The challenge here is to find the route around the obstacles that are laid out in the course. It is no longer a simple case of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to talks and engagement, but about working around different interest groups with different strategies will remain a part of this process.
After the Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Lahore, which I consider the cementing act of the decision to initiate a dialogue process, there was hidden consternation within Pakistan’s well known Deep State. It was expected. However, for a change we also had representation in the decision making process, of the Pakistan Army with the new NSA, Retd Lt Gen Naseer khan Janjua being involved in talks at Bangkok. Though retired he is known to represent the Pakistan Army’s voice in the government and is also close to the Army Chief, Gen Raheel Sharif. There was no reason to believe that the decision did not have backing of the Pakistan Army. Yet when dealing with Pakistan one has to be prepared for stabs, jabs and every other action by elements supposedly not under anyone’s control. The term Non State Actor with reference to Pakistan can mean just about anyone who is a Pakistan citizen and the definition has been taken to another level unfathomable by most other nations, including Bharat. A contingency plan to secure the dialogue process which has yet to commence would have been in the making. Sniping at the process was expected but Pakistan’s Deep State decided to instead follow bombardment to derail it. Before a mutual agreement on how to respond to such contingencies the contingency arrived in the form of the terrorist action at Pathankot air base. Pakistan is loathed to admit that the perpetrators are from Pakistan and the story seems to evolve in the way 26/11 did. Pakistan is obviously playing its duplicitous games and has learnt little from the past. Attempts to pass off the perpetrators as members of the United Jihad Council with a local flavour and home grown antipathy against Bharat smacks of the IS’s oldest game.
A bit on the events at Pathankot. That North Punjab is fast emerging as one of the most attractive areas for targeting by terrorists can be deduced from basic military appreciation. It has within its area the junction of the boundaries of three states, J&K, Himachal and Punjab. Junctions are the worst locations from any security angle because focus remains vague and needs constant reminders. Responses there are usually tardy. In military parlance adversaries choose fracture lines in areas of responsibility, always considered the weakest spots. Besides that the Ravi river bed as also other water systems create a swathe of riverine terrain which is difficult to fence and hence counter infiltration becomes more challenging. Not as close as in the case of Jammu but almost matching that situation, the proximity of military garrisons and other potential targets makes it an ideal ground for terrorists from across the border. The National Highway too offers advantage to inimical elements as its proximity to the border enables post infiltration exploitation to escape detection and increase the zone of strike. Such advantages are not available in Central or South Punjab although military garrisons exist in plenty. The Pakistan sponsored terror strike at Gurdaspur on July 26, 2015 exploited all these conditions and the Deep State decided to repeat the act on New Year 2016 at Pathankot. Intelligence for this appeared to be available with the identified target being the Pathankot airbase. The incident therefore was not a case of intelligence failure as is usual in most terror strikes but rather a case of incident prevention. The incident could not be prevented but damage could be mitigated to some extent as the assets remained safe. Yet, loss of seven brave soldiers was a heavy price that Bharat paid. The operational response to the intelligence pickups, the run of bizarre incidents such as that of the Punjab Police SP, Salinder Singh, the inability to predict North Punjab as the objective area should all be the subject of detailed investigation to arrive at the infirmities which will inevitably emerge in proxy situations. Equally, the issue of correct composition of forces for response, command and control as also information management system all need review and no doubt should be refined.
The issue troubling minds is about the future of the Dialogue which PM Modi initiated with such enthusiastic fervor which found equal response in Pakistan. The PM invested his political goodwill in a bold decision which cannot be just taken off the rails on the spur of an incident. There appears fairly good political consensus on this. It is, however a question of adopting the correct political and diplomatic strategy which will help in stabilising the security environment of the subcontinent. While discussions on reaching the best strategy continue, the bottom line appears to be the necessity of not wilting under pressure, supporting the Pakistan Prime Minister who too has invested political capital in the Dialogue, and remaining engaged. One of the first acts which need to be executed after the PMs And the NSAs have spoken to each other is to set up a NSA level meeting. Face to face meetings determine sincerity which trans border communication calls cannot. This meeting before the Foreign Secretary level talks must determine the contingencies which can derail the Dialogue and the best methods of jointly handling them. This is on the presumption that this is not the last act by the Deep State. The challenge here is to find the route around the obstacles that are laid out in the course. It is no longer a simple case of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to talks and engagement. It’s about working around different interest groups with different strategies; defeating some and enabling others to be victorious, will remain a part of this process. Bharat perhaps has not faced as challenging a political and diplomatic course as this in the last many years. Fortunately political stability at the Center, risk taking capability of PM Modi and his decisive streak are all suited to this challenge which the Nation must overcome.
Lt Gen (retd.) Syed Ata Hasnain (The writer is an ex-GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps)