Give dialogue a chance
Â 15th Feb, 2010
By Sherry Rehman
Resuming dialogue is always weighed down by anxiety about outcomes. But India and Pakistan need not worry. Nobody realistically expects too much out of tentative renewals. Yet, just the mere return of dialogue signals recognition from both parties that ritual has its uses. It breaks the ice, and sets the stage for roadmaps and change.
For those invested in teaching the other state a lesson or negotiating a more nationalist identity by spurning dialogue, thereâ€™s comfort in the sulphur of emotion. But national security, or its pursuit through non-coercive diplomacy, bets on the long-term and looks to maximise optimal outcomes.
At a track-two dialogue held recently in Bangkok, between experienced interlocutors of Indo-Pak strategic nodes, one thing was clear: that despite the IPL issue that sent alarm bells ringing across Pakistan, civil society in India still seeks to do business with Pakistan. This was a very important signal for those of us who had invested in cross-border meetings and relationships as a way of broadening the constituency for peace. The anti-Shiv Sena backlash that the Shahrukh Khan episode generated also demonstrated that support for peace in South Asia is not just a wishy-washy leftist dream.
New Delhi will serve the region better if it shelves the threat of cutting off dialogue every time there is a terrorist tragedy. On terrorism, Pakistan is facing a blitz. It is a capacity deficit, not a commitment lag. So New Delhi has to grasp the magnitude of the war roiling Pakistan before it makes dialogue hostage to the terror that rips through the region.
This is not to say that composite dialogue is some metric for success. After the fourth round of the composite dialogue sorted out the fine print on many well-worn CBMs, the inertia of leaden intentions dragged movement at its usual pace. Then Mumbai, or 26/11, happened. Suddenly the state became hostage to terrorists and their goals, and the power of setting the agenda landed squarely on the terroristsâ€™ lap. This is what has to change if the region has to combat terrorism together. Power must not be handed over to the terrorists by succumbing to reactive behaviour.
The identity of much of the terrorists seeking to rob Pakistanâ€™s citizens of their peace may not be trans-national at a glance, but the sophisticated military resources and funds that drive them do not originate in Pakistan. In the last two years alone, over 5,000 people have lost their lives to terrorism. Our children are afraid to go to school and our hospitals are bomb sites. This is a war Pakistan expects its neighbours to help it with, and, try as it may, Islamabad cannot possibly provide a guarantee against bombs in India if it cannot guarantee such a blockade in its militaryâ€™s General Headquarters.
On this count, dialogue should lead to the construction of joint mechanisms for intelligence sharing. Intelligence is the first line of defence in terrorist terrain, and we need to bolster our states with a formal architecture for interaction between India and Pakistan. Terrorism cannot be tackled alone. Interrupting dialogue will only reify hardened positions.
Second, structured talks on Kashmir will have to resurface, even if they inch forward. If New Delhi refuses to include Kashmir at a later stage, then the dialogue will lose momentum, as well as political traction in Pakistan. Peace-making governments will increasingly become hostage to shrill nationalist voices. Talks on Kashmir will also profit from a backchannel, as well as quiet inclusion of Kashmiri opinion in any dialogue for it to remain credible.
On Afghanistan, Pakistan is only one of the smaller elephants in the room. Islamabadâ€™s fear of Indian encirclement will lighten if international strategies to build a nation out of that failing state succeed. Troop surges will likely tip the scales in the short run for negotiating with the Taliban for US-NATO forces, but is unlikely to square a stability and governance circle on its own.
International support for a broad-based ethnic mix for Afghanistan is the only way forward if the region is not to lapse into a lawless buffer zone for extremists to build an infrastructure of dominance and pseudo-Shariah to terrorise the region with. Islamabadâ€™s cavil about Baloch insurgents finding sanctuary with Indian consulates can find resolution if Indian counterparts can provide transparency. Indian protests about Pakistan sponsoring terrorist attacks on its embassy can be rationally resolved through mutual exchange and dialogue.
Four, the widespread Pakistani anxiety about Indian dams on rivers that deplete the Indus downstream can actually be discussed in a permanent water dialogue mechanism that can be established between the two countries, without prejudice to the IWT. The Indus Waters Treaty has stood the test of time but, in case of violations, depends ultimately on arbitration, which is not always to the satisfaction of either party to the dispute, as was the case in Baglihar.
Pakistan is dangerously water-stressed and its depleting rivers and reservoirs can only benefit from a joint working commission on water with India, where there is scant awareness of Pakistanâ€™s concerns about potential damming of the Chenab River by India. This is one conflict that can snowball out of control, as water is not always a renewable resource in South Asia, and urgent planning is needed by both countries to plan for conservation that is both sustainable and mutually acceptable.
Shifting any stateâ€™s strategic calculus in a conflict is always a challenge. Giving dialogue a chance is critical for taking Pakistan and India out of a bilateral cold-war time warp. While the rest of the world forges ahead, meeting in Paris to rethink global nuclear stockpiles, South Asiaâ€™s two dinosaurs remain wedded to regimes that are based on mutual opacity, while their conventional arms race remains unfettered by nuclear deterrence. Giving China a role in a separate trilateral commission for nuclear and other talks can help ease that neuralgia.
Indiaâ€™s military focus is still Pakistan, in terms of brigades and hardware. That forces the military here to keep troop strengths balanced when all resources are needed on another, dispersed battlefield. Here, history for once, can point the way. In the 1960s, Islamabad had withdrawn its forces quietly when New Delhi was facing down China in Aksai Chin, as all responsible accounts from Washington will testify. (They should know, as they had asked Ayub Khan to do that.) If one is looking for a game-changer, this will be it. For Pakistan, the potential theatre of conflict will shift where needed, and threat perceptions will slowly start to shift closer to our real ground zero at home. The trust deficit will move down multiple notches and a structured, monitored dialogue can cash in on the space afforded by such a seminal act of courage and statesmanship.
The Indian leadership should strengthen their prime ministerâ€™s hand to fashion such a grand strategic bargain for South Asia. Because, without one, dialogue will go round and round in circles, becoming a low-intensity space for conflict-prevention. We need to go beyond crisis-management. We need to shift into a conflict resolution and business momentum mode. But for all that to happen, we need to give dialogue a chance.
Â The writer is an MNA and former minister of information and broadcasting.
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