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The precarious path to peace

Recent statements from Pakistan and India indicate a thaw in frozen ties may be in the offing

By Naveed Hussain |
Creative: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED June 12, 2021

A flurry of recent statements from Pakistan’s civil and military leaders indicate a renewed push for thaw in frozen ties with India following a period of highly incendiary rhetoric between the two countries.

In the latest statement, Prime Minister Imran Khan told Reuters news agency earlier this month that Pakistan is ready to resume talks if Delhi provides a roadmap towards restoring the previous status of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. “If there is a roadmap, then, yes, we will talk,” he said in a move that signals reversal of a stance Pakistan has espoused since IIOJK’s autonomy was stripped nearly two years ago. Previously, the PTI government insisted that India would have to first undo its 2019 steps in IIOJK for any normalisation to kick in.

Khan’s statement was neither impromptu nor surprising. The prelude came from army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in early February when he said that Pakistan was committed to the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence and that “it is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions”.

Days later, the DGMOs of the two armies sprang a surprise: A rare joint commitment to respect the 2003 ceasefire agreement following months of border skirmishes. They agreed to “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control (LoC)” and to assuage each other’s concerns which have a propensity to vitiate peace.

Guns immediately fell silent. And the ceasefire has been holding since. In a further fillip to peace, Gen Bajwa made another conciliatory move. A stable Pakistan-India relationship is key to unlocking the potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia, he said at Pakistan’s first-ever Security Dialogue in March, this year. “This potential, however, has forever remained hostage to disputes and issues between two nuclear neighbours. Kashmir dispute is obviously at the head of this problem,” he said.

Another surprise came close on the heels: resumption of talks on the use of water resources from the two nations’ shared Indus river. Officials met for the first time in over two years in the Indian capital in a bid to iron out outstanding issues under the Indus Waters Treaty, including Pakistan’s objections to the design of India’s hydropower projects on the Chenab river.

An exchange of letters between the two prime ministers further eased the strain. “India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan. For this, an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility, is imperative,” Modi wrote in a letter to his counterpart on the occasion of Pakistan Day. Khan reciprocated, saying Pakistan also wants peace but creation of an ‘enabling environment’ is imperative for a constructive and result-oriented dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues.

According to the Indian media, the detente was the result of months of externally mediated backchannel interactions between the top national security officers of the two countries – including at least one face-to-face meeting in a third country. Pakistan’s national security adviser Moeed Yusuf was quick to quash the report.

The Indian media didn’t name the mediator. But a Western news agency revealed that the UAE royals were trying to broker bridge-building between Delhi and Islamabad. A month later this was confirmed by the Emirati envoy to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, at a Stanford University discussion. “The UAE played a role in bringing Kashmir escalation down and created a ceasefire, hopefully ultimately leading to restoring diplomats and getting the relationship back to a healthy level”.

Ambassador Otaiba’s revelation shows the series of developments were choreographed under a UAE-brokered peace roadmap. In the next step the two nations are supposed to restore diplomatic ties severed by Pakistan post Modi’s IIOJK move. And this would lead to talks on resuming trade and resolving the Kashmir dispute.

But a Pakistani move to restore trade with India backfired. The PTI government had to withdraw its decision to import sugar, cotton and wheat from India days after the Economic Coordination Committee gave the nod of approval. The volte-face was triggered by scathing criticism from opposition parties.

Pakistan has always welcomed third-party mediation to settle disputes with India – something Delhi has evaded since the signing of the 1972 Simla Agreement. The Modi administration’s tacit acquiescence to the UAE mediation indicated a paradigm shift in its policy which could have been prompted by several factors.

First, Premier Khan mounted a vociferous global campaign to portray Modi as a virtual reincarnation of Hitler and his fascist BJP as the Nazi party redux. Khan’s campaign received global spotlight and triggered debates in Western media on BJP’s divisive politics and Modi’s despotic rule. The unrelenting campaign unnerved India. And Modi relented to reengage with Pakistan – tough not publicly yet.

Second, the ravages of the novel coronavirus and the economic downturn it has caused in India seriously dented the popularity of Modi, who had sought to portray himself as politically invincible. Modi’s epic failure to contain the apocalyptic spread of the deadly contagion motivated his political rivals to erode his popularity. This predicament pushed Modi to give up bellicosity towards Pakistan in order to salvage his sinking political fortunes at home.

Third, India believes its primary concern is China, especially after last year’s drubbing in a deadly military standoff on their disputed border in Ladakh. Although the two sides have agreed to a partial pullout, their troops are still locked in standoffs at multiple locations in the region. Modi’s India – still in the throes of the pandemic – knows that heating up border tensions with two nuclear-armed adversaries at the same time is something it can ill afford. It has to dial down hostile rhetoric with Pakistan to secure time and muster resources for bolstering defences against China.

Fourth, the Modi administration must have realised that the Afghan endgame has once again brought Pakistan back into the American spotlight. Pakistan is not only crucial to an orderly US pullback but also to future Pentagon plans to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t become a terror launch-pad again. Globally, too, Pakistan has successfully reoriented itself as a regional peace broker. The Modi administration might have agreed to reengage with Islamabad only to preempt any pressure from the United States.

On the other hand in Pakistan, the military establishment – which is widely seen as the architect of the country’s foreign policy – appears to have realised that it is high time Pakistan made the paradigm shift from geopolitics to geo-economics. The Bajwa doctrine 2021 envisages putting our own house in order, building regional peace, enhancing intra-regional trade, and increasing connectivity. In line with this doctrine, Pakistan has publicly given up its decades-old policy of pushing for strategic depth in Afghanistan. “Any Afghan government chosen by the people is who Pakistan should deal with,” Khan said in the Reuters interview. “Pakistan should not try to do any manipulation in Afghanistan".

Delhi has routinely accused Pakistan’s military for scuttling repeated peace efforts initiated by political governments. However, the statements from PM Khan and Gen Bajwa show this time the civil and military leaderships are on the same page vis-à-vis India. The Modi administration has to seize this opportunity if it truly believes in making peace with Pakistan for greater sub-continental good.

However, there has been no public reciprocation of Pakistan’s growing calls for peace from India’s political leadership. The only statement came from their army chief, Gen Naravane, who admitted that the holding of the ceasefire for the last three months has contributed to a feeling of peace and security. He called it the “first step on a long road to normalisation”. But in the same breath, he said he has no reason to believe Pakistan Army has dismantled the ‘terror infrastructure’ on their side of LoC – an allegation Pakistan’s military denies. Gen Naravane believes Pakistan might be unwilling to heat up tensions on the eastern border at a time when foreign troops are exiting Afghanistan, which risks sliding back into deadly chaos with a potential to suck Pakistan into the conflict.

Also, there has been no indication that the Modi government would undo, or at least has any plans to undo, the revocation of IIOJK’s special status. On the contrary, recent media reports suggest Delhi is planning more administrative changes in the disputed Himalayan state. This could unravel the inchoate détente. And the two countries might find themselves back at square one.

The primacy of Kashmir dispute to India-Pakistan normalisation is unarguable. In the past, peace overtures quickly fell through when the two nations failed to make progress on Kashmir. PM Khan has consistently said that normalisation with Delhi without resolution of the Kashmir dispute would be akin to betrayal of Kashmiris. And Gen Qamar is also convinced that unless the Kashmir dispute is resolved, the process of “sub-continental rapprochement” will always be susceptible to derailment due to “politically motivated bellicosity”.