The Pakistani intelligence service is behind the recent attack on a major Indian air force base in Punjab using a terrorist group it created 15 years ago, according to well-informed press and other knowledgeable sources. The attack is designed to prevent any detente between India and Pakistan after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise Christmas Day visit to Pakistan.
The escalating violence between the two nuclear-weapons states, which have already fought four wars, threatens to get worse. The Pakistani intelligence service has the capability to launch more attacks with little notice, at some point prompting a vigorous Indian response.
On Dec. 31, a team of terrorists infiltrated across the Pakistani border into India. On Saturday they assaulted the Pathankot air base, one of India’s largest air force installations near the border. At least seven Indian soldiers were killed in the fighting, which lasted for days. On Sunday, the Indian Consulate in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan was also attacked by gunmen.
Both attacks are the work of the Pakistani terror group Jaish e Muhammad, according to reliable press reports. JEM was created in 2000 by Mualana Masoud Azhar, a longtime Pakistani terrorist leader. Azhar was captured in India in 1994 after taking western hostages in Kashmir. In December 1999 a group of terrorists hijacked an Air India jet flying from Nepal to India and diverted it to Afghanistan. They demanded the release of Azhar and his colleagues in return for the passengers and crew.
And they got it, thanks to help from the Pakistani intelligence service ISI and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, according to accounts of the hijacking based on the Indian officials who negotiated with the terrorists for the hostages’ freedom.
The Afghan Taliban assisted the hijackers once they got to Afghanistan. Once Azhar was traded for the hostages, the ISI took him on a public victory tour through Pakistan to raise money for the jihad against India, and he announced the formation of Jaish e Muhammad, or the Army of Muhammad, in early 2000. JEM received training and weapons from the ISI and worked closely with al Qaeda.
In December 2001, JEM terrorists working with terrorists from another ISI-backed group, Lashkar e Tayyiba (LET), attacked the Indian parliament building in New Delhi. That attack prompted India to mobilize its military, and a tense standoff went on for nine months. Only intense mediation by President Bush’s national security team averted war.
Azhar kept a low profile for several years after LET’s 2008 attack on Mumbai, but he reappeared publicly in 2014, giving fiery calls for more attacks on India and the United States. His group is technically illegal in Pakistan but enjoys the continuing patronage of the ISI.
The ISI is under the generals’ command and is composed of army officers, so the spies are controlled by the Pakistani army, which justifies its large budget and nuclear weapons program by citing the Indian menace. Any diminution in tensions with India might risk the army’s lock on its control of Pakistan’s national security policy. The army continues to distinguish between “good” terrorists like JEM and LET and “bad” terrorists like the Pakistani Taliban, despite decades of lectures from American leaders.
The army has long distrusted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has advocated a detente with India since the 1990s. An army coup in 1999 sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia for a decade. His warm embrace of Modi on Christmas Day in his home in Lahore undoubtedly angered the generals.
Modi’s visit was the first by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade. It was also Sharif’s birthday and the birthday of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Jinnah. Modi’s decision to visit and the warm family greeting Sharif extended set the stage for a planned resumption of formal diplomatic negotiations between the two countries scheduled for later this month.
So far New Delhi has not canceled the planned talks. Modi’s advisers are well aware of the double game the Pakistani army plays and the differences inside the Pakistani establishment. After four wars with Pakistan and a nuclear arms race, Indian experts understand the complexity of the dynamics inside Islamabad. The Indians have accepted Prime Minister Sharif’s public condemnation of the attack and promised to provide evidence of JEM’s role to his government, including cellphones captured in the attack.
Washington put JEM on the terrorist sanctions list years ago—but it continues to coddle the Pakistani army. Gen. Raheel Sharif, the army’s boss (and no relation to the prime minister) got a warm embrace from the Pentagon last fall—despite the ISI’s support for the Afghan Taliban’s offensive against the Kabul government and despite the Pakistani military’s backing of terror groups like JEM.