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Two weeks after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark stopover in Lahore, the first such visit for over a decade, events have taken a predictable turn. On 2 January, India’s sprawling Pathankot airbase came under a remarkable four days of attack. On 3 January, India’s consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif was besieged for over 24 hours. Then on 5 January, an explosion occurred near another of India’s Afghan missions, in Jalalabad (though it might not have been the target).
It takes little imagination or insight to recognise that such a concentrated pattern of attacks would initially suggest that someone seeks to test India’s patience, with the aim of disrupting talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries (scheduled for 14-15 January) and National Security Advisors (February), both of which were agreed during Modi’s visit. For Indians, the obvious echo is 1999. That year, another seminal Indian prime ministerial visit to Lahore was followed, months later, by a covert invasion of Kashmir (Nawaz Sharif, out of the loop, was also prime minister then). On this occasion, both senior Pakistani and Indian officials had told Reuters, after Modi’s visit, that they believed Pakistan’s military was on board with talks, particularly as the process involved Pakistan’s new National Security Advisor (NSA), retired general Naseer Khan Janjua, who – though chosen by Nawaz Sharif – replaced a civilian in October. It is this assumption that is now under serious strain.
Attribution: State or Non-state Spoilers?
Although Indian officials are still debating the issue, several have blamed the Pathankot attack on the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terrorist group that has been close to Pakistani intelligence but kept on a tight leash for a while. Other Indian officials pointedly noted that the attackers appeared to have received training from a ‘professional armed force in Pakistan’. (Although one Indian intelligence officer, listening to their panicky intercepted calls back to Pakistan, suggested otherwise: ‘the men seemed to be hysterical, and not very well-trained’). Some Indian intelligence sources also suggest that the attackers had conducted mock drills at a Pakistani airbase. This detail, if correct, would be especially damning.
As for the Afghanistan, these would be the seventh and possibly eighth such attacks on Indian diplomats there in under a decade, with even the United States attributing the most prominent – a 2008 bombing of the embassy in Kabul – to Pakistan’s intelligence services. Afghan insurgents have little cause to focus resources on Indian targets. It strains credulity to imagine that they do so in the absence of Pakistani direction. The timing is especially sensitive, as India is wary of China-brokered peace talks involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban – and the impact on India’s long-term position in Afghanistan. While a single incident within India could be written off as the work of autonomous jihadist ‘spoilers’, concurrent attacks in Afghanistan and India are harder to interpret as such.
Against this, it should be noted that it would be difficult for Pakistan to have planned a mission within the two weeks since the Modi-Sharif meeting, or even the month or so since their brief meeting in Paris on 30 November. Past attacks attributed to Pakistan have had much longer gestation periods, although Pathankot was a relatively simpler operation than many. It is therefore far from certain whether Lahore can be understood as a simple trigger.
The Indian Response
What now for India? Modi is personally invested in engagement with Pakistan and his advisors would certainly have accounted for the likelihood of such attacks in their decision to engage. India’s reluctance to break off talks is evident. When Modi spoke to Sharif on Tuesday, he reiterated the demand that Pakistan act on the ‘actionable and specific information’ supplied; but he avoided blaming the Pakistani state, and it’s telling that Sharif in turn praised the ‘maturity’ of Indian statements. Notably, the two NSAs have also spoken to one another twice since Sunday. This is an unusual, if welcome, level of cordiality in Indo-Pakistan relations in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack.
But there may yet be bumps in the road. Some Indian officials have suggested that if the scheduled talks do occur, they must focus entirely on terrorism. This will jar with Pakistan’s belief that India’s core concern, terrorism, should be discussed alongside Pakistani concerns, such as the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan. One way of fudging the issue would be to bring forward the NSA talks, which would have focused on terrorism anyway, so they precede the broader discussion between foreign secretaries. If JeM’s role becomes clearer, India – cogniscant of international and especially American eagerness to sustain India-Pakistan contacts – could even leverage the situation to push for pressure on Pakistan to clamp down on the group, recalling its success in doing so in 2001-2 during a similar crisis. Washington should bear this in mind: the harder it is seen to be pushing Pakistan to address India’s legitimate concerns on this issue, the easier it will be for Indian leaders to claim success and therefore sustain engagement.
The problem is that even if Modi’s outreach can survive this period of strain, there are limits to what it can bear. India got lucky at Pathankot. Its counter-terrorism response was, by some measures, catastrophic. A plethora of competing forces were deployed without unified command and control, while the army – ideally suited to such large-scale area clearing operations, and close at hand – was sidelined. Poor Indian border security and connections between drug smuggling and border guards also seems to have plated a role, as it did in an attack in Gurdaspur in the summer: indeed, the Pathankot attackers appear to have infiltrated from the same point.
Had the attackers exploited these failures and successfully destroyed ‘strategic assets’ – India’s term for the MiG-21 fighter jets and Mi-35 attack helicopters located at the base – or had they massacred family members of army personnel, as occurred at Kaluchak in 2002, a much larger crisis would have resulted. Those behind Pathankot must have known this was a possibility. It presumably remains their objective. And India’s counter-terrorism defences will remain highly uneven, at best. Such a crisis is therefore a near-certainty.
Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. His latest Whitehall Paper, Indian Power Projection: Ambition, Arms and Influence, has just been published.