As the proposed NSA level talks between Bharat and Pakistan are approaching, power centres in Pakistan are back to old tactics. There are attempts of cross border infiltration, ceasefire is violated time and again and as the last nail, Pakistan dared to call separatist leaders from Jammu and Kashmir to Delhi for a dialogue in Delhi. Amidst the clouds of uncertainty over the dialogue, Bharat has invoked the house arrest for all the separatist leaders. Both countries are looking forward for result oriented dialogue. When the expected results for both the countries are different, what can we expect from the dialogue? Will Bharat be successful in bringing terrorism on the forefront? Are we drifting away from the Comprehensive Dialogue Process and focussing exclusively on ‘security’ dimensions? Most importantly, will it be a dialogue or reiteration of deadlock on critical issues impinging on bilateral relations? Organiser tries to explore ifs and buts in this dialogue process.
I always perceived the Government’s policy of calling of the Secretary level talks with Pakistan in 2014 as a good ploy. When it decided to briefly engage but only gingerly by sending Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Pakistan for a SAARC recce I thought that too was smart although many seasoned foreign policy practitioners were extremely unhappy because nothing much had happened to allow a policy review. A very personal view that I held was that the government had sent a message of ambiguity and was willing to play along with that. Pakistan’s stance is also seasonal while ours was earlier more in the definitive mode which denied us flexibility.
Another Cover Story: Terrorism & Its Perpetrators
In the light of the above when the talks were taking place in Ufa I did not have any major expectations but was pleasantly surprised by the magnanimity of Bharat’s gesture of commencing engagement starting with the National Security Advisers (NSAs) of the two countries; followed of course by the executive level of the DGMOs and the DGs of the BSF and Rangers. The other aspects of the Joint Declaration were more cosmetic save the issue of progressing the 26/11 trials. The underlying message, at least from Bharat, was the significance it attached to the stability of the LoC, the connected issues of sponsored terror from Pakistan and seeing the 26/11 trials reach an acceptable judgment for which Bharat had done more than enough. The surprise and slight skepticism with which I viewed the Ufa declaration was also due to the fact that Pakistan had recently scored some major foreign policy success with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) and improvement of relations with Afghanistan which virtually recognised its paramount role in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. In that light and the extra constitutional control over Pakistan’s civilian government by the Deep State, permitting PM Sharif to exercise the option of engagement with Bharat did surprise many others.
A flurry of sponsored terrorist activities as part of Pakistan’s proxy war and the re-activation of the LoC south of the Pir Panjal with ceasefire violations, as it happened in the last few weeks, was expected as per past pattern. This deliberate strategy over which PM Nawaz Sharif has little control is not new. One can recall how Pakistan has always attempted to either scuttle or place obstacles in the way of a diplomatic initiative in the past. Each such event is approached with a fresh strategy but some things remain common. How this strategy works is important to analyse.
First, the pre-talks turbulence reminds the world that there is a problem still existing in J&K and the peace being sought can’t be taken for granted. Second, Bharat and its leaders must not be allowed to think that J&K is stable because of their efforts and that they can approach the engagement from a position of strength. Calibration still remains in the hands of Pakistan; without this projection Pakistan would be at a disadvantage. Third, it messages the Punjab terror groups (the friendly terrorists so to say, who are considered strategic assets) that they still remain significant and they should not feel sidelined by a peace initiative. Their capability must be demonstrated. Fourth, the specific exclusion of J&K from the Ufa Declaration did lead to Nawaz Sharif being pilloried in Pakistan by even the civil society. Perhaps, this time the sponsored activities in J&K are being initiated to remind all that the exclusion has no bearing on reality. This is Pakistan’s way of attempting to wrest psychological advantage. However, this strategy also rests on the presumption that Pakistan can continue to risk crossing the Rubicon, Bharat’s limit of tolerance. This limit is slowly lowering with public and media pressure and Pakistan now runs the risk of over stepping and over reaching. In my perception that is the first message that Ajit Doval will deliver to his counterpart. It has to be convincing because messaging to Pakistan otherwise is obfuscated by media debates where the main issues get mired in emotions. Pakistan never gets the right message and that is why it is essential that the first of the engagements must be gone through at the NSA level. There are other messages which Doval must deliver.
Pakistan appears firm of the belief that we are too obsessed with economic growth and development to risk a full scale conflict. It is calculating its risks very carefully so as not to breach the limit of tolerance or the proverbial ‘tipping point’. It operates from behind the veil of nuclear capability which is an artificial protection that Pakistan’s military leadership considers its trump card. It also assesses that this will keep Bharat acting rationally. Its leaders give veiled threats of the use of the nuclear option if Bharat responds conventionally. With this strategy Pakistan feels emboldened to play the J&K card even as it is embroiled internally in bitter and violent turbulence brought on by home grown terror. It also seeks to enhance its strategic hold over Afghanistan and deny Bharat any strategic space there. With its two priorities, Afghanistan and internal security, it is sensing J&K slipping from its control and therefore an obsessive revisit is causing it to create turbulence. That is the most plausible explanation I can offer for the bizarre and illogical ceasefire violations and terrorist activities in J&K which have taken an upward spiral in the last few weeks.
The importance of the NSA dialogue is that no other channels of communication can give a clear message which Bharat must convey. Ufa itself had little time for preparation and discussions. There are several Track 2 dialogues but their reports are mired in diplomatic jargon with little plain speak except the Track 2 which specifically looks at the LoC. Other messaging is all through electronic visual media where it is eyeballs for grab and brownie point scoring rather than serious communication. In the light of this a face to face dialogue at a senior functional level is a must. Perhaps Pakistan has not yet had the gumption to read the Modi Government correctly. In the parlance of international relations and especially between two neighbors with none too peaceful history, it is perception which plays half the role.
Much movement forward in the state of relations depends on the outcome or progress in the 26/11 trial in Pakistan. This is an emotive issue with Bharat. What cannot be conveyed in diplomatic notes will be mentioned by Doval. He will look forward to hear from Pakistan’s National Adviser Sartaj Aziz what fresh initiative in the prosecution of Lakhvi does Pakistan intend to follow and what exactly does it need from Bharat.
While the initiation of fresh dialogue under the Ufa process is welcome two things need to be kept in mind. First, the Bharatiya Government has had to raise the bar of its tolerance to accommodate the contents of the declaration itself. To jointly examine with Pakistan how levels of terrorism can be controlled in the subcontinent is tantamount to taking away the finger of accusation pointed at Pakistan as the main sponsor and perpetrator of terror. Secondly, it has had to accept criticism over Pakistani sponsored actions in J&K. Despite these obvious compromises that it is making in going ahead with the dialogue the Government is not displaying weakness. In fact this is virtual real politic. No one could have faulted it for calling off the talks which was the easiest option in the face of public and political pressure. Yet, to go ahead with them is giving peace a chance. Perhaps Doval’s earlier speech at the 21st Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture at Mumbai, where he called for Bharat to deliver proportionate to its weight and not below, sets the tone for what he will have to say to Aziz. It is for the latter to perceive the mood in Bharat and convey to Pakistan’s different leaderships that this time they could be making a mistake which could be costly. The DGMO talks and the BSF-Ranger talks will take place contingent to the mood at the NSA talks. The major takeaway if any will be agreement to continue talking and for that to progress the LoC has to be quieted and Pakistan’s strategic assets (terror groups) have to be pulled back. It won’t happen in a hurry; at least my military premonition tells me so. Bharat had better be prepared for other options.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) (The writer is an ex-GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps and a keen follower of Indo-Pak relations besides
developments in J&K)