What most Indians can agree on is the that the recent visit of the Joint Investigative Team to Pathankot was a landmark of sorts – possibly the first time a Pakistani team has been allowed on an Indian base with prior permission. This however is where the consensus ends. Most people would see this as a sign of extraordinary naiveté on part of the government, while a small minority would see it as an extremely far sighted move laying the groundwork for big things to come.
If you choose to see the government as being extraordinarily gullible, you’d be on solid ground based on the facts so far. The JIT stated that India had failed to prove its case that Pakistan or Pakistanis were behind the attack. Obviously most security commentators simply rolled their eyes and went “I told you so”. After all it is a pertinent question as to what has changed on the ground in Pakistan to merit a strategic shift by the Pakistan military’s decades old policy of using sub-state actors against India. The answer would obviously be – Nothing. The JIT embarrassment was within 24 hours of China acting in direct coordination with Pakistan has just this week blocked the blacklisting of Masood Azhar. The clearest sign of the governments extraordinary pusillanimity was when the MEA launched an entirely misdirected attack at the UN, without once naming China for the UN blacklisting fiasco. The media played this up as “India flays China” when in fact the reality was the MEA caved, petrified as it normally does when China enters the picture. All in all the case for Hanlon’s Razor seems cast iron.
Not exactly, though the case for this government’s (alleged) far sightedness does not rest on facts but a series of what-ifs – specifically opening up an era of military Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) – specifically base visits. Having taken part in a series of such base visits, aimed at training a new generation of Indians in the benefits of such CBM’s – I can tell you quite frankly that they are extremely effective and they work.
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What such visits force you to do is to critically evaluate what part of your base infrastructure is actually required to be protected from prying eyes and what isn’t. You can mutually negotiate what kind of cameras and recording devices are to be used, what parts the visiting team will have access to or not. You can also erect a whole series of screens and walls to block visual access to sensitive parts. In the simulation exercises we did – we were able to completely shield the missile bases air defence system from the eyes of the visiting inspectors – although telling them upfront that this would be the case. To give you an example of how effective these can be – the Israelis constructed a series of false walls to shield the military aspects of their Dimona reactor from the civilian, successfully passing every inspection of that facility. This was more a case of subterfuge rather than confidence building, but proves the point that you can have a team from a hostile country visit your most secret facilities and still keep their secrets secure.
If you have doubts then that any critical information regarding the base was leaked, it would be misplaced, unless the personnel who planned the site visit were particularly incompetent at their jobs. What the visit has however done, is laid the groundwork for India to request reciprocal visits and make them a regular feature. The base was within tens of kilometres of the border, and therefore reciprocal visits open up a range of possibilities for India – specifically with regards to the terror support infrastructure on the Pakistani side of the border.
Now I hear you ask “well if you can hide what you want to hide during these visits what’s the point?”. The point is mostly political. Pakistan’s only remaining source of angst against India that resonates in the west is the disparity in the size of the two military’s and Pakistan’s constant refrain, that “cold start” is being readied to take it out at a moments notice. Scholars like Dr Christine Fair have comprehensively demolished this argument of the India threat citing Pakistan’s own internal defence literature – where the army is more focussed on the ideological with almost no mention of the military threat. Regularising such base visits, would add concrete proof to Dr Fair’s academic position that Pakistan has no legitimate security threat from India. If used adroitly it could mean that Pakistan’s last excuse that gets it any kind of sympathy in the west will lose salience.
The tactical advantages of these base visits will depend on the competence of our military inspectors, while the diplomatic advantages will depend on the MEA who are demonstrably the weakest link in the chain. If indeed it was far sighted wisdom that drove the JIT visit to Pathankot is a question that only time can answer. In the near term we may just have to settle for the naiveté explanation.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is an independent defence analyst. He has coordinated the National Security at the Observer Research Foundation & been visiting fellow at Sandia National Laboratories and the Stimson Centre. He writes about defence policy, technology & defence cooperation on his blog, Tarkash, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry.
Abhijit tweets as @abhijit_iyer