Terrorism in Pakistan: Shady War, Shadow Peace
Jan 23rd 2016
EVERY time India and Pakistan inch towards ending their ancient enmity, something bad seems to happen. On January 2nd it was an attack by armed infiltrators on an Indian air-force base near the border with Pakistan that left seven servicemen dead. On January 20th Pakistan suffered a crueller blow when terrorists invaded Bacha Khan University, a co-ed establishment near Peshawar. Four gunmen killed at least 20 people, most of them students, before being shot dead themselves. It was a ghastly echo of a massacre of 141 people, mainly students, at a school in the same region just over a year ago. With more imagination than evidence, Pakistani conspiracy theorists saw India behind both acts of violence on their soil.
The attack on the Indian air base at Pathankot followed a surprise visit by Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif—the first by an Indian prime minister since 2004. They promised to resume long-suspended high-level talks over such vexed questions as disputed Kashmir. When Indian intelligence tied the air-base attackers to Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a Pakistani group with known links to the country’s opaque and powerful security services, it seemed part of a familiar pattern.
Those services have acted in the past to snuff out similar whiffs of rapprochement. A visit to Pakistan in 1999 by the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was swiftly followed by a brief but nasty war, provoked by Pakistan, on the “line of control” separating Indian- and Pakistani-held parts of Kashmir. Shortly after peace talks were held in Agra in 2001, the Indian parliament building came under attack by gunmen believed to be from JeM. The terror attacks launched in Mumbai in 2008 by Lashkar-e-Taiba, another group patronised by the Pakistani armed forces, punctured yet another round of peaceful overtures.
But Pakistan’s security services always whisper a counter-narrative. As with the school attack, they suggest via co-operative voices in the Pakistani press that India had a hidden hand in the attack on Bacha Khan University. In fact, both attacks were claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the Pakistani Taliban. It has sought vengeance since the army in 2014 launched a fierce campaign against it in North Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan. “Our desi liberals would never believe that India is supporting TTP to destabilise Pakistan,” read a sneering tweet from a prominent Pakistani editor.
Yet Pakistan offers no evidence of Indian involvement in attacks on its territory, whereas Indian officials have offered “actionable intelligence” linking JeM to the air-base attack, and invited Pakistan to send its own investigators. Indeed, on January 13th Pakistan announced that it had rounded up members of JeM, closed some of its offices and shut down its websites.
Pakistan’s apparent response to Indian prodding sent an encouraging signal that the Pathankot incident was not simply another case of its army using militants to scupper peace efforts by a civilian government. Optimists note other hopeful signs. India responded with unusual caution to the attack, suggesting that talks with Pakistan should be postponed briefly rather than cancelled. On the Pakistani side the army chief, Raheel Sharif, associated himself personally with the crackdown on JeM—a recognition that Pakistan must bring its Frankensteins to heel.