‘WE will not allow our soil to be used against any other country for terrorism.’ This oft-repeated cliché in our official statements has almost become a national embarrassment. A solemn pledge loses all credibility when major militant attacks in other countries are allegedly traced back to our territory.
It is not just cross-border involvement but also the activities of banned outfits at home that raises questions about how much control the state really has within its own domain. Then there is also the question of whether or not we are really serious about getting rid of all violent non-state actors that have become a pervasive challenge to state authority. The Pathankot air force base terrorist attack has yet again brought the issue of non-state actors to the fore.
Surely, it is too early to confirm or deny the Indian allegation of a Pakistani militant group being involved in the incident, but such possibility cannot be completely ruled out given past experience. Pakistan has once again been put in the dock by this latest terrorist incident across the border.
It is not just cross-border involvement but also the activities of banned outfits at home that raises questions.
Unfortunately though, the fact is that the ball is in our court to take the investigation to its conclusion. There is no conceivable gain that Pakistan can make by protecting the same militant groups that have also been responsible for killing thousands of Pakistanis.
Unlike the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks carried out by Pakistani-based militants, this time the civil and military leadership have not gone into a state of denial. Some senior officials actually concede that militants could have sneaked across the border.
One hopes that the 2008 mistake is not repeated. For sure, Pakistan had conducted a comprehensive investigation that provided extensive details of the group involved in planning the Mumbai terror attack. Several of the accused were arrested too, but were freed because of what was described as legal complications. Despite all that evidence, the accused were never punished for using our soil for planning cross-border terrorist attacks. The inaction has provided India a strong whip to beat us with. The stigma of that attack can never be washed away.
This time, however, there was no outright knee-jerk reaction rejecting the Indian allegation. By assuring India of full cooperation in the investigation and promising to take action against those found involved, the prime minister has shown a degree of maturity not seen before. But it needs more than mere assurances. A lot will depend on how the investigation is conducted and whether the culprits are brought to justice.
What has lent credence to the scepticism of our commitment to act against all militant groups are the continued activities of many of our erstwhile jihadi assets despite the National Action Plan being operative for more than one year. It has been a long time since we outlawed those groups and claimed they have been rendered dysfunctional. But this has never happened. We were perhaps never really serious in enforcing the ban despite the havoc these groups have inflicted on our own country.
Surely there may not yet be conclusive evidence substantiating the allegation of the involvement of Jaish-e-Mohammed in the Pathankot air force base assault, but elements of one of the fiercest banned militant networks have long been involved in terrorist activities both inside and outside the country.
After it was banned in 2002, JeM broke up into small cells many of them directly linked to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Those splinters were responsible for a series of audacious terrorist attacks including two assassination attempts on former president Gen Pervez Musharraf. The footprints of JeM were also found in the Lal Masjid episode.
Interestingly, despite many of his followers being involved in a war against the state and terror activities, Masood Azhar has never been detained in Pakistan. He has reportedly continued with his ‘non-militant activities’, as described by Pakistani authorities, from his hometown Bahawalpur.
Breaking his long hibernation, the JeM leader resurfaced in 2013 when he addressed thousands of his supporters in Muzaffarabad by phone. This first public appearance of sorts in years reinforced the suspicion about the network being revived. He reportedly called upon Pakistani authorities to lift restrictions on ‘jihad’.
It is often said that Masood Azhar had lost control over his banned outfit and was not responsible for any terrorist actions attributed to those who belonged to JeM. But his address to the Muzaffarabad rally confirms that he has continued his jihadi activities, while maintaining a low profile.
First Hafiz Saeed was made ‘kosher’ by being brought into the mainstream and then Masood Azhar has been drawn back into the arena. It has surely been a disturbing development for the international community as well as for our national security. One can hardly understand the logic behind this.
It is not just about cross-border terrorist attacks; more importantly, it is our own security and stability that is at stake. How can a state allow itself to become hostage to the whims of non-state actors? Once patronised by the state, these jihadi networks seem to now have gone completely out of control. These non-state actors are now drawn by their own ideological goals threatening our sovereignty. The country has paid dearly for using militancy as a tool of regional policy in the past, and it is high time that they are stopped.
Indeed, the Pathankot attack has come as a huge blow to the normalisation process between the two countries. Yet there is also a possibility that an impartial investigation into the matter could open a new window of opportunity. It is imperative that India provide all relevant information about the attackers to the Pakistani authorities. A sensible, cooperative approach by both governments is crucial to thwarting the subversive designs of the terrorists. The actions of non-state actors must not be allowed to derail the peace process.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2016