Challenges India Faces in Resuming Dialogue with Pakistan
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Prime Minister Modi’s dialogue initiative towards Pakistan is premised on its stated willingness to make no distinction between good and bad terrorists, which implies a readiness to eliminate not only terrorists attacking targets within Pakistan but also those who target India. How Pakistan deals with the Pathankot attack will indicate the sincerity of its protestations.

The augury is not good, judging from the procrastination of the trial of those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. India has been demanding that they be brought to justice. Other countries, including the US several times, and now France, have also exhorted Pakistan to do so. Obama has most recently asked Pakistan to delegitimise, disrupt and dismantle terrorist networks and has mentioned the Pathankot attack as another example of the inexcusable terrorism that India has endured for too long,

At Ufa India and Pakistan had “agreed to discuss ways and means to expedite the Mumbai case trial, including additional information like providing voice samples”. The Lahore High Court has just ruled that there is no legal provision in Pakistan to obtain such voice samples.

Whether the Pakistani judiciary, as is believed, has increasingly developed strong Islamist sympathies, or individual judges are afraid of extremists and would prefer to avoid rulings that expose them to mortal violence can be debated.

It would be surprising if Nawaz Sharif and his advisers were so uninformed about Pakistani law that they took responsibility for obtaining voice samples in ignorance. The issue of voice samples has been, in fact, under discussion between the two sides ever since it was decided to resume the dialogue at Sharm el Sheikh seven months after the Mumbai attacks.

The Pakistan government must have legally examined the issue minutely since then, and so when at Ufa it agreed to address the issue it would seem, in retrospect, that it was a diplomatic posture adopted in order to seem cooperative, but in the knowledge that the courts will reject the petition, allowing Nawaz Sharif to demonstrate his good faith and also be able to plead difficulties in delivery in the face of the law.

The latest pronouncement form Nawaz Sharif that it is Pakistan’s responsibility to uncover if its soil was used in the Pathankot attack, that the ongoing investigations will soon be completed and that the finding will be made public, could be construed positively, but it is more likely a holding statement to keep the current dialogue initiative alive and not allow the FS level talks to collapse prematurely.

His admission that the Pathankot attack had a negative impact on the talks which, he felt, were going in the right direction, implies, in conjunction with his other remarks, that he realises the need to take steps to put the dialogue process back on the rails. But we have the experience of Pakistan’s handling of the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks to remain sceptical.

In any case, what Nawaz Sharif may mean by ongoing investigations being completed “soon” is unclear. If Pakistan intends to send to India the Special Investigation Team set up to probe the attack, “soon” may not prove soon enough, as terms of reference of the team, the issue of access to the Pathankot base, if asked, would have to be settled.

It is possible though that if FIRs are filed against the JeM leaders and operatives for the attack, the road to FS level talks may get opened.

The great evasiveness with which the Pakistani side, including its High Commissioner here, responds to questions whether or not JeM members have been taken into custody, and whether the JeM chief is amongst them, shows how sensitive is the subject of action against Punjab-based extremist organisations for the Pakistan government.

We may have had good tactical reasons to engage Pakistan anew, and change our earlier posture, even at the cost of creating some confusion about policy, to negate the diplomatic ground Nawaz Sharif was gaining internationally by claiming, it would appear persuasively in some quarters, that he was ready for talks but that a hardline Modi government was not.

We have put the ball back in Pakistan’s court on the dialogue issue and the connected issue of terrorism at a time when Pakistan’s conduct and affiliation with terrorism has come under greater scrutiny and strictures internationally.

We can doubt Nawaz Sharif’s sincerity and capacity to honour his commitments, as he has been Prime Minister three times now and he has been tested on the India relationship for almost two decades. He is a product of the Pakistani establishment, and no doubt subscribes to its deep-seated perceptions, prejudices, mistrust and insecurities about India.

