The year 2016 could go down as one of the worst for Indo-Pak ties as terror attacks by Pakistan-based groups stalled the peace process and India’s surgical strikes inside PoK followed by trading of heavy fire at the border raised fears of a large-scale conflict.
The year began on a sordid note when on January 2, Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad militants stormed the Pathankot airbase in Punjab and killed seven security personnel before they were eliminated. India demanded answers from Pakistan while linking the peace process to action against terrorism emanating from its soil.
The Pathankot attack was devastating for bilateral ties as it followed a brief but important visit to Lahore by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of the birthday of his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on December 25 last year. That trip had come on the heels of a high-level visit by an Indian delegation led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad in early December to attend the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan.
On the sidelines, she had fruitful talks with Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and the two countries agreed to revive the stalled peace process. The Indian Foreign Secretary was scheduled to visit Pakistan in mid-January but the Pathankot incident effectively scuttled the momentary thaw in ties.
The relations had not fully recovered from the blow when Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with Indian security forces in Kashmir in July, setting in motion a chain of events which drove Pakistan and India in opposite directions.
In September, matters again came to a head between the two sides when JeM militants assaulted an army camp in Uri and killed 19 soldiers. The Indian government again demanded action from Pakistan.
Just days after the assault, the two sides clashed at the UN General Assembly’s annual session, blaming each other for militancy and violation of human rights. Raking up Kashmir at the UN, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif glorified Wani as a “young leader”. Sharif devoted much of his 20-minute speech at the UN General Assembly session to Kashmir and the situation in the Valley and said Pakistan “fully supports the demand of the Kashmiri people for self-determination”.
Swaraj delivered a sharp rebuke to Prime Minister Sharif’s “tirade” on Kashmir, saying those accusing others of rights violations must introspect. India also censured Pakistan for the first time at the UNGA for perpetrating the “worst form of state oppression” in Balochistan.
India’s response to the Uri attack, came in the form of “surgical strikes” which Pakistan denied. India carried out “surgical strikes” on seven terror launch pads across the LoC with the Army inflicting “significant casualties” on terrorists preparing to infiltrate from PoK. However, the move created a war-like situation on the Line of Control.
Dozens of soldiers and civilians were killed and injured in intermittent clashes at the border which went on for weeks. The two sides blamed each other for “unprovoked firing” and took reciprocal diplomatic action by summoning each other’s envoy many a times. A major diplomatic row erupted between the two countries at the end of October when India declared a Pakistan High Commission staffer as persona non-grata for espionage activities after he was caught by Delhi Police with sensitive defence documents including deployment details of BSF along the Indo-Pak border.
In swift tit-for-tat action, Pakistan also declared an Indian High Commission official as persona non-grata and asked him to leave the country within 48 hours. In a further blow to Indo-Pak ties, Pakistan pulled out six officials at its High Commission in November.
The six Pakistani officials, including four senior diplomats, named for spying by a High Commission staffer, who was arrested and expelled for espionage, left India for home as bilateral ties continued to slide. Pakistan then claimed that the Indian High Commission officials were involved in “espionage, subversion and supporting terrorist activities in Balochistan and Sindh, especially Karachi, sabotaging China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and fuelling instability in the two provinces.”
Those Indian officials named by Pakistan also returned to India subsequently. In late November, another terror attack took place at an army camp in Jammu and Kashmir’s Nagrota in which seven soldiers were killed, leading to further strain in ties.
The animosity between the two countries also shifted to the waters with the Indus Waters Treaty soon coming into focus. India took strong exception to the World Bank’s decision to set up a Court of Arbitration and appoint a Neutral Expert to go into Pakistan’s complaint against it over Kishenganga and Ratle hydroelectric projects in Jammu and Kashmir.
However, in December, the World Bank paused the separate processes initiated by India and Pakistan under the Indus Waters Treaty to allow the two countries to consider alternative ways to resolve their disagreements.
Pakistan was also caught on the wrong foot when Aziz admitted that the government was presented with only “insufficient evidence” on alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav who is under detention. Addressing a full Senate chamber, Aziz said the dossier on Jadhav contained mere statements.
December again proved to be an important month for improving the situation. This year, Amritsar was venue for the Heart of Asia conference and Pakistan decided to send Aziz for the meeting amid the strain in ties. But no bilateral meetings with the Indian side could take place and he only exchanged pleasantries with the top Indian leadership.
Meanwhile, Pakistan also saw a change of military command that could positively reflect on the Indo-Pak frontier. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, an expert in PoK affairs, took over as Pakistan’s new army chief succeeding Gen Raheel Sharif and promised to improve the tense situation at the Line of Control soon.
In another important development, Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, an intelligence veteran, was appointed chief of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency ISI with new army chief Gen Bajwa effecting the first big reshuffle to tighten his hold on the military that plays a key role in the country’s affairs.
As part of a major shake-up of the military top brass, Bajwa abruptly removed Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar and named Mukhtar in his place while also ringing in several other changes.
Another significant development was Pakistan’s burgeoning ties with Russia. In December, Pakistan held its first-ever consultations with Russia over important global and regional issues amid warming ties between the former Cold War rivals. In September, Russia held its first-ever military exercises with Pakistan and has also started selling weapons to Islamabad.
The closeness in Pakistan-Russia ties came amid growing Indo-US relations. Significantly, the US continued to nudge Pakistan to crackdown on terror safe havens. The US Congress, earlier this month, said that USD 400 million in aid to Pakistan cannot be released unless the defence secretary certifies that Islamabad is taking “demonstrable steps” against the Haqqani network, which is accused of targeting American interests.
Passed by the Senate, the 2017 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) in fact imposes four conditions on Pakistan to be eligible for USD 400 million of the USD 900 million of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). It would be naive to think of any drastic improvements in Indo-Pak ties in the coming months after serious tension, allegations and clashes in 2016.
The new year may start at a sour note due to the first anniversary of the Pathankot attack and possible demands by India for action against the alleged perpetrators. Asked if 2017 will be better for bilateral ties, the Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman last week said it depends on the “Indian attitude, Indian intransigence and Indian behaviour to improve the security situation in the region”. “India should show that it is ready for talks. It should show seriousness to resolve Kashmir,” Zakaria said.