The Pathankot inquiry
The team investigating the attack on the Pathankot airbase in India has reported that it can find no linkage or evidence to suggest that Masood Azhar had ordered the attack or was involved in its planning. He is the head of the banned organisation Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) which the Indians claim carried out the attack. After the attack and the allegations made by the Indian side, action was taken relative to the JeM. Its headquarters was sealed and several dozen activists detained. The Joint Investigation Team set up by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is still slated to visit India, but the attack is casting a long shadow over the nascent peace process.
The report goes on to say that “low cadre members” of the JeM may have been involved but that does not deliver sufficient clarity to satisfy the Indian side nor indeed should Pakistan be satisfied either. There is no paucity of evidence as to the origins of the attack, and if the Indians have intercepts of phone conversations made while it was in progress, then it is up to them to share it. For its part, Pakistan needs to be a lot more proactive in addressing the problem of extremism and not only in Punjab.
Where all of this leaves the peace process is unclear. Neither side has gone down the well-trodden road of finger-pointing and re-running the blame game, a welcome development in itself. Both sides, at least via their respective leaders, have said they remain committed to the developing dialogues at the foreign secretary level. Equally unclear is the fate and future of Azhar, currently in what is described as ‘protective custody’. If there is no evidence against him, even though he heads a banned organisation, the justification for holding him may be considered by some quarters to have weakened. Yet releasing him is unlikely to play well with India as well as the US, the UK, Japan and France, all of whom have had a hand, quite possibly a heavy hand, in pressuring Pakistan to wield a bigger stick in the direction of extremist organisations. What India and Pakistan need to do is to keep talking, because if they do not, they are handing a win to their enemies.
The devil in the details
There is a strong argument in favour of peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan as there appears to be no other way forward, but getting beyond a position that is purely conceptual to one that is substantive is a tortuous road indeed. The latest construct to be deployed in the search for peace is the Quadrilateral Coordination Group made up of representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China. They met on February 6 and are to meet again on February 23 to work on what is optimistically called a ‘road map.’
It would be fair to say that there is considerable scepticism about the chances of success for this quartet, in large part because some sections of the Taliban hold the military initiative in Afghanistan and the fighting season is now well under way. Urging the Taliban in their various iterations to join the talks while they have the Afghan government on the back foot is likely to be a waste of breath, the more so as other preconditions relating to the release of prisoners and the opening of the Taliban political office in Qatar, plus the removal of travel restrictions — are unlikely to be met. Road maps do not come much sketchier than this.
Alongside these developments, Afghanistan and Pakistan are doing some essential repair work on the relationship between their respective lead security agencies, the ISI and the Afghan National Directorate of Security. What looked like a rapprochement with the signing of an MoU in May 2015 to the effect that the two would work in a more closely coordinated fashion, quickly turned sour. It became a memorandum of misunderstanding and then dropped off the agenda altogether. Attempts have been made to revive it in the past week, with some quiet diplomacy being deployed and we warmly welcome this positive move. How the various threads mesh together productively given the overarching trust deficit is difficult to see. But mesh they must. Devils and details as yet remain un-reconciled.
Attack in Quetta
The city of Quetta has once again been left reeling from violence. Asuicide attack targeting a cavalcade of the Frontier Corps (FC) killed at least 10 people, including four troops, and wounded two dozen more in the city’s red zone on February 6. A convoy of the FC was patrolling Quetta’s high-security area when a man riding a bicycle triggered his explosive belt next to a paramilitary truck, causing loss of life and leaving a trail of destruction. A spokesman for the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the atrocity.
The assault came barely two days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharifinaugurated the Rs13 billion Gwadar-Turbat-Hoshab Road, part of the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As is evident by this latest bloodbath in Balochistan, there is no doubt, if there was any, that reaping any fruits from the CPEC will remain a gargantuan task, especially in the insurgency-wracked province. Balochistan is no stranger to bloody violence orchestrated by militants of various stripes. A low-key insurgency by Baloch separatists has since long left the province in chaos and badly mauled. But what is of increasing worry is that this time around, the militants were able to breach the red zone area of the provincial capital, which in general is relatively better secured than other parts of the city. The security failure here needs to be examined carefully. It is clear that militants continue to retain the ability to cause considerable havoc, even with the gains that the military may have made against them in recent times.
In addition, the attack also sounds a warning to the authorities as there is no reason why projects related to the CPEC may not be targeted in the future in Balochistan. This episode illustrates the challenges that lie ahead on the road to peace and development. The civilian and military leaderships need to act with resolution and purpose although one feels that this quagmire will need a lot more than that to get resolved.