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Pakistani Punjab must pay the price for terror

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
August 03, 2015 14:09 IST
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 Policemen take their positions next to a police station during a gunfight at Dinanagar town in Gurdaspur district. Photograph: Munish Sharma/Reuters


'The target for all our counter-terror operations ought to be Pakistani Punjab's population,' argues Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

The July 27 terrorist attack on a police station near Gurdaspur in Punjab has again focused attention on terrorism emanating from Pakistan. As expected, the shadow of this incident has fallen on the proposed talks between Indian and Pakistani national security advisors scheduled for this month. The reactions on both sides of the Radcliffe Line (the border drawn by the British in 1947) were on predictable lines.

The Indians, based on GPS found, linked the terrorists to Pakistan. The needle of suspicion pointed towards the Lashkar-e-Tayiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad, the two Pakistani Punjab-based terror groups that exclusively target India.

Since this was the first attack in Indian Punjab in 13 years, many saw this as another escalation of the proxy war by Pakistan. There were the usual calls for retaliation and cancellation of talks. There was the usual blame of 'intelligence failure' and our failure to 'seal' the border.

Pakistan is the world headquarters of conspiracy theories besides being the epicentre of world terrorism. A Pakistani columnist claimed (external link) that the Dinanagar attack was the handiwork of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing!

The Pakistani columnist conjured up a picture that paints a scenario that in the no too distant future Kashmir will merge with Pakistan, Khalistan will be a reality and India will break up.

Even for convoluted conspiracy theories this takes the cake! The Pakistani columnist also spectacularly fails to explain how all these objectives could be achieved and what India gained by attacking its own police station and killing its own people. The fact that such columns appear in a 'sober' and 'moderate' newspaper is an eye opener. One can imagine what must be published in Pakistan's strident Urdu language press.

In this episode of mindless violence, there may well be a silver lining for India. The police have not revealed the identity of the attackers. If they are not Khalistani supporters and usual LeT cadres, then it will mean that Pakistan has failed in its attempts to revive militancy in Indian Punjab.

But should they turn out to be Khalistani terrorists based in Pakistan, then it would mean that Pakistan wishes to open one more front against India besides Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistan is currently enjoying a brief lull as the United States cozies up to it for helping its withdrawal from Afghanistan. But unlike in the 1980s, this is limited support, both in duration and depth.

In the 1980s, the Khalistani movement became such a potent threat to India because it was a joint enterprise between the US, the United Kingdom and Pakistan.

People have forgotten how individuals like Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar of the Khalistan Commando Force secured easy asylum in the US at that time. Advertisements even appeared in British newspapers, asking for former special forces operatives to train Khalistani separatists.

With memories of blowback in the form of the 9/11 attacks on the US mainland and the radically altered geopolitical context, where India is a potential ally against China, the US/UK combine is unlikely to re-embark on the course it followed in the 1980s.

As long as that factor remains, mobilising the Sikh Diaspora for destabilisation of Indian Punjab will remain a pipe dream for Pakistan.

But in the interim, we must be ready to face increased terror attacks as Pakistan fully utilises the window of opportunity provided by Uncle Sam anxious to get out of Afghanistan with honour and unlike its departure from Vietnam.

As a student of insurgency and terrorism for 25 years, one thing is very clear to me: India, or for that matter Pakistan, are far too large States to be 'destabilised' by such actions.

Countless such attacks have taken place in J&K for the last decade or so, but that has had no major impact on the geo-strategic situation or J&K's status within the Indian Union. If anyone thinks that such attacks can change the military situation, they are living in a fool's paradise.

This still leaves the question unanswered: How can India stop these pin pricks and bloodletting?

The first step in dealing with this issue is a clear headed understanding of who carries out these attacks and what their motivation is.

In India, after every attack of such a nature, even serious analysts have linked it to some event or the other. For instance, the present attack has been linked to the meeting the two prime ministers had in Ufa, Russia. Sometimes the attacks have been linked to visits by foreign leaders. The conclusion being that these have some specific objectives.

Analysis of even the most dastardly attack like the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai shows that this is not the case. There was nothing that happened before or was scheduled to happen later that led to those attacks.

Let it be understood clearly once and for all that these attacks are linked to the fact that there are unemployed youth who have nothing better to do. The social conditioning and lack of employment in Pakistan with its runaway population growth is the main cause of this.

In addition, the LeT or Jaish are virtually sarkari groups. They get regular grants from the Pakistan government and are therefore semi-government entities. They also enjoy full support of the Pakistan army since they are seen as strategic assets.

The activities of these Pakistani Punjab-based groups make sure that the relations between India and Pakistan do not improve. This is necessary from the Pakistan army's view as only then can it continue to rule Pakistan. The India bogey is an existential necessity for the Pakistan army to continue its domination of Pakistani politics.

The civil government indeed wants to curb these groups and thereby reduce the role of the army in the politics of Pakistan. But here the biggest obstacle for the civil government is the popular support these groups enjoy in the all-important province of Punjab.

No elected government can take action against the LeT or JeM since they enjoy popular support in Punjab that contributes to close to 75 per cent of the armed forces, the bureaucracy and the industrial elite.

A cursory look at the who's who in Pakistan will show how important Punjab is in the Pakistani scheme of things. On their part these two terror groups have made sure that they do not carry out any operations in Punjab.

Is it any surprise that Pakistani Punjab has remained the least affected province as far as terrorism is concerned?

The first operational principle of counter insurgency or counter-terrorism is to drain the 'swamp' of public support. Thus, the target for all our counter-terror operations ought to be Pakistani Punjab's population, not Karachi nor Balochistan.

Till the time Pakistani Punjab does not pay the price for the terror campaign against India, such attacks will continue.

We have to clearly analyse the weak points of the Punjab economy and society to do this. We have tried bus diplomacy, cricket diplomacy, people to people contacts and track II, but failed. There are several ways that the Punjabi elite, middle-class and soldiers and their families can be targeted.

Once we establish clear linkages between the support to terrorism and their misfortune, a process of rethink can begin in Pakistan Punjab.

IMAGE: Policemen take positions during the gunfight at Dinanagar town, Gurdaspur district, July 27. Photograph: Munish Sharma/Reuters

Colonel Anil A Athale is Coordinator, Indian Initiative for Peace, Arms-control & Disarmament.

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Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)