Barely a week after Pakistan and India agreed to make a fresh start in their troubled bilateral relationship, terrorists struck again in a bid to derail the peace process. The target was the Pathankot airbase in India. There was something of déjà vu in this chain of events: such terrorism has also happened in the past every time something positive happened or was about to happen in Indo-Pakistan relations. Indian Prime Minister Modi had made a surprise visit to Lahore on December 25 to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The bonhomie generated by this visit had raised hopes for the resumption of a meaningful dialogue between the two neighbours. Unfortunately, the enemies of peace in the subcontinent have struck again to halt the process.
Several terrorists, dressed in Indian Army fatigues, attacked the airbase on January 2, 2016. Pathankot is located close to the Pakistani border. It has top-line aircraft, including MiG-21 fighter planes and Mi-25 attack helicopters. Indian forces took four days before the air base was cleared. Seven Indian military personnel and six terrorists were killed. There was strong criticism in India as to how several terrorists were able to enter such a high-security area, despite advance warnings received from intelligence, and even more about the lack of coordination and quick effective response against the terrorists. The Indian reports were that four terrorists had kidnapped the official car of a superintendent of police, more than 24 hours before the attack, in which they travelled to the airbase. In all, six terrorists scaled the boundary wall where floodlights were not functioning. The encounter dragged on for four days, though the terrorists were unable to reach the parked aircraft. The kidnapped police officer was later suspected as a possible accomplice in the attack. All of these failings reflected poorly on the efficiency of the world’s fifth largest military power.
On January 4, a Kashmiri group, United Jihad Council, accepted responsibility for the Pathankot incident. However, Indian circles raised fingers against Pakistan and it was alleged that the terrorists belonged to the Jaish-e-Muhammad group (outlawed in Pakistan since 2002). It was also claimed that some cell phone calls made by the terrorists to numbers in Pakistan had been intercepted. The Indian news media as usual went to town accusing Pakistan of direct involvement in the Pathankot incident, and even named Pakistani airbases where these terrorists had allegedly received training for the Pathankot operation.
However, little evidence has been produced to substantiate these charges. On the contrary, there were several obvious loopholes in the allegations. It was difficult to understand as to how these terrorists were able to cross a heavily guarded border; and walked fifty kilometres carrying over 50 kilos of ammunition, 30 kilos of grenades and assault weapons. Similarly, it made little sense as to how they used the cell phone of the kidnapped Indian police officer which was then returned to him; and how they openly discussed their plans in the presence of Indian passengers in the car and then allowed them to go free. The Pakistan Foreign Office promptly condemned the terrorist attack, expressed sympathy for the victims and reiterated resolve to cooperate with India to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism. Nawaz Sharif next spoke on phone with Modi to assure him that Pakistan would trace the helpers of the terrorists on the basis of “leads” provided by India. This commitment of cooperation with India was reiterated at a high-powered meeting attended by the army chief General Raheel Sharif, the National Security Adviser and the DG ISI. The meeting expressed the confidence that the goodwill generated by recent high-level contacts between the two sides would enable them to remain committed to a sustained, meaningful and comprehensive dialogue process. Soon after the terrorist attack in Pathankot, the Indian Consulate General in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan also came under a terrorist attack on January 3, raising additional concerns in India.
Unlike the past, the Indian official reaction to the Pathankot incident was more restrained. Prime Minister Modi’s first public reaction was that the “enemies of humanity” had struck in Pathankot. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that India wanted good relations with Pakistan but if there was any terrorist attack on India, “we will give a befitting reply”. In editorial comments, several leading Indian newspapers advised the government to “stay the course” and not serve the purpose of the attackers by stalling or suspending the peace dialogue with Pakistan. The attack was seen as an attempt to undermine the peace process. Indian government sources confirmed that “specific and actionable information” and details about the terrorists were being shared with Pakistan through the proper channel and India had pressed for stern action against them as a condition for any future talks with Pakistan. India has no doubt been shocked by the terrorist attack on a key Indian airbase. But to see matters in perspective, it needs to be recalled that a Pakistani airbase, Badaber near Peshawar, was also attacked by terrorists on September 15, 2015 in which over 43 people were killed, including 21 security officers and 14 terrorists.
The Pathankot incident was condemned by many countries. China stated that the attack might have been launched intentionally to disrupt the momentum in talks between Pakistan and India. A US State Department spokesman said that the US expected that Pakistan will take action against the perpetrators of the terror attack. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, later phoned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to urge Pakistan to cooperate in tracing the culprits, while hoping that the peace process with India would continue.
The barren narrative of the last 68 years of Indo-Pakistan relations suggests that both countries have to find ways to live in peace with each other. To resolve their disputes, the best way forward is dialogue and sensitivity for each other’s concerns. It would be absurd to give a veto to terrorists in both countries who want to disrupt the peace. Both governments must also check the hate lobbies that are always looking for excuses to whip up popular emotions to keep India and Pakistan apart. Modi and Nawaz must show maturity and refuse to be provoked by such enemies of peace involved in periodic terrorist incidents.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.