Indo-Pak dialogue off the table, no viable options in hand - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 2 October 2015

Indo-Pak dialogue off the table, no viable options in hand

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd Oct 15

Just five out of 33 paragraphs in Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on Thursday referred directly to terrorism, specifically Pakistan-backed terrorism. Yet, Swaraj’s measured comments, a day after an official from India’s Permanent Mission at the UN fired an unrestrained broadside at Islamabad while exercising India’s “Right of Reply” to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech earlier on Wednesday, doused hopes of any early resumption of the Indo-Pakistan peace dialogue

There was already a pall over the dialogue process after New Delhi’s cancellation of a meeting scheduled on August 23 between the two national security advisors (NSAs). That cancellation resulted from Islamabad’s insistence that NSA Sartaj Aziz would raise the Kashmir question during his visit to New Delhi, even though the two prime ministers had agreed in July at Ufa, Russia, that the NSAs would discuss terrorism.

Sharif’s speech at the UN, which followed his Indian counterpart’s comparatively restrained address, made it clear that Islamabad had decided to use the UN podium for grandstanding on Kashmir, rather than for a return to dialogue. Sharif’s “four-point proposal” for peace with India violated key Indian red lines. First, he proposed that “Pakistan and India formalise and respect [the] 2003 understanding for complete ceasefire on LoC [Line of Control] in Kashmir”, towards which the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) should be expanded. Ever since the Shimla Agreement of 1972, in which the two countries had agreed to settle all disputes bilaterally, New Delhi has argued that UNMOGIP, which represents a multilateral body (the UN), must be wound up.

Sharif’s second proposal was that “Pakistan and India will not resort to the use or the threat of use of force under any circumstances”. New Delhi and Islamabad have batted around the idea of a “no war pact” since 1949, when it was first raised by India. However, each country has rejected it in turn. For New Delhi at present, signing a “no war pact” would amount to renouncing the use of its powerful military, which is seen as an essential deterrent to Pakistan’s export of terror to India.

The Pakistani PM’s third suggestion was even more provocative, proposing, “steps be taken to demilitarise Kashmir.” With Indian security forces daily combating Pakistan-sponsored militancy and separatism in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), New Delhi has ruled out demilitarising even relatively peaceful districts of that state. Any suggestion to demilitarise the state would be quickly dismissed by Indian security planners as “giving a walk-over to the separatists”.

Sharif’s fourth suggestion of “an unconditional mutual withdrawal from Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battleground” is quite simply a non-starter. India’s military has made it clear that any demilitarisation of Siachen, which is dominated fully by Indian picquets, would have to be preceded by a delineation of existing front lines so that Pakistan cannot sneak back and occupy the heights of the Saltoro Ridge.

This is all well known to Pakistan but, over the last two years, that country’s approach to dialogue with India has dramatically changed. No longer does Islamabad or the Pakistan Army hanker for peace talks. They have understood the futility of talking to an India that is unwilling, and unable, to make concessions on Kashmir. Nor, since the departure of General Pervez Musharraf, has there been a Pakistani leader who could carry off domestically an agreement like the “four-point formula” on J&K reached between Musharraf and then Indian prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, which involved “making the border irrelevant”.

New Delhi too has concluded that dialogue is currently unachievable. Said Swaraj on Thursday: “Yesterday the Prime Minister of Pakistan proposed what he termed as a four-point new peace initiative. I would like to respond. We do not need four points, we need just one --- give up terrorism and let us sit down and talk.”

Effectively, this signals an end to New Delhi’s longstanding system of rewarding and punishing Islamabad by scheduling or cancelling talks. Nor are there any alternative diplomatic incentives at hand. That leaves New Delhi with only verbal or military options, both of questionable utility.

Like many antagonists before them, New Delhi and Islamabad could theoretically bypass the thorny disagreements of J&K, Siachen and terrorism, and instead discuss issues like trade and commerce and people-to-people ties that would create constituencies for peace. However, Islamabad has always seen discussions on these topics as a concession to India, while New Delhi has seen discussions on the security related issues of J&K, Siachen and Sir Creek as a concession to Pakistan.

Pakistan’s current belligerence stems from the belief within its security establishment that events in Afghanistan are going its way; that China is emerging as a credible alternative to America as a superpower sponsor; and that the Pakistan Army is prevailing in the fight against anti-Pakistan terrorist groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Baluch separatists, and rising disaffection in Gilgit-Baltistan.

As India and Pakistan disengage from the dialogue process, presumably temporarily, the strength that they return to the table with depends upon how they deal with these internal conflicts. Despite Pakistan’s current optimism, its apparently favourable internal environment could quickly turn hostile. The Taliban’s lightning capture of Konduz, in Afghanistan, this week indicates how fast events are moving. The history of AfPak from 1996-2001 has shown that, as the Taliban grows stronger, it becomes less amenable to control by Pakistan.

New Delhi, with little control over those developments, would do well to use this interval for instituting a serious internal dialogue with Kashmiri separatists, one that would undermine Pakistan’s own channels of communications with them. For too long, New Delhi has acted as if all roads to Srinagar pass through Islamabad. It is time to forge a credible New Delhi – Srinagar axis. 

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