeM’s main centre in Bahawalpur.
But the jury is still out on whether Pakistan has turned a corner or if the terror alert was aimed at pushing forward efforts to revive stalled talks between the two sides.
“We need more time to assess things – how constant is the change or whether the Pakistani side is playing safe,” Banerji said.
“Our past experiences have not been very good, the sharing of information led to dead ends. This change could have been because of circumstances, international pressure or Pakistan’s internal threat assessments. It’s still early days.”