The terrorist strike at the air force base in Pathankot on the early morning of second January marked a bloody commencement to the New Year. The security forces were alert, since intelligence information on the infiltration had been received earlier. Considering past incidents, where attacks have been directed at security forces, either army camps or police stations, hence high alert was expected. That the terrorists could not reach their intended target, the technical area, was by itself an achievement.
The terrorists struck one week after the Prime Minister visited Lahore. There have been comments in the media that this action is a stab in the back by Pakistan. At this juncture, peace talks have neither commenced, nor has any meeting between the foreign secretaries taken place. The ground rules for the talks have yet to be established. Further, terrorist strikes take time for preparing and launch. Considering the short gap between the visit and the launch, it could be possible, that actions for launching were already underway, prior to the visit.
This strike cannot be considered to be a major one, entailing retaliation by either diplomatic or military means. Further, past record has always shown terrorist strikes occur during visits to India by Pak leaders or post peace discussions. Therefore, expecting Pakistan supported groups to deter from terrorist strikes is like living in ‘Utopia’. It could also be a means of testing the water and India’s resolve in dealing with such incidents. Immaturity in comments and behaviour would only mitigate a steadily improving environment.
It is also possible that this could be a means of retaliation on the success of the last Lahore visit. It was during this visit, that while the Indian Prime Minister was accompanied by his NSA and foreign secretary, his counterpart in Pakistan only had his foreign affairs advisor present. This could have peeved the military, which is now in the forefront of the talks. It could also have been in retaliation to the comments made by the Prime Minister in Afghanistan, where he squarely blamed Pakistan for fermenting the crises there.
Intelligence inputs have named the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) as the group responsible. Presently intelligence sourcesalsoobtained telephonic conversations between the handlers and the terrorists. They are also privyto directions being passed to the terrorists to launch operations. However, clear indications have not appeared on whether the handlers were ISI agents or JeM staffers. Hence it could possibly also be a rogue operation by the JeM, to offset the progress being made on the talk’s front. The reason is that for the first in the history of the two countries, the army is involved in the talks, as the NSA is their representative, thus could lead to marginalization of the JeM.
In their recent press interactions, the General Officers Commanding both 15 and 16 corps stated that there are a large number of trained militants waiting to be pushed across. They have also been stating that since the anti- infiltration grid has been successful very limited numbers of terrorists have been able to cross. Winters also restrict the availability of routes in the valley. Hence the only option now available is to employ the riverine terrain in the Punjab sector. Therefore possible targets would also need to be located in that sector. For the security agencies, enhancing the security along the IB in Punjab assumes significance.
For the terrorist groups, training militants, and then not being able to employ them or launch operations to enhance the groups image would result in loss of face, as also of trained militants. Recent press reports have indicated that trained militants have switched sides to the ISIS. Therefore, when there are almost no chances of success in the valley or in the plains sector of J and K, such operations have to be launched in desperation.
Pathankot and Gurdaspur districts have been targets for recentterrorist strikes. Proximity to J and K and a natural riverine terrain permitting infiltration are few of the reasons. In addition, creating terror in this state would affect J and K, as the national highway connecting J and K to the rest of the country passes through this region. Pakistan has always hoped to recommence the extinct Punjab militancy and thus have supported the so called Khalistan terrorist groups.
Internally, within the country, while security forces battled the terrorists, the political blame game continued unabated. The opposition, as expected flayed the Government for its Pakistan policy. There were discussions on possible Government reactions and this varied from moving ahead to calling off talks or even retaliation. It has taken both the countries over sixty years, to agree to talk, with the all- powerful Pakistan army now being a party to the discussions.
While the strike is a reality, however, across the entire spectrum, there has been a change. Firing is down along the LOC and the IB. Militancy is at its lowest ebb, and there does appear to be positive indicators from other directions. Hence, this one off incident could be pushed onto the back burner.
Thus to over react may result in pushing the progress made way behind. The Government is aware of the political tightrope it is now walking on and thuscontinues with plans for the talks, irrespective of the present strike. This is a mature step and should be supported politically by all parties. Though loss of life is always deplorable and creates an anti- Pakistan syndrome, yet for long term gains to the nation and this state in particular, the talks must go ahead. We should only expect a situation of no terrorist strikes, once talks are truly underway, and some progress is on the cards. Till then, we as a nation should be capable of defending ourselves and defeating the nefarious designs of Pakistan sponsored groups.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)
Pathankot and beyond