Even before the firing has stopped at the Pathankot Air Force base, there has been a rising crescendo of voices that the Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan scheduled for 14-15 January in Islamabad should be called off. The grounds being the familiar refrain that ‘terror and talks cannot go together’.
Unfortunately, most of the emotion-charged debates on TV that invariably degenerate into slanging matches, see Indo-Pak relations in binary black and white terms. In reality, diplomatic relations must be seen as shades of grey and the country that does so will have a greater range of options that it can use judiciously to protect its national interests.
The Pathankot attack was undoubtedly aimed at derailing the ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’ format crafted during the visit of the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad in December 2015. This process was kick-started when Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met in Paris where, according to media reports, Sharif assured the PM that the Pakistan Army was on board with the normalisation process with India.
The appointment of a senior Army officer as Pakistan’s National Security Adviser, replacing the aging Sartaj Aziz, was seen as proof of this and the secret meeting of the two NSAs’ in Bangkok in early December seemed a further confirmation.
The Pathankot attack, however, calls into question whether the Pakistan Army is on the same page as the civilian government as far as improvement of relations with India is concerned or if Nawaz Sharif was fooled into believing that it was. A more ominous view is that the Pakistan Army is playing ‘good-cop, bad-cop’ with the Army seemingly on board but the ISI using its assets to continue the old game.
In the past, the Pakistan Army has always managed to spike any efforts at normalisation with India believing that it was not in its interests. And the Army has enough assets to do its bidding to ensure this. The Army was clearly unhappy with the Ufa declaration since there was no mention of Kashmir and it was quick to have the joint statement sabotaged. Consequently, the scheduled NSA-level talks in August 2015 were called off.
The Pathankot attack coincided with an attempted attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. The attempt was foiled by the combined action of the ITBP and Afghan security forces. Till the time of writing, the identities of the assailants are not known. The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recently visited Kabul to inaugurate the Indian-built Afghan Parliament building and made a veiled reference to Pakistan, by highlighting terrorism flowing across the border is significant in this regard. Also, Pakistan has been apprehensive of Indian presence and popularity in Afghanistan.
Whichever way one sees it, the Pathankot attack and quite possibly the Mazar attack too, have become an immediate challenge to PM Modi’s new overture to Pakistan. There is also the sobering reality that this is unlikely to be the last such attack so long as the terror factories in Pakistan continue to churn out anti-India jihadis under the benevolent eye of the Pakistani Establishment.
How should India react?
The public mood is clearly that a tough message backed by action be sent out to Pakistan about the consequences of their adventurism in India. Merely a tough message will be just that since our past track-record is not one of action even when faced with ‘acts of war’.
Calling off the Foreign Secretary level talks is thus the immediately actionable message that can be sent.
This, however, would be unfortunate.
For one thing, since the Ufa joint statement Indian efforts have been geared to splitting the dialogue with Pakistan into two main components- terrorism and the rest, including Jammu and Kashmir. The former is to be carried out by the respective NSAs and the latter, the Foreign Secretaries. To call off the Foreign Secretary level talks on account of the Pathankot attack would be to re-combine the dialogue into one basket.
Thus, the way forward has to be that India should continue to engage with Pakistan despite the Pathankot attack by holding the Foreign Secretary talks as scheduled. As External Affairs Minister Swaraj said in Parliament following her visit to Islamabad, the ‘Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’ will begin with the objective of “removing hurdles in the path of a constructive engagement by addressing issues of concern.”
Thus, if the dialogue is still-born, the possibility of addressing issues of concern itself will be stalled. It can be no one’s case that issues of concern should not be addressed. In fact, the talks need to be fast-tracked and the time-table for talks of the various groups should be set up expeditiously.
At the same time, Pakistan cannot be allowed to conduct a terrorist operation of the nature of Pathankot and get away without consequences. Hence, a meeting of the NSAs should be held immediately to present proof of Pakistan’s involvement in the Pathankot attack and ask for appropriate action.
By this, the two processes would proceed simultaneously.
Was Pak Army on same page as Sharif on resuming talks or did it fool him into believing that it was?
At the same time, India has a range of diplomatic and other options that should be considered.
While the resolve of the Indian government to stay the course will be tested, the attack has seriously damaged Nawaz Sharif’s credibility and reinforced questions about his ability to deliver. If anything, he has been far more seriously weakened.
Neither has the Pakistan Army covered itself with glory by trying to stall the talks. If anything, the attack has reinforced graphically its Janus-like face when it comes to dealing with terrorists that target India and Afghanistan. This will hurt it immensely in its discussions with the US about across-the-board action against terrorists.
First published at Catch News, 5 January 2016