External Affairs

Ajit Doval’s First Big Test as NSA Has Arrived

A chopper hovers over the Indian Air Force base that was attacked by militants in Pathankot, Punjab on Saturday. Credit: PTI

A chopper hovers over the Indian Air Force base that was attacked by militants in Pathankot, Punjab on Saturday. Credit: PTI

The Pathankot attack comes not as a surprise but as an affirmation of what many commentators had anticipated after Narendra Modi’s dramatic stop over at Lahore – that Pakistani spoilers of the renewed peace process were likely to test the resolve of the  two prime ministers.

What remained to be seen was whether the challenge would be direct – by the Pakistani military heating things up along the Line of Control, thus revealing their attitude towards the engagement – or indirect, by the India-specific jihadi groups resorting to a dramatic terror attack. The reaction has come in the latter form, replicating the modus operandi of an attack last year in the same region of Punjab.

The question that arises is what impact can it have on Lahore II, Lahore I being the 1999 bus journey undertaken by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Since the Congress, was taunted for years by BJP accusations of being soft on terrorism, Pathankot firstly allows the opposition to land easy blows on the Modi government. Actually, both parties would be guilty of political opportunism as the issue is complex and belies partisan handling.

Secondly, the actual test of whether a terror act can undermine the India-­Pakistan dialogue process requires asking whether it has been aided and abetted by elements of the Pakistani state. If India cannot prove such connivance, then the act must not be allowed to vitiate the atmosphere as that is precisely what the perpetrators want to achieve. In other words, non-state actors opposed to normalisation of bilateral relations cannot be handed a veto on India­-Pakistan relations.

The Indian options, however, get complicated as the actual proof of complicity of Pakistani state actors is never available in clear and provable terms. Any conclusions would likely be based on deductive reasoning, stray intercepts etc indicating that the attack could not have been planned and executed without the help of elements of the Pakistani army. The Pathankot attack falls into this category.

Be that as it may, India needs to quickly collate all intelligence that can be gathered from the nature of the attack, the weaponry used, electronic intercepts etc. Surely such a planned attack by a sizeable group, which could not be entirely indigenous, would have had a launch pad back-­up. Whether Pakistan is now ready to address terror meaningfully needs to be tested by seeking cooperation in apprehending and prosecuting the co­-conspirators in Pakistan, and sharing the results of their investigation with India. As they say, the proof of the biryani, Lahori or otherwise, has to be in the eating.

Instead, if Pakistan were to revert to bland denials even in the face of reasonably credible evidence, as they did about Ajmal  Kasab, the prime accused in the 26/11, there will be a serious setback to the dialogue process. Going by my experience as the first leader of the India-Pakistan anti­-terror mechanism in 2006 – of which today’s NSA-level grouping is a clone at a higher level – the likelihood of a pro­-active response from Pakistan may be remote.

One inkling of that was the absence of the Pakistani National Security Adviser, Lt Gen Nasir Janjua from the Lahore gathering where the Indian NSA, Ajit Doval was present. The excuse that he did not have adequate notice is not credible because he would have had access to a helicopter. Moreover, it is unimaginable that Nawaz Sharif would not have kept the army in the loop about the imminent arrival of Modi. Perhaps Pakistan, or at least their army, didn’t want Janjua in Lahore as they wanted the focus not on terror but on the resumption of comprehensive bilateral dialogue – which the two foreign secretaries, both of whom were in Lahore, are tasked to do.

With Pathankot, Ajit Doval’s first big test has arrived. News reports of how NSG commandos were deployed in time or that great defence-­civil coordination was achieved will be of little help to him or the government. Doval has to make his channel with Janjua show results. Otherwise it will be back to the cycle of talk­s, terror­, bicker­ing, and talks.

K.C. Singh is a former Indian ambassador

  • Meenal Mamdani

    I agree with your comments. The point you make about rogue elements within the Pakistani army sabotaging efforts of the top echelon is very likely. The top brass cannot deal ruthlessly with these elements as it would create anger in the public against such action. After having stoked an anti-India sentiment for 50+ years, it would not be easy to explain why these patriots who work closely with the army in J&K, are suddenly being chastised for doing what they have been always encouraged to do. Until the Kashmir issue is resolved, Pakistan will not find it easy to hold back these terrorist groups who are patriots and martyrs in the eyes of the Pakistani citizens.