It may be that with all this gut animus against India, he may still see it in Pakistan’s interest to defuse tensions with us. He may also be reasoning that better relations with India may raise his political standing domestically and strengthen his hand vis a vis the armed forces which distrust him and have interest in weakening him in order to retain their political pre-eminence.

The way Pakistan is structured internally, with the armed forces dominating the polity and extremist religious elements wanting to purify the country more and more, and both these groups constituting the core of the country’s hostility against India, we should be clear-sighted about the challenges we faces from Pakistan, which will persist.

Pakistan’s policy towards India is built on a national narrative in which every goodwill gesture from India is seen as a concession.

The Pakistan establishment believes that it is about to win in Afghanistan, and that India has been contained there. Ergo, Modi cannot ignore Pakistan.

The ISI has not changed its thinking. Consistent with its functioning, it would not want to be cut out from the details of the Modi-Sharif discussions. It would therefore work to sabotage them. It is believed that just as Mumbai was a lesson by the ISI to erstwhile president Zardari who had made some unusually moderate statements on terrorism and even the nuclear issue on taking over, Pathankot is seen as being directed at Nawaz Sharif to deter him from going ahead in discussions with India beyond the military’s threshold of tolerance.

There is a risk that the India-Pakistan talks being initiated by Modi will remain a formality in view of Pakistan’s Army Chief Raheel Sharif’s position, apparently conveyed by him to Washington during his visit there last year, that he wants good relations with India but not at the expense of the Kashmir issue.

In this light, Nawaz Sharif’s emphasis on the resolution of the Kashmir issue ever since he took over could well be a tactic to cover his political flank against the Pakistani military while seeking some improvement of ties with India.

We should pay attention to the way the ISI has tried to obfuscate responsibility for the Pathankot attack. It tried initially to make out that it was the United Jihadi Council (UJC) and not Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) that was responsible for it. They tried to get the UJC to claim it, which Hizbul Mujahideen did.

The objective behind this subterfuge was clearly to revive the Kashmir issue. If it were the Kashmiris from the other side, they would traverse PoK to enter J&K, not the international border to attack a base in our Punjab.

The fact that Jaish-e-Muhammad was actually involved requires a careful assessment by India of the implications of this group’s revival. It is being built up, as the presence of 10,000 people at a recent rally in Rawalkot shows.

If there is an attempt to revive JeM, our concern should be that LeT will begin reviving too.

Significantly, Dawn appears to have reported that the police in Punjab has unearthed more evidence of complicity of Pakistani elements in the Pathankot attack, even more than the leads India gave. One can assume that the ISI will contest and control the investigation of the civilian police into the attack, especially as it is a member of the SIT set up by the government.

The shadow power play in Pakistan between Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif continues, with a bearing also on the course of India-Pakistan relations. There is an effort to make Nawaz Sharif weaker through the ISI controlled news channels like the ARY.

The Pakistan military is very good at psychological warfare. Its Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing, in charge of the military’s relations with the civilian media and the civic society, has a strength of 800 people and is headed by a Lt. General, assisted by a Rear-Admiral and three Brigadiers. This is probably the largest PR apparatus that any military in the world has to project its views and condition public opinion in the direction most congenial to its interests.

General Raheel Sharif has made it known that he is not seeking an extension. The Army’s choice of his successor appears to be General Zubeir Mohd Hayat, the erstwhile Chief of Staff of General Kayani, a conservative who is believed to subscribe to Muslim League type of thinking. He has headed the Strategic Planning Division and supported the tactical nuke programme in that capacity.

Whether Nawaz Sharif will abide by the Army’s choice or exercise his own as he has done in the past- to his cost- remains to be seen. In any case, whoever is chosen will entail no major change in the relationship.

The fundamental challenge confronting us in our dealings with Pakistan is that it is ingrained in every Pakistani child’s psyche that India and Pakistan are equal. This is rooted in Jinnah’s insistence on parity prior to independence.

The Pakistani establishment remains hostile to India. The complexity of the challenge is such that a very large majority of even those who express a desire to improve relations with India, which includes those who participate in Track 2 dialogues, believe that India is behind the terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including against schools, military installations etc.

