Bharat-Pakistan : From Paris to Pakistan
The sudden movements in Bharat-Pakistan dialogue process may look absurd for many, in reality there is a method in madness. Bharat had to be part of the Heart of Asia Conference, which is Afghanistan centric. Before that, as agreed in the Ufa process, NSA level dialogue was necessary. As Pakistan is under tremendous pressure to deliver on the front of terrorism with looming ISIS crisis, initiating dialogue was paramount for the troubling neighbour. Instead of looking at it as a leap forward, it should be seen as a step forward. Terrorism remained at the forefront of discussion is the critical advantage Bharat has achieved in this process.
Bharat and Pakistan are resuming bilateral dialogue, the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said during her visit to Islamabad on December 9. Smt Swaraj made the announcement following a meeting with Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Adviser, at the Foreign Office in Islamabad.
There is much criticism in media and some intellectual circles about the supposed flip flops in the handling of Bharat’s relationship with Pakistan. Among issues being quoted as examples is our willingness to engage in talks without any guarantee of pull back by Pakistan from support to terrorism being perpetrated by it proxies; the acceptance of holding initial talks in a location outside the subcontinent; the inclusion of J&K in the agenda against the agreement at Ufa where J&K was noticeably absent and the possibility of commencing cricketing ties with Pakistan. Also there were accusations that Pakistan had given no assurance on 26/11 trials and the D Company.
Heart of Asia Conference (December 8-10, 2015)
A regional conference hosted by Pakistan with focus on Afghanistan where External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj represented Bharat.
Point for point the above aspects can all be countered in the post security environment prevailing post Paris attacks but the first issue is the mistaken notion of ‘flip flop’. We have really had no process of consultation for long and when differences between two countries are so contentious often commencement of engagement itself becomes a non-starter. Borrowing from that idiom perhaps a better way of describing anything in the diplomatic domain which is beset with security nuances is the term ‘fits and starts’. This is shorn of any political color and primarily considers national interest as the core issue. To get an engagement process off the ground a government has to consider many things, among them being the international and regional security environment prevailing at that time, the domestic compulsions, strength and commitment of the nation being engaged and the length to which the initial engagement itself can be taken. On all these counts the decision to engage with Pakistan appears to be sound and the degree to which it has been taken at first contact is appropriate. Giveaways will be minimal because this is going to be a long drawn process and we should be prepared for sapping of the same at any time the situation is against national interest. Let me justify all this.
I consider the Ufa agenda as the base agenda and if we agree that a degree of domestic consensus had been established at that time four months ago, nothing very different has been agreed upon in the recent Bangkok NSA level talks and the visit of the External Affairs Minister to Pakistan. The agenda only changed to the extent that Bharat accepted J&K as a point of discussion but as is evident only security issues on J&K were discussed. The Hurriyat issue was deftly sidestepped by taking the talks to Bangkok. No doubt that was a change from the promised no third location. Yet, by traveling to Bangkok there was no question of entry of a third party interlocutor as is being alleged by some. Many times, in issues involving diplomacy, statements are made for a moment to wrest psychological advantage in the negotiations which will follow but do not remain permanently embedded red lines. Dilution in national interest and to wrest some advantage is always an element which remains open. Domestic politics and compulsions do not come in the way of national security interest.
There is also justification for change considering the altered international security environment. It needs to be remembered that the world changed considerably after the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and other locations in the US. The second churning is now taking place in 2015 with two trends; first the emergence of Daesh as an international rogue with potential for destabilising much of the world; and second, the Paris terror attacks which have demonstrated the reach of Daesh. Coupled with this is the ongoing battle against Daesh in the West Asia leading to flows of Syrian refugees into Europe. How does this affect Bharat and more importantly Bharat Pakistan relations? The linkages expand to take into consideration the second potentially dangerous area where increasing tensions are likely to have international ramifications, Afghanistan. Daesh is attempting to expand into Afghanistan taking advantage of the turbulence there arising out of the split in ranks of the Taliban and the fallout between President Ashraf Ghani and the Pakistan leadership on whom Ghani had placed all his hope. The inability of Pakistan to prevent the summer offensive and more specifically the Kabul suicide attacks in Aug this year brought President Ghani back to depending on Bharat for support. The Heart of Asia Conference at Islamabad on 8-10 December 2015 was scheduled much earlier but came most appropriately at a time when the 14 core regional states and the 17 supporting nations met to discuss a future course in Afghanistan. The immediate need was for infusion of aid and military hardware besides psychological shoring up of the Government of Unity.
Given the above, Bharat’s concerns extend to stabilisation of the West Asia where its energy sources lie besides the 7 million strong diaspora; in addition the stability of Afghanistan where turbulence will inevitably have ripple effects on our security. Pakistan is obviously under pressure of the West, a pressure that China (its all-weather friend) cannot stave off. In spite of its very significant geo-strategic location the label of being the core center of Islamic radicalism is being planted even more firmly on it and Islamic radicalism is now a paranoia which most concerns the West. Clearly Pakistan is a bad boy all over again in the international security environment. This perception is going to negatively impinge on its already fragile economy. Its relative importance in Afghanistan is also diluting. All this was probably conveyed to General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s military strongman who runs its foreign policy and security affairs, during a recent visit to the US. Pakistan perhaps perceives this all by itself too. The West led by the US has made it evident to Pakistan that its attention is on the West Asia and it expects a more responsible attitude towards the handling of Islamic radicalism in the Af-Pak region. Here comes the crunch part of it. In all probability Pakistan’s sudden positive turn towards a thaw with Bharat comes from this pressure. If it does not act sufficiently and in an early time frame the shoe may just start pinching. The more the situation in West Asia deteriorates and its effects are felt in Europe the greater will also be the pressure on Pakistan. The San Bernardino killings with a Pakistani label on it, hasn’t made things easier although it is just a recent happening.
Pakistan’s weak international status has created a distinct advantage for Bharat. This situation favours Bharat not only in the resumption of dialogue but also strengthens its position on Afghanistan where its return to the high table is eagerly sought by the Afghan leadership. The Heart of Asia Conference was an important event for our External Affairs Minister to attend. That was not possible without a conducive environment in Bharat-Pakistan equation. It is early to say whether it is a win-win situation for Bharat. The return to prominence in the Afghanistan situation is a strategic positive; the Bharat-Pakistan breakthrough or thaw is at the tactical stage. The positive is that the decision to discuss and take forward the dialogue has at least yielded positive results. With Pakistan clearly under pressure and Bharat’s international image growing we have reason to be happy and take forward the dialogue from a position of strength. To that extent the timing of all the high profile events over the last week has clearly been in our favor and the government has done well to seize the moment. Brickbats would probably give way to bouquets in the near future.
The last word, on cricket. As a cricket aficionado, I like many others would love to see the return of the Pakistan cricket team to Bharateeya pitches. However, one thing at a time and that time will probably come soon. Let the process of dialogue (Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue) be decided; cricket will probably have its rightful place among the decisions.
Syed Ata Hasnain (The writer is a former GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group)