After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s whirlwind surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas Day, there was little doubt that spoilers in Pakistan would try to derail improved relations. The operative questions were where, when, and whether the attackers would succeed in shutting down yet another attempt at reconciliation.
The suicide mission at the Air Force Station at Pathankot followed a familiar script. Attacks of this sort seek to embarrass the authorities, raise body counts, and damage expensive military equipment. Pakistan has experienced similar trials at Kamra and Mehran, courtesy of the Pakistan Taliban. In the Pathankot attack, the perpetrators failed to achieve their tactical objectives: Indian security was adequate, fatalities were minimal, and no military assets were struck.
The question of whether the attackers’ larger strategic objective would be achieved hung in the air after the air base was secured. Evidence linking the perpetrators to Jaish-e-Muhammad, an outfit created and nurtured by Pakistan’s intelligence services, appears to be persuasive. The Government of India withheld broadsides while publicly announcing it had shared intelligence about the attacks with the Government of Pakistan. Then Pakistan, acting on this information and, presumably, its own intelligence sources, rounded up some of the usual suspects. The most important of the lot is Maulana Masood Azhar, Jaish’s supremo, who embodies all of Rawalpindi’s previous errors in relying on extremist groups to bleed India and weaken its grip on Kashmir.
Azhar represents an earlier era of ISI adventurism that has badly damaged Pakistan’s social fabric, economy, and international standing. He was sprung from an Indian jail on New Year’s Eve in 1999/2000 in return for the release of passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines flight that touched down in Kandahar. He resurfaced in the Punjab flying Jaish’s banner, with followers known to carry out daring exploits. Most spectacularly, Jaish was widely presumed to be behind a brazen attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, an attack that prompted the mobilization of both India’s and Pakistan’s armies and nearly led to war. The Pathankot attack occurred nearly fourteen years to the day after the shoot-out on the Parliament grounds.
Then, as now, Jaish’s offices were sealed by Pakistan’s authorities, who have again placed Azhar in detention. Now comes the hard and interesting part. Both Pakistan and India are on the hook for failing to deal with extremists in their midst, whether they be the perpetrators of the Parliament attack or those who torched mostly Pakistani nationals on the Samjhauta Express in 2007, shortly before a scheduled visit by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister. (This train, which carries travelers across the international border, is a bare remnant of an earlier effort at reconciliation.)
Within a week of the Pathankot attack, the Pakistan International Airlines office in Delhi was vandalized. But on balance, cross-border violence on the subcontinent mostly originates in and spills over from Pakistan. Pakistan’s internal and national security policies toward extremist groups are changing, as my colleague Sameer Lalwani has observed. Some groups, like the Pakistan Taliban, are in the crosshairs of military operations, while other “banned” groups, including Jaish, have not been overly bothered. The situation is fluid. Will Rawalpindi now include Jaish in its campaign to rein in bad actors and reverse past errors in judgment?
Detentions of high-profile leaders of extremist groups in Pakistan are not unusual, but prosecution proceeds at a snail’s pace, evidence that is compelling to the outside world is deemed inadmissible in Pakistani courts, and the accused are eventually released. The poster boy for this routine is Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who, based on copious evidence, was behind the spectacular 2008 Mumbai attacks against luxury hotels, the central train station, and a Jewish center. Lahkvi was released in April 2015 after six years in custody.
It may be hard to pin evidence of the Pathankot attack directly on Azhar, who may also linger in custody. Even so, Rawalpindi has other ways put Jaish out of business. Those looking for confirmation that Pakistan’s approach to extremism has changed – or whether it remains stuck in the past – will be focusing on what happens to Azhar and Jaish.
Rawalpindi has the opportunity to clarify that it has turned the page, and Pakistan’s campaign to place itself in a new light will be tested. For now, Modi has decided to proceed with talks. Pakistan is unlikely to have a more energetic leader in India with whom to improve relations – and to reduce nuclear dangers.