Set for a new collision course?

A recent upturn in New Delhi’s fraught relationship with Islamabad has suffered a setback in the wake of a terrorist attack on a strategic Indian airbase G. Parthasarathy reports.


As the year 2015 drew to a close, the prospects for establishing a new path for improving India-Pakistan relations appeared bright. India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visited Pakistan on December 8 to participate in the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference to discuss moves for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Swaraj, however, had a broader agenda. She was determined to use her visit to also set a new path for dialogue and amity with Pakistan. Speaking at the conference, she asserted that it was time India and Pakistan displayed ‘maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation’. She also urged Pakistan to boost regional cooperation, allow transit facilities and promote regional trade between India and Afghanistan.

UNPRECEDENTED: Modi (l) and Sharif – never before had an Indian prime minister paid a virtually unannounced visit to Pakistan.
UNPRECEDENTED: Modi (l) and Sharif – never before had an Indian prime minister paid a virtually unannounced visit to Pakistan.

In meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and her Pakistani counterpart Mr Sartaj Aziz, Mrs Swaraj made it clear that India was not only prepared to resume dialogue with Pakistan, but also ready to make the dialogue more ‘comprehensive’ and meaningful. She readily agreed that the foreign secretaries of the two countries could meet in Islamabad on January 15 and finalise the new agenda for a productive and comprehensive dialogue. She pointedly called for better people-to-people contacts between the two countries through measures such as promoting tourism and pilgrimage visits, which would enable Pakistani pilgrims to visit Sufi shrines in India that they revered. What followed was an unexpected visit to Lahore by Mr Modi on Christmas Day, which was not only Nawaz Sharif’s birthday, but also the wedding day of his granddaughter. The climate for the visit was electrifying, as never before had an Indian prime minister paid such a virtually unannounced visit to Pakistan.

Atmospherics aside, the visit was quite evidently undertaken after Mr Modi had concluded,following four meetings with his counterpart, that given his domestic and foreign policy imperatives, Mr Sharif realised the need to mend fences with India. A few weeks earlier, the national security advisers of the two countries and the foreign secretaries had met out of the glare of publicity, in Bangkok.They held extensive discussions on terrorism and other issues of mutual concern. By all accounts, this meeting set the tone for what India believed would be a productive engagement. New Delhi was particularly pleased, as Pakistan’s national security adviser Lieutenant General Janjua was a senior retired military officer, close to army chief General Raheel Sharif. A direct discussion with the Pakistan military on issues of terrorism provided an opportunity to size up the thinking of the all-powerful Pakistan army.

If the events in the last months of 2015 appeared to set the tone for productive and friendly relations between India and Pakistan, the first week of January 2016 saw events which could very well have led to a collision course between the two countries. A group of well-armed terrorists from Pakistan, carrying automatic rifles, grenade launchers, hand grenades, global positioning systems and a large cache of ammunition, crossed the international border into Punjab and struck at the strategic Pathankot airbase, located barely 35 miles from the border. It houses frontline fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships. While the Modi government has faced domestic criticism for the manner in which the attack was handled, the six terrorists were duly gunned down.

CALCULATED: Terrorists struck at the strategic Pathankot airbase, barely 35 miles from the Indo-Pak border
CALCULATED: Terrorists struck at the strategic Pathankot airbase, barely 35 miles from the
Indo-Pak border

Intercepts of communications by the terrorists confirmed that they were members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist outfit, which carried out the attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi on December 2001. The group is largely based in the city of Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was known to have a close relationship with the Pakistan military establishment, though the relationship soured when members of the group attempted to assassinate President Pervez  Musharraf in 2003. Maulana Azhar also enjoyed a close personal relationship with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and with Osama bin Laden. The relationship with the Musharraf dispensation turned sour when his government provided base facilities and logistical support for American forces operating in Afghanistan, after the 9/11terrorist strikes. Moreover, in sectarian terms, Jaish-e-Mohammed had close links with Taliban fighters in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

New Delhi had noted that in the past two years there was anotable easing of relations between Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Pakistani military establishment. This was evidently due to the fact that J-e-M has drawn away from its close links with the Pakistani Taliban, on whom the Pakistan army is mounting a relentless military assault. While the Pakistan military establishment would evidently prefer to use Jaish-e-Mohammed to facilitate its strategies in Afghanistan, it always has the temptation of using themacross its borders with India, given the hatred and venom that Maulana Azhar spews against India. New Delhi firmly believes that the attack on the Pathankot airbase could not have been mounted without support from persons linked to the military across the border.

These developments have not only caused serious concern for the Modi government, which is facing criticism for resorting to high profile summit diplomacy at a time when there were preparations across the border to mount the raid on Pathankot; the overwhelming view in New Delhi is that Nawaz Sharif did not know what was underway when Mr Modi visited Lahore. These developments are also seen as yet another manifestation of the army telling the prime minister that it calls the shots on foreign policy and that the prime minister and army chief areequals in the conduct of foreign policy. Even long-term Pakistan watchers in India are astounded by the dominant role that Raheel Sharif plays in the conductof relations with Afghanistan. His high profile visit to the US and his ubiquitous presence in visits byNawazSharif to Saudi Arabia and Iran have amazed Pakistan watchers in India.

In these circumstances, India and Pakistan agreed to defer the proposed visit by the foreign secretary to Pakistan. New Delhi cannot allow its diplomacy to lead to the type of situation that now prevails after the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai, where known masterminds of the atrocity like Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Mohammed Saeed roam around freely in Pakistan, spewing venom against India, while not a single perpetrator has been convicted. While every effort will be made to keep relations with Pakistan on an even keel, the predominant focus of attention in India will remain on whether Nawaz Sharif has the will and authority to bring the masterminds behind the attacks on Pathankot and Mumbai to justice.

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