August 04, 2013

Change-of-heart in Pak?

Back-channel talks may be fruitful
by G. Parthasarathy

OVEROPTIMISTIC assessments about a “change-of-heart” in the political elite in Islamabad and in Pakistan's de facto rulers, its khaki uniformed military, reinforced by self-serving “they-are-now-good-boys” certificates from the Americans and the British have often led to erroneous assessments by the Indian establishment of Pakistan's political imperatives and policies. The present narrative emerging from New Delhi's starry-eyed Wagah “candle-light brigade” is that with Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi with a strong political base in the Army-dominated Punjab province, now Pakistan’s Prime Minister, we are assured of terrorism-free ties and blossoming bonhomie and friendship. It is true that Sharif is keen that nothing should come in the way of his efforts to set the Pakistani economy in order, or set right the power crisis in his country. Tensions with India will be an avoidable distraction for him and should, in his political perspective, presently be avoided.

A good beginning has been made to normalise ties with Pakistan after the recent elections there. The Prime Minister's special envoy Satinder Lambah, who is a hard-headed realist on relations with Pakistan, met Mr. Sharif in Lahore, even before Sharif assumed office. Nawabzada Shahryar Khan, a suave and sophisticated Pakistani diplomat was, in turn, sent to New Delhi. It has been agreed that that “back-channel” talks will be resumed between the designated special envoys. The back-channel talks, which earlier took place between Mr. Lambah and his then counterpart Tariq Aziz, did make substantial progress in devising a framework to deal with the Kashmir issue by arriving at common ground between General Musharraf's proposals for “self-governance” and Dr. Manmohan Singh's assertion in Amritsar that borders cannot be redrawn, but we can work towards making them “just lines on a map”.

The “back-channel” talks between 2005 and 2007 took place after General Musharraf assured Mr. Vajpayee in January 2004 that “territory under Pakistan’s control will not be used for terrorism against India”. This was preceded by an agreement for a ceasefire across the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir — an agreement that has broadly been observed by both sides, with violations occasionally occurring, when Jihadis are sought to be infiltrated across the LoC. Moreover, General Musharraf did, for various reasons, rein in his Jihadi groups till his power progressively eroded in 2007. While he did keep his Corps Commanders informed about the back-channel talks, I was not surprised when two of his favourites, whom he made 4-Star Generals, subsequently insisted to me that they were unaware of what had transpired. The Pakistan army is quick to disown whatever it finds inconvenient. We should have no doubt that the Sharif government will not agree to start “back-channel” discussions where they concluded in 2007. We can, at best, expect some progress on Kashmir-related CBMs. Disowning past agreements is a trademark of Pakistani foreign policy. General Zia was determined to disown the Simla Agreement and Benazir junked the Ministerial Joint Commission set up by Zia.

Pakistan is going to be primarily focused on developments on its western borders across the Durand Line. While lip-service is paid to non-interference and respect for Afghanistan's sovereignty, Pakistan appears determined to ensure that even as the American withdrawal proceeds, the Taliban takes control progressively of parts of South-Eastern Afghanistan, while keeping the entire Pashtun belt under its pressure. In their desperation to cut their losses and exit from Afghanistan, the Americans appear quite reconciled to this happening. I was interested in taking note recently of sneering references by some Pakistani friends asking how India would ensure the safety of its nationals spread across Afghanistan, once the Americans left. More importantly, whether it is on issues of dealing with terrorist groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan, the Quetta and Peshawar Shura of Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, or the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the real driving force will remain the Pakistan army.

The constant refrain of Pakistani interlocutors now is that India “should forget the past,” and “put Mumbai behind” and move on with “business as usual”. In effect, the message is that we should forget any possibility of Pakistan bringing the perpetrators of 26/11 to book. We should never forget that apart from being the most trusted asset of the ISI in waging Jihad against India, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed has enjoyed the patronage of two generations of the Sharif family and even today receives funding from the Punjab Government headed by Shahbaz Sharif. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is slated to meet Mr. Sharif in New York in September. It is imperative that he makes it clear to his counterpart that India will not "forgive or forget"" what transpired during the 26/11 attack and that terrorism cannot go hand in hand with dialogue and normalisation.

There is much that India and Pakistan can do to move the process of normalisation forward. The ministerial-level Joint Commission set up in 1983 can be revived and reinvigorated. There could be greater energy cooperation involving the supply of electrical power and finished petroleum products across the Punjab border. Group tourism and pilgrimage, easing of visa restrictions and more extensive contacts between academics, youth and wide cross-sections of civil society need to be promoted. While welcoming improved trade relations, overzealous sections of India’s business community should avoid giving the impression that the grant of obligatory MFN treatment to our exports is of vital importance to us.

The Pakistan military seems to have some “bright ideas” to scare the Western world and India by threats of using tactical nuclear weapons against India, if India retaliates following another 26/11 style terrorist attack. I responded to such threats recently telling Pakistani military officials that we were not impressed by such bluster, adding that while the Pak army was “adventurist,” its officers lived too comfortably to be “suicidal” ! The Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran, has addressed this quite bluntly, while explaining the tenets of India's nuclear doctrine. A wide-ranging defence dialogue with Pakistan, including more regular contacts between the armies, navies and air forces, will be useful. There appears little prospect of any movement on issues like the demarcation of the land boundary around Sir Creek and beyond, or on the the Siachen issue. One will have to live with the status quo on such issues, while ensuring the existing CBMs are respected.

It would be imprudent to rush into summit-level bilateral visits till there are clear indications that our concerns on terrorism are being irreversibly addressed. The Lahore Summit was followed by the Kargil conflict and the ill-planned Agra Summit by the attack on our Parliament

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