This represents an obvious contradiction in thinking. What should be worrisome is that such widespread conviction in Pakistan gives reason to Pakistani terrorist groups to continue targeting India. And if the belief is that we are attacking schools etc, the implication of this is horrendous as similar attacks could be engineered in India.

Is there hope of change in thinking in Pakistan towards India? One hopeful sign could be that it is only in Punjab that the majority- 52% of the public- considers India as an enemy, which is not the case in other provinces. This, of course, suggests that Nawaz Sharif cannot give up on Hafiz Saeed and JeM for vote bank reasons.

But any change will be a long haul affair, one that is linked to more democratisation in Pakistan and a re-ordering of civil-military relations. For the moment it is difficult to see the possibility of any breakthrough.

The resumption of the comprehensive dialogue means that the issues that have been under discussion for two decades without any real progress will be discussed again with India having to face the same entrenched Pakistani positions across the table.

Perhaps some progress can be made on trade and people to people issues. But if the terrorism issue is not resolved, the dialogue process will remain fragile and subject to interruptions. For us terrorism emanates only from one source, that is Pakistan. This is the message that has to be constantly driven home to Pakistan, which we have begun to do.

The government is right to focus on the terrorism issue. No solution can be found to any issue bedevilling our relations with Pakistan unless this issue is satisfactorily addressed and not made a subject of diplomatic point scoring by Pakistan by accusing us of terrorism in return, countering us with the Samjhauta Express argument etc, and linking the issue with a resolution of the Kashmir problem.

As regards the famous 4-point formula for Kashmir, here cannot be question of soft borders between J&K and PoK unless there is an end to terrorism.

Calls made in India and by some Pakistani experts that we should talk to the Pakistan army directly denote desperation, not good sense. The Pakistan army is not separate from the country. Its Army Chief can sit in with Nawaz Sharif during his meetings with Modi.

The belief that the appointment of retired General Janjua as Pakistan’s National Security Adviser is an advantage because we now we have a direct line to the Pakistan military is misplaced. It is doubtful if Janjua speaks for the armed forces any longer, even if his army background may make it easier for him to make connection. He will speak on behalf of the government which has put him in place. Some believe this step was taken on account of his indifferent relations with General Raheel Sharif.

Those who follow developments in Pakistan would recall how General Durrani was dismissed by Prime Minister Geelani at the behest of the ISI when he acknowledged on TV that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani after the green light given to him by the then president Zardari.

The entrenched thinking of the Pakistani military is such that they do not quite see the deterioration of Pakistan’s economy and societal fissures as a priority problem to be addressed.

Because of low oil prices, Pakistan has obtained a temporary economic reprieve. But its exports are falling and the flow of remittances will begin to decline in two years as the Gulf countries are reducing the employment contracts for Pakistanis- for white collar workers in particular- as a retaliation for Pakistan’s failure to participate in the Yemen conflict at the request of Saudi Arabia.

The Pakistan army does not want to get involved in West Asia. Iran has become a major factor in Pakistani politics. The 20% Shia population of Pakistan has turned to Iran from where money is flowing to them. This is a major factor in Balochistan. Already 4 or 5 major border incidents with Iran have taken place there.

A lot of store is being set in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), without a proper appreciation of the great difficulties in realising it. Under it there are multiple projects involving Chinese corporations. The nature of Chinese loans for these projects is not clear. Will sovereign guarantees be involved? Political issues regarding the alignment of the CPEC have arisen, with China upset that the project has become a domestic political issue.

All in all, we have taken a bold and risky step in renewing the dialogue with Pakistan. That we are not doing it from a position of weakness is apparent in the manner in which we are seeking action on Pathankot before fixing dates for the FS level dialogue. It appears that the messages we have communicated at the NSA level are tough, with certain lines made clear.

There is no guarantee of success. But we are habituated to failures with Pakistan, and can move on with the forward momentum that we now have as a country.

Published Date: 1st Feb 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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