All eyes are on India’s internal security scene in the wake of the daring attack on the forward airbase at Pathankot, carried out by terrorists who came from across our western border to execute a plan hatched by their mentors in the Pakistan army-ISI set-up. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to this defence establishment soon after the event underscores the seriousness with which the nation’s preparedness to neutralise such covert offensives has been viewed by the highest echelons of the government.
The attack has drawn attention to the need for a fresh validation of the security regimen put in place for our defence and other strategic establishments. Security failed on three counts: failure of “information”, “communication” and “action”. At Pathankot, there was intelligence that was communicated to the right quarters. Even “action” was effective in terms of the neutralisation of terrorists before they could cause damage to the strategic assets. Flaws apparently lay in “intrusion detection” and protocols for first responders in an “emergency”. As an internal security exercise, a small group of experts should check out the security systems existing at the more sensitive establishments of defence, oil and gas, and nuclear power, shortlisted on priority.
India’s fresh initiatives at the summit level to extend the hand of friendship to Pakistan, unfortunately, seem to have run into all the old complexities that marked the India-Pakistan relations, but more importantly, they have thrown up some new strategic challenges that India must quickly start preparing for.
The basic asymmetry of the civilian dialogue, in which the other side merely read out the script of an army that was irrevocably hostile to India—particularly since the liberation of Bangladesh—was well known and so was the desire of Pakistan to get a communally-based outcome of the Kashmir dispute leveraged by violence. Also, the Pak army presumed that its nuclear arsenal had established a one-way deterrence on India and given the former a certain liberty to act aggressively on the Line of Control and the International Border in J&K and even use cross-border terrorism to destabilise India.
Prime Minister Modi’s pro-active stance in reaching out to his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to give peace a chance presumably rested on the hope that the PM of Pakistan was politically entrenched enough to be able to take strategic decisions for his country. However, as the meetings of the two PMs at Ufa, Paris and Lahore made progress towards an agenda that kept the issue of terrorism on the top, the Pakistan army moved in swiftly to keep its stranglehold on the talks by appointing its own man as NSA. All of a sudden, the Pak envoy in Delhi held a meeting with Hurriyat leaders in an attempt to uphold the relevance of these separatists to the Kashmir issue. As this did not cause any stir in the Indian camp, the Pakistan army played the ultimate card of using the militants under its control to attack a defence installation in a bid to sabotage the peace process. By taking the line that the talks as scheduled would be held only if Pakistan took prompt action against the culprits behind the Pathankot attack—identified by the Indian security agencies on the basis of evidence—India did show that it was handling the situation from a position of strength. It was unlikely, however, that India would get a satisfactory response.
The added complexity for India is to find a way of handling the new geo-political factors that have got into the India-Pak scene. They work for the Pakistan army more than they do for India. First is the present role of the US, which had chosen to look the other way when a recalcitrant Pakistan army kept up cross-border terrorism against India, using militant outfits mentored by it as its instrument all through the decade-long “war on terror”. At the end of it, the US still tilts in favour of the Pakistan army because of its dependence on the latter to protect American interests in Afghanistan against the radical forces of the Taliban-Al Qaeda axis. Pakistan wants to leverage this to have its way with India on Kashmir. In framing her policy, India would need to monitor the interplay of India-Pak and Pak-US relations.
Secondly, there is a shadow on the legitimate desire of India to help Afghanistan as a regional stakeholder. PM Modi’s visit to Kabul where he asserted that “India is in Afghanistan to contribute not to compete”, could not have been relished by the Pakistan army, as the latter wants to have a sway in Afghanistan to the exclusion of India. The US is apparently inclined to let things move the Pakistan way there. For India, handling Pakistan, therefore, involves handling the Pak-Afghan belt as well. And finally, there is a new situation for India as the US-led West launches the second “war on terror” to combat the ISIS in the Iraq-Syria region and the regrouped Al Qaeda-Taliban nexus in Afghan-Pak area. A 34-member Islamic alliance led by Saudi Arabia has emerged in support of the US. The move is reminiscent of the advent of OIC—on a friendly grid with the West—during the Cold War. This strengthens Pakistan’s hands.
For India, the threats from ISIS and Al Qaeda, on one hand, and Pak sponsored cross-border terrorism on the other, are equally grave. Since the Pakistan army has created bridges with radical forces, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, India has to be prepared for ISI’s manoeuvrings in blaming many attacks directed by it against India, on the radicals. The incident involving our consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, illustrates this.
All of this calls for a comprehensive strategy of dealing with Pakistan and its role behind the enlarged threat of faith-based militancy to which India has an added vulnerability. Intelligence-based counter-terrorism operations and knowledge-based diplomatic moves abroad to expose the machinations of the Pakistan army should be at the core of this strategy.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau.