Last weekend's terrorist attack on the sprawling 2000 acre Indian air force base at Pathankot, about 35km from the Pakistan border and on the main highway connecting Kashmir with Indian Punjab, is humiliating for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is certain to set back Pakistan-India relations.
The attack, which left over a dozen dead, including six militants, has been claimed by the Kashmiri-based United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation for a number of groups opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir.
The two-day assault was daring in its execution, but the terrorists did not damage any of the hardware, which includes a fleet of MiG-21 fighter jets and Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters.
However, this was a major security failure for India. And, not surprisingly, the Indian opposition, led by the Congress Party, has been highly critical of the Modi Government over this massive security breach. It has been particularly scathing of Prime Minister Modi, given that the attack occurred about a week after his surprise visit to Pakistan.
On 26 December, on his way back to India from a visit to Kabul, Prime Minister Modi made an unscheduled two-hour stop in Lahore to have tea with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. If nothing else, symbolically this was a highly significant event in the bilateral relationship. The last time an Indian prime minister had set foot in Pakistan was almost 12 years earlier. However, the Congress Party was not impressed, describing the stop-over as 'un-announced, unprecedented and un-statesmanlike'. It is a gesture that may well come back to bite Modi.
Without admitting any responsibility, the Pakistan Government condemned the attack at Pathankot. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it remained 'committed to partner with India as well as other countries in the region to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism afflicting our region'.
As far as Prime Minister Modi is concerned, such a vacuous statement is simply not good enough. According to a statement issued by Prime Minister Modi's office, in a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Sharif, Modi 'strongly emphasised the need for Pakistan to take firm action against the organisations and individuals responsible for and linked to the Pathankot terrorist attack'.
Indian security officials believe the perpetrators of the attack were members of the Pakistan-based Sunni extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM; 'Army of Mohammed') rather than the United Jihad Council. The JeM is also responsible for the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. Its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, who was released from an Indian gaol in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers on a hijacked Indian passenger jet, walks free in Pakistan today. The leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT; 'Army of the Pure'), Haffiz Mohammed Saeed, and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the LeT's mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attack, are also allowed to roam around unhindered in Pakistan.
Given the pressure Modi is under at home to do something to avenge this attack, he needs some sort of meaningful return on the enormous political capital he expended in visiting Sharif in Pakistan. Getting Pakistan to hand over any one of the above terrorist leaders would be a good start. However, Islamabad is unlikely to oblige.
While the Pakistan army has been busy in intense and effective military operations against Afghan and Pakistan Taliban fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan for the last 18 months, the Pakistan Army is not about to start hunting down the JeM, LeT and other fellow ideological travelers which mainly attack Indian targets.
There are two reasons for this. First, these groups have been useful military assets for Pakistan. Islamabad has some plausible deniability over the groups' actions, and they operate at little financial cost to Islamabad. Accordingly, the army would not want to lose this valuable capability. Second, the army would not want to open a second military front while it has its hands full fighting the Pakistani Taliban, notably in the tribal areas and in Karachi. Sharif's government has suggested that the army will go after JeM and LeT once the Pakistani Taliban has been taken care of. Watch that space.
In sum, this most recent attack confirms yet again, if confirmation were required, that India and Pakistan are far from achieving 'normal' bilateral relations. And while Prime Minister Sharif may be genuinely keen to have peaceful and economically fruitful relations with India, the Pakistan army is less enthusiastic. Ultimately, it is Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, not Prime Minister Sharif (the two are not related), who calls the shots on security and foreign policy issues in Pakistan.
So while seeing prime ministers Sharif and Modi walking hand-in-hand in Lahore was huge symbolically, such theatrics will only really be meaningful when the Pakistani Army Chief and his Indian counterpart do likewise. Until then, let's hope for Pakistan's sake that the next time there is another terrorist attack (which is inevitable), the Indian prime minister remains as restrained in his response. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that will be the case.
Photo courtesy of Getty/Sameer Seghal.