The end of 2015 brought a great sense of optimism about the relationship between India and Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic stopover in Lahore on his way back from Afghanistan last week has been heralded as the beginning of a new era of engagement between the two South Asian neighbors. The talks between the two foreign ministers at the annual ‘Heart of Asia’ security conference in Islamabad in the middle of last month was supposed to lay the path for future discussions on comprehensive bilateral discussion. However, the optimism has been short-lived.
The recent terror attack at the Indian air force base at Pathankot, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, threatens to derail the peace process before it has started properly. There is still much uncertainty surrounding the attack. After three days, it was still not clear whether all the militants holed up inside the base have been neutralized. So far, seven Indian military personnel have lost their lives. The Pathankot base is located just 30 kilometers away from the India-Pakistan border and serves as a staging point for Indian military operations in the neighboring state of Jammu and Kashmir. Among other things, it houses important air force assets.
There are reports that Indian military intelligence suspected a terror attack before Pathankot came under siege. There are reports that Indian intelligence intercepted phone calls that the militants were making to Pakistan. If this is true, why did Indian intelligence personnel fail to act in a timely manner in order to protect such an important base? Some security analysts are blaming the country’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, for reducing the effectiveness of the Indian response by deploying paramilitary forces instead of military counter-terrorism units.
This is the second major terror attack in India since the Mumbai attack in November 2011. Although the attacks in Mumbai were far greater in magnitude and in terms of casualties, the Pathankot attack is a horrible reminder that India is still vulnerable to terrorism. Furthermore, judging by the response time and inept reaction, the Indian counter-terrorism and intelligence apparatus is still struggling to cope with the threat.
Although much is still unknown about the attackers, the United Jihad Council–a coalition of militant groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir–claimed responsibility for the attack. The crucial question is just how far Pakistan was involved in backing the attackers.
When Modi landed in Lahore on Christmas Day “to turn the course of history,” there were strong fears among South Asia observers that extremist forces would attempt to sabotage the peace process. The Pathankot episode vindicated those fears, and for good reason, since this kind of political sabotage is not unprecedented. In 1999, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee traveled to Lahore in a bus from India, the gesture was welcomed across the region as a thaw in the relationship between Pakistan and India. However, the Kargil War broke out shortly thereafter, halting all reconciliation efforts.
Moreover, an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 by Pakistan-based militant groups was another spoiler between New Delhi and Islamabad. Finally, the Mumbai terror attack in 2008 created a deep wedge between the two South Asian neighbors and strengthened the anti-peace constituency in both states. Former Pakistani foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, in his book Neither a Dove Nor a Hawk writes that had disruptive elements not interfered, India and Pakistan would have finalized a Line of Control (LoC) agreement in Jammu and Kashmir by 2008. The Pathankot attack is the latest of a series of incidents meant to keep New Delhi and Islamabad from reconciling.
There is now a broader understanding in India that the peace process has to be insulated from such disturbing forces. It is expected that despite pressure from hawkish elements, the government will continue with the dialogue process. If the Modi government suspends the proposed secretary-level talks, it would be a great victory for anti-India forces in Pakistan that do not want to see normalcy between the neighbors.