By Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch (retired)
As counter-terrorist operations at the Pathankot Indian Air Force (IAF) base continues into the third day, the ordinary man wants answers to the same five questions he has asked following every terror strike engineered by Pakistan:
One, why this strike?
Two, will Pakistan ever end the proxy war?
Three, do we continue the Indo-Pak dialogue?
Four, why are we permitting ourselves to be subjected to Pakistan’s “thousand cut” policy?
Five, where do we go from here?
Why this strike at the IAF base? There could be multiple reasons. The Pakistani military may have been stung by the recent Modi-Nawaz hug at Lahore and wanted to immediately assert its supremacy overnight. It was more of a repeat of Musharraf backstabbing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after his bus trip to Lahore, with the Kargil intrusions. This time Army Chief Raheel Sharif has orchestrated the terror strike in Pathankot, for the involvement of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is implicit.
Next, Islamic State has been endeavouring to rekindle militancy in Punjab for the past five-six years, prelude to which has been the mass infusion of narcotics into Punjab, particularly in the youth and rural areas and establishing conduits on the Indian side. The well-oiled smuggling routes facilitate infiltration when required, as in the case of Gurdaspur terror attack and now Pathankot. The ease with which a vehicle was arranged from the Indian side using a Pakistani telephone indicates the nexus (which the drug mafia will deny).
An IAF base was chosen as the target because of its expanse, and part of the periphery secured only through patrolling makes access easy. Once inside, terrorists can lie doggo in the underbrush or move from cover to cover retaining the initiative of firing at any movement. Besides, aircraft are lucrative trophies that can be targeted by small arms and RPGs, enhancing the terror and panic value. The Pathankot strike was planned in the same manner as the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes by the ISI, with the former lot trained by Pakistani Marines and this time the Special Services Group.
Will Pakistan ever end the proxy war? The straight answer is no, unless the Pakistani army is ‘forced’ to do so. Unfortunately, both US and China continue to support the Pakistani military in their own national interests. US, which forced Pakistan to join the Global War On Terror (GWOT) under threat of “bombing it into stone age” can easily put enough pressure on Pakistan to end her proxy wars on India and Afghanistan, but does not do so. Even in the case of the Pathankot strike, where there is clear evidence of Pakistani handlers, US has made the routine perfunctory statement including that all countries in the region should cooperate in curbing terror.
China, in any case is hand-in-glove with Pakistan even at the sub-conventional level against India. The Pakistani military holds all the cards in Pakistan and defines the country’s foreign and defence policies. Her private business-corporate empire was reportedly to the tune of US$ 20.7 billion way back in 2007. There is no way it will let go of such power and finances. Hence, it must continue to have confrontation with India and Afghanistan. That is why Musharraf sang: “Even if the Kashmir issue is resolved, jihad against India will continue.”
The recruitment base of the military and terrorist organisations are common and latter are also supported by cross-section of Pakistani administration and polity. More significantly in the current era, where even big powers are using proxies in conflict, Pakistani proxies are of use both to US and China for playing the Great Game.
Do we continue the Indo-Pak dialogue? This perhaps is the easiest to answer; perhaps we can continue the dialogue because nations talk even while at war. However, the strike at the Pathankot IAF base and simultaneous targeting of the Indian Consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif holds a clear message from the Pakistani military – you can talk as you like but we will continue the proxy war. So it is for the Indian government to decide.
Why have we permitted ourselves to be subjected to Pakistan’s “thousand cut” policy? The answer perhaps lies in what veteran Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) officers have been hinting in their writings for some time; that sections of our polity are perhaps under ISI blackmail having used hawala, who have been advocating a soft approach or, should we say, a policy of drift. In addition, some of our media houses appear aligned or bribed by the ISI and this is not only about giving out explicit operational details during terror strikes that are of advantage to the Pakistani handlers during the operation and to the ISI in the long run.
Where do we go from here? Many questions are being raised about our response to the Pathankot terror strike, which will be addressed once the operation ends. However, the bottom-line is that despite battling terror for decades India has failed to acknowledge that conventional force and diplomacy by itself is no match to sub-conventional war.
Both Pakistan and China have advanced sub-conventional capabilities that they are employing proactively against us while we have failed to do so. This is a great strategic asymmetry because of which we have been constantly at the receiving end; no forward movement despite similar terror strikes a decade back at Kaluchak, Tanda and elsewhere. There is urgent need to develop credible deterrence against the proxy wars waged against us, which will need to be demonstrated to establish the required credibility.
Meanwhile, we need to keep our guard up including during the forthcoming Republic Day with the French President as the chief guest, with France being targeted by ISIS. Presently, if, when ISIS has captured seven districts of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province (west of Peshawar) and is spreading to other regions, they have been inducted by Pakistan. Same is the case of Al Qaeda re-establishing in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) chief Mullah Asim Umar is a Pakistani national steeped in Pakistani madrasas. It would be naïve to expect US to put a few cruise missiles into Pakistan’s terror hatcheries as Russian President Vladimir Putin did in Syria. We need to fight these proxy wars on our own.
The author is former director general, information systems of the Indian Army, and a special forces officer.