By Aman Malik*
At the outset, the deferment of foreign secretary level talks between India and Pakistan might make it seem as if the usual ‘start-stop-start’ script that the diplomatic engagement between the neighbours has seen in the past, is playing itself out again. This time, however, things might just be different.
The fact that Pakistan has set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to jointly probe the Pathankot terror attack with India, and has moved to detain Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Maulana Masood Azhar, indicates at least a tacit admission that the attack was planned on its soil, rather than an outright denial, which has been its standard response after almost every terror attack on India, that originated from Pakistan. In fact, on 24 January, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif said that India had given fresh evidence on the attack, and that his government would pursue it. Even if nothing comes of the investigation, as would most likely be the case, the move is a welcome departure from the past.
India, which had, since prime minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014, initiated dialogue at least twice, only to cancel it, has acted maturely by not calling talks off altogether, but just postponing them. It almost appears as if the Indian government wants to see how far the civilian leadership in Pakistan can exert itself against the all powerful military controlled Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). At least prima facie, both governments appear to want to give the peace process a serious chance.
So, what is different this time that the two countries are showing restraint, as opposed to the belligerence that they are wont to exhibit after every such attack?
Analysts in Pakistan say that Modi’s ascent, with a decisive mandate, was actually welcomed by the Pakistan army, which continues to call the shots on strategic affairs, especially on relations with India. In fact, the General Headquarters (GHQ) at Rawalpindi had been more comfortable dealing with a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s premiership, than during the decade when Manmohan Singh headed a United Progressive Alliance government.
After all, Vajpayee and former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf had come close to a workable resolution on Kashmir, and the general perception therefore in Pakistan has been that only a right-wing BJP government would have the political will to deliver peace.
Further, the general view among almost all major political parties-the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, appears to suggest that they broadly want normalisation of relations with India in the long-term, as does the business community. The only major mainstream political party that continues to have a hawkish position on India is the right-wing fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami.
Sharif appears to want this view among political parties to gain critical mass, to push back the military and strengthen himself politically. Simply put, he needs some breathing space, and for that, a continued engagement with India is crucial. This is perhaps why the Pakistan government has not officially rubbished India’s assertion that the Pathankot attack was directed from their side.
India backing away from talks more than once, after the Pakistanis engaged the Kashmiri separatist Hurriyat Conference, sent mixed signals to Islamabad. Over time, New Delhi perhaps realised the futility of its intransigent stand. After all, the Hurriyat had been regularly meeting Pakistani diplomats, so what was different this time, that prompted the Modi government to call talks off? If anything, these sudden and inexplicable U-turns only showed that the BJP regime did not yet have a firm handle on its Pakistan policy.
Then, in the clearest signal yet, that India wanted serious diplomatic engagement with Pakistan, Modi suddenly went to Lahore, an impromptu visit that was high on optics. This was followed by the attack on the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot.
Now, this time, India actually had a valid reason to call talks off. But since Modi had gone a little too far in taking the engagement forward, and there was anyway much international pressure on Pakistan to act against terror, India did not pull out, but only deferred talks. In all likelihood, had Modi not made that Lahore trip, talks could possibly have been called off.
Moreover, the view in New Delhi is that by not engaging with Sharif, India would only embolden the military vis-a-vis him. One school of thought says that India should in fact, use talks with the civilian government, as a cover to directly engage with the military establishment in Pakistan. In fact, a bit of that was visible in December Pakistan’s new National Security Advisor (NSA) retired lieutenant general Nasir Janjua, a former three-star general, had met his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval in Bangkok, in what was reportedly a ‘secret’ meeting, that apparently laid the ground for the foreign secretary level talks.
There is however good reason for skepticism in India about what the setting up of an investigation team and a joint probe would actually achieve in real terms. After all, Pakistan has done this before.
The JeM was involved in the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, following which the two countries had amassed troops along their borders for around 10 months. Following this, Azhar was detained and subsequently freed.
Then, after the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai, Pakistan had similarly begun investigations, had even detained Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed, only to be freed later.
What happens next?
The prime ministers of both countries are personally invested in the peace process. In all likelihood therefore, talks will resume, even if the joint investigations come to nothing, unless of course, another major terror attack occurs and India pulls back under force of domestic public opinion.
Having said that, India must be prepared to face more such attacks, as is evidenced from the statements coming from jihadi outfits in Pakistan, including the Kashmiri separatist United Jihad Council. If anything, the attack on a forward airbase like Pathankot has yet again exposed how vulnerable the Indian intelligence set up is.
There is, in fact, nothing as yet to suggest that the ISI or its jihadi affiliates like the JeM and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) would stop waging a covert war against India. After all, having known what they stand for, why have they not been dismantled, despite causing as much or more harm within Pakistan itself?
Pakistan has a “flawed political structure,” as one security analyst put it, and India must be mindful of that while dealing with its neighbor.