Can Indo-Pak talks afford to fail?
As the Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan wound down to an unceremonious finish, headlines all over the world scrambled to draw a red line between success or failure. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remarks in Riyadh brought some emollient to a crusty diplomatic standoff, while the terrorism message still hung in the balance. Islamabad’s response to coercive diplomacy remained cool.
Despite all the posturing, both sides are aware of the need for talks to go on. New Delhi and Islamabad know that they need to negotiate a shade of gray that invests in the process as much as its progress. At the foreign secretary encounter, no date was announced for resumption of dialogue, but no closure was stated either. Both sides said talks must focus on stated priorities, while neither yielded ground on tangible means. The fact that there was no joint press conference, or even communiquÃ©, brought forth alarm from all over the globe.
No surprises, actually. Did anyone really think that the two countries’ top diplomats were mandated for even a minor breakthrough? After three major wars, two smaller battles, and a half-century of conflict and bitterness, choices for change are not made at any level less than the head of both governments. The SAARC summit is where contact can be made between the leaders of both warring nations, where ice can either begin thawing, or can reinforce the culture of rivalry. Pakistan is looking for substantive talks and a resumption of composite dialogue. India still wants terrorism to feature as the only big-ticket item. Both are set to use the maximum leverage available off the dialogue table, to start stacking the decks in its favor.
Despite New Delhiâ€™s public recoil at the suggestion of international mediation, there are clearly more than two players involved in this dialogue. In fact, with Saudi Arabia now so overtly drawn into the fray by India, despite protestations to the contrary, the question to be asked is: Why are so many countries invested in this dialogue, and how far can they go in this limited options menu?
Enmity between the two South Asian nuclear countries has always drawn international attention, and in fact, the United States, and the UK, have a long history of mediation both behind the scenes and inside the room. Since 1948, when India took the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations, both imperial powers have plowed a great deal of resources and high-level energy into unraveling the complicated skeins of Indo-Pak rivalry. They only ceased to mediate institutionally when after the Simla treaty, Indian intransigence on bilateralism, as well as a serious erosion of their own diplomatic positions in South Asia followed frustrated missions. Since then, all US efforts have been focused on crisis management between the two nuclear neighbors.
The perennial motive for US crisis management, such as Kargil and then 2002, when India mobilized against Pakistan, was of course to stabilize a region that Washington saw as the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in the world. Kashmir too, was in fact, feared as a festering sore that could trigger a nuclear Armageddon, as late as President Clinton. But New Delhi’s growing economic clout with American markets and its links with influential Israeli caucuses tipped the balance during the Bush years, enough to provoke an arms race in South Asia by signing the US-India nuclear deal. Islamabad found little reprieve in this new strategic framework even under the Obama administration, when it was forced to accept the fact that New Delhi was able to make Washington drop Kashmir from its special representative’s agenda in the region.
Recently, though, a whole range of tectonic political plates in the entire region have begun to shift. There is no denying the reality that the new motive for international interest in stabilizing the shifting sands between India and Pakistan has to do with US policy failures, and fear of further defeat, in Afghanistan. As a state with the longest border with Afghanistan, and human intelligence that can deliver ground victories, Pakistan now holds many of the cards. It has successfully begun leveraging its role as the key neighbor in Afghanistan, by redefining the contours of the conflict in a theater where almost all counterinsurgency plans by the US-NATO alliance have gone pear-shaped.
The stakes for the US to at least reverse the momentum of the Taleban in Afghanistan are very high. Even if such a reversal is temporary, and gives American soldiers an opportunity for a halfway drawdown in 14 months, the Obama presidency would at least be saved from the prospect of an election year quagmire. Which makes the bottom line suddenly the very opportune for Islamabad, where it seems as if the only game-changer in the battlefield can now be a shift in anti-Taleban operations across the Durand Line. By arresting over much of the dreaded Quetta Shoura Taleban, Islamabad has demonstrated two things: That it can swoop down tactically where the US has been unable to tread, and that if given the right strategic incentive, it can draw down on fresh reserves of political will.
Yet if the road to Kabul lies through Kashmir, it is a long way to go. Pakistan has clearly shifted some of its threat perception toward new enemies, but that shift will not yield policy traction if substantial changes don’t appear on the Indo-Pak conflict template. Dialogue-failure between the two marks a long history of bilateral engagement. New Delhi is still overtly allergic to international players entering the room, more so when Kashmir is flagged. Although New Delhi denies it, there is betting all around that the US has played a quiet role in bringing the two nuclear adversaries to the table, and little money on the talks going further without more prodding.
In Riyadh, on Manmohan Singh’s state visit, even though Indian State Minister for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor was quick to debunk any invitations of Saudi mediation, New Delhi’s interest in engaging Riyadh for leaning on Islamabad was very open. In the larger framework of dialogue-resumption, New Delhi was once again making noises about conditionalities for talks, such as a “terror-free environment”, yet the pattern of engaging potential trade allies such as Saudi Arabia in the game means that India is seeking a seat at the Afghan negotiating table, as well as making space for dialogue with Pakistan. At the same time, by signing new trade agreements and MOUs with Riyadh, New Delhi is seeking to hedge its relationships further as bilateral encounters, hoping to leave less room for the Pak-Saudi dynamic to bog down its trade deficit with its biggest oil-import source.
As it stands, the motors that work to tip the scales on this razor-edge between war and peace are predictably already at work. Almost as soon Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir crossed the Wagah border into Lahore, the debris from the Taleban attack in Kabul, where Indians were also killed among others, infected the air. The Jaish-e-Mohammad spokesman disclaimed their hand in it, blaming it on a Fedayeen Afghan attack, but the terrorists who always seek to disrupt talks reminded everyone how they can affect both headlines and deadlines in this terrain.Â At the same time, New Delhi chose a bad moment to test its $32 billion war machine and its readiness near the Pakistan border. Nor did it invite Islamabad to send a military attachÃ© to witness the exercises, when 30 others were called in as observers. But in the mixed signaling so typical of both players to this tango, the Indian PM continued to keep one channel open by stating that there is no alternative to dialogue with Pakistan.
So what are the prospects for building the “greater trust” that both players seek in such a fraught environment? If New Delhi wants bilateralism to succeed, it must seize this opportunity to move out of a dangerous curve in the neighborhood. Islamabad too, must wake up to its responsibilities and finish what it started at cleaning up terrorist outfits at home. India must not let insecurity fuel its responses because it sees itself strategically finessed out of the formal Afghanistan endgame. In any matrix for regional stabilization, New Delhi will still remain a major player. It is the one looking most skittish now, and if the talks flounder on the old bedrock of bilateral posturing, the entire region will pay the price in further instability and greater international meddling.
also forwarded to Japanâ€™s FACTA Magazine on 8th Marchâ€™2010.