A few days ago, in a first time occurrence, Pakistan tipped off India at the level of the National Security Advisor, about infiltration by some terrorists into our side of the border. Some analysts on the Indian side read in this move a change of heart towards India on the part of the Pakistan army. Many others, however, advised caution and sought further evidence of such change.
National security management rests on assessment, not hope, and we should not rule out the possibility of the Pakistan army taking a purely tactical step to achieve a substantial advance towards its geo-political objective in this region.
Details of what was passed on to our NSA are naturally not in the public domain, but beyond the welcome development of Ajit Doval having succeeded in compelling a turnaround in the response of the other side, there is the serious question of whether the tip-off from the Pak NSA presages the acceptance of an intelligence-sharing mechanism. In the backdrop of Indian intelligence establishing the fact of the Pakistani ISI mentoring both JeM and LeT, the outfits that were behind the attacks on the Pathankot airbase and the CRPF convoy at Pampore, respectively, it is doubtful that Pakistan would be passing on real time intelligence to identify and locate any infiltrators, in future.
At the meeting of the two Foreign Ministers at Pokhara, Sushma Swaraj has done well to take up the case of Pathankot with her counterpart. Pakistan’s aim is to achieve a resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level, without having to explain its role in cross-border terrorism. The tip-off, whatever be its nature, serves to buttress the claim of the Pakistan army that the terror attacks on India were the handiwork of “non-state” actors. The tactical move of the Army-ISI combine could thus be designed to strengthen the “deniability” card, which it has played all along in the months gone by.
The last time India attempted to trust Pakistan by granting that country “shared victimhood” in terms of terrorism, at Havana in 2006 and envisaging a joint counter-terrorism mechanism between the two countries, the move fell flat and ended up giving a standing deniability to Pakistan, which it used even for 26/11. The inexplicable foreign policy stand at Havana clearly went against our own intelligence. If it was meant to keep our policy aligned with the US view of things, it didn’t help us, but gave Pakistan a strategic advantage.
The last time India attempted to trust Pakistan by granting that country “shared victimhood” in terms of terrorism, at Havana in 2006 and envisaging a joint counter-terrorism mechanism between the two countries, the move fell flat and ended up giving a standing deniability to Pakistan.
In the wake of the Mumbai attack, it is the US that came on the forefront on the side of Pakistan, by pressing forth the view that the huge offensive was totally attributable to non-state actors. This stand, of course, has been turned on its head by the Headley deposition, which stunningly reveals how the Pak ISI had even planned to blame 26/11 on India’s own agents, by putting saffron wrist bands on Ajmal Kasab and his fellow terrorists.
The geopolitics which has prevailed in our part of the world in these recent years is not difficult to understand. The United States did what it had to do in its national interest during the “war on terror”. As the “war” in Afghanistan reached its termination, with the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the US permitted Headley to “expose” Pakistan to the extent that India would feel vindicated. But this has not changed the US-Pakistan army grid, which remains strong because it is valuable for the US for protecting American interests in post-NATO Afghanistan at a time when the ISIS is on the rise, as well as the radicals in the Af-Pak belt. The twists and turns in the India-Pakistan relations are essentially a product of the interplay of US-Pak and India-US relationships.
We have in our NSA an extremely competent man of operations, who is also a strategic analyst. He can handle Pakistan at the tactical level, and while taking cognisance of the tipoff, maintain our stand that India-Pak talks must put terrorism on top of the agenda. Pakistan should be given a long rope to do the explaining for cross-border terrorism.
The US would like to have a convergence with both Pakistan and India for the fight against ISIS. But in the process, it might tilt again on the Pak side as far as Afghanistan issue is concerned. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unilaterally reached out to his Pakistani counterpart, but Nawaz Sharif, facing a predominant army, has not been able to address India’s concerns. The Pakistan army feels bolstered by the thought of the US continuing to depend on it.
In this geopolitical matrix of South Asia, the challenge before India is to keep this hostile neighbour engaged, but on our terms. A secular democratic India dealing with an Islamic republic controlled by the army must rely on strict bilateralism, as India-Pakistan relations are not determined by the so-called “people to people” contacts.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau