A general consensus now seems to be emerging in India that the “new year” attack on the Indian Air Force’s Pathankot base was aimed, courtesy the Pakistan Army, at nothing but derailing the India-Pakistan peace negotiations begun on the Christmas last year at the initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is no major glitch in this line of thinking, except that the operation seems too daring and too complex to be executed in the course of just six days—from December 25 when Modi made a detour to Lahore on his way back from Kabul, to December 31, when the Pathankot attackers belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed reportedly crossed into the Indian Punjab. It is common knowledge that the terror groups acting from Pakistan, like JeM or Lashkar-e-Toyieba, are free to act independently as long as they carry out routine attacks in the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, but the army’s seal of approval is a must for operations outside Kashmir.
The recent Pakistani fidayeen attacks in Punjab are also a way of the Pakistan army to express its “anger” at too much of hobnobbing of their civilian chief with his Indian counterpart. It’s a signal that the Pak Generals have by now perfected a terror machinery along the border that can strike at the shortest possible notice. If Modi can give a short notice to visit Lahore, they can also strike back at a short notice too. It was on July 10 last year that Modi grabbed Sharif on the sidelines of the Ufa summit in Russia. Within a fortnight, a team of LeT commandos sneaked into Gurdaspur to kill nine people, before one LeT terrorist was caught alive. Interestingly, the Ufa meeting was the prelude to a peace process, while Modi’s unscheduled stop-over in Lahore, and attending Sharif’s grand-niece’s wedding, was an intense dramatic passage in the same unfolding peace narrative.
The similarities between the two attacks are striking. Both involve the men in khaki in Rawalpindi telling India that efforts to bypass them for any composite dialogue between the two neighbours would lead to cross-border attacks escalating way beyond the traditional theatre of Kashmir. In both Gurdaspur and Pathankot, the men who handle the terrorists’ handlers sought to make the hits prohibitively costly for India. The fact that they made little dent in both of these adventures is purely accidental. In Gurdaspur, the RDX packs wired to the railway track along the Amtritsar-Pathankot line were detected in the nick of time; a jam-packed passenger train stopped only 200 meters away. If the bombs were not detected, hundreds of lives could have been lost. In Pathankot, the four lead attackers, who’d covered 400 meters towards the aircraft hangars, and had another 700 meters left, were challenged by Indian soldiers. If the JeM men were smarter and quicker, India would have faced worst.
Between 2006 and 2008, the period in which the then prime minister Manmohan Singh had invested so much of his time and attention on a bilateral dialogue, the Pakistan Army was in fact gearing up to make a LeT squad under Hafiz Saeed battle-ready for a naval attack on Mumbai, which took place on 26 November 2008. On Indo-Pak matters, Dr Singh was an incurable optimist. He kept his hope of peace with Pakistan alive even after the brutal attack in Mumbai in which about two hundred people were killed. The very next year, he was nudging the Pakistan prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani again at Sharm-el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort and venue of that year’s Non-Aligned Nations’ Meet to continue with the dialogue process. Some of Dr Singh’s own party peers were sceptical about his optimism. In the BJP, Modi was bitterly critical.
But it is a new Modi now. Much like Dr Singh, he seems to have come to realize that India cannot remain in permanent hostility with Pakistan, nor is there any option to dialogue if one is serious about putting the enmity behind. At the time of writing this article, it is not clear if Modi will stick to the schedule of foreign secretary level talks without getting any firm action against the attackers. Outwardly at least, Sharif seems keen to keep the talks on.
It is no wonder that the civilian leaders of Pakistan understand the necessity to give peace with India a chance. And the feeling is shared by Modi. Just recently, he has okayed a massive gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan and across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the bustling marketplace of India (TAPI). Apart from being useful to India, it will enormously benefit an energy-starved country like Pakistan. But Pakistan’s military leaders have a different mindset. Being in a state of permanent hostility with India, it helps them appropriate from the exchequer an unconscionably large share. Expectedly, their hackles are up whenever there is a possibility of peace, particularly a resolution of the Kashmir problem. For as long as Kashmir remains the thorn in Pakistan’s flesh, the men in uniform will rule the roost, so emotive is the K-word.
Between India and Pakistan, a long war is unsustainable, both being nuclear powers. In short-term war, Pakistan has decided superiority. Its armed forces, trained under the tutelage of US Army to combat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the eighties, has acquired the agility and flexibility required in wars that are localised and do not last beyond a week or ten days. India, on the other hand, has an Army typical of the last century, with too many people, too many command chains and too heavy equipment. There is not even a synchronized command for its three defence services. But Pakistan has a single chief of staff.
Having inherited a rather anachronistic defence establishment, it may not be possible for Modi to go on for hot pursuit, or such surgical operations, against Pakistan any time soon. A practical man, Modi understands India’s military limitations, something that he didn’t when he criticised Dr. Singh. When his aircraft landed in Lahore on December 25 as a Christmas surprise, there was also a lurking feeling of a backlash. But still he accepted the risk as the possibility of peace between India and Pakistan is too tempting. But that is expected as Modi is a compulsive risk-taker. – The writer is Editor, Lokmat Group