Islamabad must now act decisively on terror
Widening the lens beyond Pulwama and Balakot reveals a broad coincidence with Prime Minister Imran Khan completing six months in power. Regionally, Pakistan found itself in the not unfamiliar position that the three neighbours with whom it has most in common — Afghanistan, Iran and India — all accusing it with the same charge: allowing terrorists to use territory it controls. A wide angle would also show a definite lowering of threshold by India when faced with the question of responding to terrorist attacks.
The aftermath of major terrorist strikes has always been revealing of the state of India-Pakistan relations as a whole. Mumbai in November 2008 and Pathankot in January 2016 took place during a relative upswing in the relationship. Uri in September 2016 and Pulwama in February 2019 happened when things were at a low plateau. Both after Mumbai and Pathankot, a real effort was made by India to meet the Pakistan demand for “evidence”. The term itself merits a pause. In Mumbai, there was a huge volume of information available confirming the complicity of Pakistan-based groups in the attack and in the conspiracy that planned it. This information was shared with Pakistan both in the immediate aftermath of the attack and in the months that followed. The expectation was that authorities in Pakistan would act on this information and convert it into evidence for presenting in their courts and securing convictions against the conspirators. What happened instead was perverse as every lacuna of the Pakistan criminal justice system was used to defeat the object of the exercise. Defending these lacuna became upholding the sovereignty of Pakistan. Former PM Nawaz Sharif’s complaint in the famous Dawn leaks case in October 2016 against the subversion of the Mumbai trail and on the free pass given to terrorist groups was precisely this and it led inevitably to his own downfall.
After Pathankot, the process was taken further. Inviting a Pakistan team to the site of the attack was to facilitate the process of conversion of information into evidence. It met a longstanding Pakistan demand that terrorist attacks should be investigated by it too. This was in many ways both a calling of the Pakistan bluff but would have also acted to safeguard the gains of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lahore visit in the previous month. A return visit by an Indian team could have signalled the beginning of a bilateral counter terrorism process. This was, however, subverted largely through an attempted change of narrative and the production of Kulbhushan Jhadhav amid shrill charges of spying and India terrorism.
In this background, the response to the Uri terrorist attack and, even more emphatically, post-Pulwama represents a lowering of the Indian threshold and is recognised so internationally. It is accompanied by a growing concern about the possibilities of escalation. At the same time, there is an acute sense of frustration with Pakistani complicity, denial and recklessness when it comes to the protection extended to terrorist groups on grounds of sovereignty and self respect.
Relations with India remained throughout at a low over Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s six months in office with one notable and important exception. Even at the best of times, the agreement on the Kartarpur Sahib opening for pilgrims would have been a significant breakthrough. That it could take place at a time when relations were at a low level of trust and atmospherics were poor suggested all kinds of possibilities for the medium term. It is, however, again on the issue of terrorism that all these possibilities would be swept aside and a fresh India-Pakistan crisis would emerge.
Does Pakistan view these changes in the Indian position, and in international perceptions, tactically or strategically? So far, all its responses have been tactical, such as creating a fear psychosis in Pakistan about Indian aggression, giving to media toxicity unwarranted importance rather than address the substantive issues at stake. Its military response post-Balakot and its projection as evening the score for domestic perception is again in the tactical mode. A strategic response would involve recognising the continuous incubation of externally directed terrorist groups in its territory and acting against them. Only when that happens is there a realistic change that the crisis-ridden cycle in India-Pakistan relations could change.
TCA Raghavan is a retired diplomat and currently director general, Indian Council of World Affairs
The views expressed are personal