Under pressure from the United States, the Pakistan government has vowed to carry out swift and transparent investigations into the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase. Speaking to US Secretary of State on a telephone call, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had reiterated his “sincere” desire to bring out the truth behind the recent attack. Kerry’s call to Sharif came amid Indian intelligence reports suggesting that Pakistan-based groups have planned and executed the strike on the Pathankot airbase. Earlier, a senior US State Department official said that the time has come for Pakistan to walk the talk on the promises it made - both in public and in private conversations - that there would be no discrimination in its action against terrorist networks and bring the perpetrators of the Pathankot attack to justice. To the uninitiated, 7 men were killed and 20 others injured in the 84-hour operation launched last Saturday as six Pakistani terrorists attacked the Air Force base in Punjab’s Pathankot. Suffice to say, the outcome of the Pathankot attack presents a big test for the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan. For starters, both sides had reacted to the attack with great maturity. On January 5, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told his Pakistani counterpart in no uncertain terms that he wanted quick action against the attack’s mastermind. On the following day, Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, who de-facto determines his nation’s India policy, said that there would be zero tolerance for terrorist organisations at a military conference in Rawalpindi. The local police in Pakistan’s Punjab province have reportedly conducted raids in the southern parts of the province based on the intelligence inputs provided by India. The raids apparently focused on the leadership of the banned Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) terror group. Without prompt and decisive action on the evidence provided by New Delhi, it seems unlikely that the crucial foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan will go ahead. Nawaz Sharif is well aware of this fact. In a positive development, however, Islamabad is reportedly close to achieving a breakthrough on the Pathankot attack in the next few days.
A breakthrough could dramatically change the tenor of bilateral relations as the Pakistani state establishment continues to face allegations of playing a “double game” in the war on terror. Despite these positive developments, it will be difficult for Pakistan to prove India’s allegations in a court of law. The botched trial of 26/11 accused Zakir-ur-Rahman Lakhvi in Pakistan stands as a gross example of the failings that exist in its legal system. As a result, “Sharif has reportedly instructed the concerned authorities to examine all the laws by which the culprits could be prosecuted as soon as possible,” according to noted Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. The Pathankot incident presents Pakistan with the greatest opportunity to win India’s confidence provided it can take some concrete steps. Moreover, it could pave the way for an extensive dialogue on the Kashmir issue, which has been Pakistan’s biggest demand. Reports of greater engagement between the National Security Advisors of India and Pakistan, which began with a four-hour-long meeting in Bangkok, in which both sides reportedly shared valuable information without sharing its content with their respective media, promises much hope. Suffice to say, such an encouraging viewpoint assumes that the Pakistani military is on board with the peace process.
Another theory suggests that the attack on the air base is the latest result of a Pakistani national security strategy that addresses its own internal challenges while also pursuing its age-old agenda against India. “Reviving JeM was a cornerstone of Pakistan’s strategy of managing its own internal security challenges,” according to a recent column by noted academics Christine Fair and Seth Oldmixon, who have extensively studied geopolitics of the subcontinent. “Officials with the United Nations office tasked with monitoring these groups told one of the authors that JeM activists have long been poised for infiltration into India. Thus, the only thing surprising about this JeM attack is that it didn’t happen sooner, given the imperatives of recuperating this group as a means of diverting Pakistani Taliban terrorists away from targeting Pakistanis towards targeting Indians. Thus denervating JeM is not only a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy of nuclear blackmail to achieve ideological objectives in Kashmir, it is a critical part of Pakistan’s internal security strategy to rehabilitate Pakistani Taliban militants. The JeM is Pakistan’s own “Ghar Wapasi” programme for bringing errant terrorists back into the fold.” If this theory, popular among many Indian strategic experts, contains more than an element of the truth, then the current peace initiative between Sharif and Modi is doomed to fail. There is no way both sides can achieve détente without the acquiescence of the Pakistan military.