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Pathankot attack should not scuttle Pak dialogue

Published : Jan 12, 2016, 6:03 am IST
Updated : Jan 12, 2016, 6:03 am IST

The Indian reaction to the attack at the airbase is ludicrously banal and raises the inevitable question of whether New Delhi will ever be able to prevent similar attacks in the future

Indian Army soldiers take up positions on the perimeter of the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, Punjab. 	 — AFP
 Indian Army soldiers take up positions on the perimeter of the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, Punjab. — AFP

The Indian reaction to the attack at the airbase is ludicrously banal and raises the inevitable question of whether New Delhi will ever be able to prevent similar attacks in the future

It is the practice of hoodlums to assert themselves through acts of random violence. Fear is the key to dominance. Unless the neighbourhood goon occasionally bloodies a nose or two, he apprehends loss of respect and importance.

The Pakistani military establishment shares a similar mindset. As the thug of the southern Asia region extracting strategic rent from big powers, the generals and the powers behind them in Rawalpindi feel they must make their worth felt and voice heard.

Incidents such as the terrorist attack at the Pathankot Air Force base and periodic strikes against Indian diplomatic and civilian targets in Afghanistan are a result of this mindset.

Occasionally the Americans too have to be taught a lesson, whether it be in Pakistan or in Afghanistan, even though in such cases the Pakistanis have to proceed with extreme caution.

India, in comparison, has and continues to be a soft target.

Even a key forward military installation such as the Pathankot air base in Punjab is penetrable. All cities and civilian establishment in India remain wide open to attack.

Furthermore, New Delhi, in all these years, has failed to come up with any effective response against Pakistan terrorism, localised military adventurism such as the 1999 Kargil invasion, the regular flare-ups and intrusions along the borders of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Pakistani military establishment believes, with some justification, that it can act with impunity against India whenever and wherever it so wishes. This is a lesson it does not want New Delhi to ever forget.

So just when the Indian leadership was beginning to sound and look smug, Pakistan’s military establishment struck a blow to humiliate the Indian government.

The notion that cosying up to the civilian leadership in Islamabad could secure New Delhi’s interests was once again shattered.

There was another message. The group selected to carry out the Pathankot attack was a well-known Kashmiri terrorist groups called the Jaish-e-Mohammad led by Maulana Masood Azhar. This group has the protection of the Pakistan military and has been used in the past to carry out several spectacular terrorist strikes in Kashmir as well as the 2001 Parliament attack.

Following the hijacking of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 in December 1999, the hostage swap that followed involved the release of Masood Azhar who was then lodged in an Indian jail.

The Jaish leader, along with other released terrorists, drove out of Kandahar airport in an open jeep for an unknown destination in Pakistan.

Masood Azhar later appeared in public as a Pakistani hero and freely held anti-India rallies throughout that country. Masood’s gang was back in action in Pathankot with a familiar message from the Pakistani military: we can hit you any time we wish and you are mistaken to presume relations with us can be restored without addressing the Kashmir issue.

The Pathankot attack has evoked predictable response in India: outrage, criticism of the Indian response and demands that talks with Pakistan be put on hold.

The Indian reaction is ludicrously banal and raises the inevitable question of whether New Delhi will ever be able to prevent similar attacks in future.

Then there is the usual vacillation over whether to talk to Islamabad or not.

New Delhi might be the injured party but retreating in a huff from any engagement might not be the best strategy, especially because Pakistan’s civilian leadership headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif offers a sliver of hope.

He is a one strong Pakistani civilian leader keen on restoring relations with India for several very practical reasons. Sharif’s Pakistan is bleeding on many fronts, economic, political as well as social.

The constant and continued enmity with India is beginning to hurt its self-interest, especially on the economic and security fronts.

His Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, is rumoured to be on the same page with him. General Sharif has, on several occasions, declared his intention to root out all varieties of terrorism from Pakistan.

The trouble is that the Pakistan Army is larger than its current chief. The Pakistan military today constitutes a political-economic class with a substantial constituency and huge influence. The Pakistan Army is not just a professional force but an economic conglomerate with vast business interests and political influence on the governance of the country. A large body of former Army men, their families, supporters, flunkeys and hangers on depend on the continued ascendancy of Army HQ in affairs of the country.

However, there might be one factor that could be prompting a rethink on the Pakistan Army’s traditional posture on Kashmir. If some recent reports are to be believed, then the Chinese are pressuring Islamabad to constitutionally legitimise the status of Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of the undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir and an area that India lays claim to.

The Chinese have decided to make strategic investments in Gilgit-Baltistan in the form of power projects, highways, tunnels piercing formidable mountain ranges, dry ports and so on.

The Chinese strategic corridor stretching from its restive Xinjiang Province to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea will begin in Gilgit-Baltistan and end in Balochistan province’s Gwadar Port.

Both ends of this corridor are in dispute. Balochistan is a province in turmoil where the Pakistan Army has been brutally suppressing a decades old insurgency. Gilgit-Baltistan, a vast region of Jammu & Kashmir traversed by the River Indus, has always been under the jackboots of the Pakistan Army.

The Pakistan government has so far claimed that the formal status of Gilgit-Baltistan will be determined only after the resolution of the Kashmir dispute with India.

The region therefore remains part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Beijing however is not prepared to wait indefinitely and wants its strategic investments to be above international controversy.

If Islamabad wishes to legitimise Gilgit-Baltistan’s status as an integral province of Pakistan as per Beijing’s wishes, it will have to do a deal with New Delhi.

This posits an interesting scenario and one where the Pakistan Army’s hand might be forced.

Disengaging with Prime Minister Sharif might therefore be a singularly bad idea despite the provocation from the thugs at Rawalpindi.