Jinnah Institute President, Sherry Rehman, stressed the centrality of ’sustained and uninterrupted bilateral dialogue’ between India and Pakistan as an urgent prerequisite …for the identity and prosperity of South Asia as a region. Making an argument for pro-active leadership instead of strategic drift, she said that incidents such as the ones on the Line of Control in Kashmir should act as a spur to dialogue, not a deterrent.
Rehman, who has just stepped down as Pakistan’s envoy to the United States, spoke of emerging challenges for South Asia in a lecture on ‘Regional Peace and the Strategic Imagination’ in the ‘Distinguished Speaker Series’ at the Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi recently. A day earlier she spoke of the ‘Democracy Dividend and Pakistan’s Changing Regional Calculus’ to a closed door audience comprised largely of New Delhi’s strategic community.
As an ice-breaking gesture Rehman suggested that the prime ministers of both countries, looking to meet at the sidelines of the UNGA, should invite each other to their capitals, and broaden the conversation. “Conflict and volatility triggers require imaginative leadership, not business as usual stalemates.”
“Pakistan has already taken an important initiative and invested in re-sending a special envoy, Shehryar Khan. The gesture was well received in PM Manmohan Singh’s office,” she added. Pakistan’s main opposition party, the PPP is a strong advocate for peace. We need to see parliaments going forward with pro-active agendas, not point scoring that keeps us in a cold war dynamic no longer viable in the 21st century. The momentum for peace, and for crafting a space that allows for both crisis management and sustained negotiations on new and outstanding issues is all the more urgent after the recent LOC incidents.
Rehman said that the South Asia region is rife with short, medium, and long term transformations, some triggering serious challenges, while others signal opportunities for the penultimate “South Asian moment.” How long is the region going to remain the serpent that eats its tail?
She said that while economic predictions are hard to make for the region, some studies pointed to South Asia becoming an economic bloc second only to China by 2050.
“While predicting greater wealth for the region, without policy action, she said inequalities are likely to go up as sub-regional and national trends. These will adversely impact security in more ways than one. Water deficits, land hunger, food insecurity, demographic stresses, environment-based trauma will all add to South Asia’s multiple triggers for conflict. Insurgent challenges, extremism, minority disempowerment will not be reversible in large measure, but only contained, if serious policy interventions are not made at the highest levels to normalize relations between the two large nuclear neighbours. All of these will add to the chronic instability mix, which will in turn dial up the conflict vectors if we are not in a sustained and uninterrupted bilateral dialogue, both at the state and public levels,” she said.
“The big question that should occupy space in the democratized, and fairly open public square, on television, internet and social media, should be predicated on how South Asia can imagine the future, and if we can lead history instead of history leading us,” said Rehman.
She said that India and Pakistan have a role in leveraging the moment, as we remain the two countries whose conflict overshadows the region’s politics, strategic options, trade, public narratives, and a chronology of missed opportunities.
“Do we want to remain the only region in the world still mired in the cold war politics of sclerotic identities, wedded to otherizing each other as strategically estranged nuclear neighbours? Or are we able to move beyond the tired dance of ultra-nationalist posturing that typifies our bilateral dynamic,” asked the former ambassador.
“The logic for South Asian cooperation has been made with much more elegance elsewhere. I need not attempt to reinvent that wheel. What I do want to ask is much more basic. Will India and Pakistan replace cooperation as a model for interaction instead of containment thinly disguised as routine competition?” asked the former federal minister.
She highlighted the multiple issues that have become an impasse for the two countries including the Kashmir issue, LOC ceasefire violations, water-based rivalries and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
Rehman said that Pakistan is still often seen in India “through a fairly outdated lens, whereas the larger arguments for normalization remain bogged in an overgrown forest of mutual conditionalities”.
“The question is, are we going to be prisoners or leaders of our destiny?” asked the former ambassador.
Calling for a unilateral goodwill gesture from India, she said that the country could start by addressing all issues including of course Kashmir, but also speaking to new challenges, such as teleco exchanges and emerging water anxieties by complying fully and in spirit with the Indus Waters Treaty.
“The Baglihar and Kishanganga Dams have added not just a whole new layer of stress to a chronic neuralgia between the two, they have actually reduced the space for moderates to go forward on peace initiatives with India. New projects planned on the Chenab have introduced very real fears about the impact on water security as a potential flashpoint for conflict,” said Rehman.
She suggested trade as one of the drivers that can create bilateral equities for insulation against conflict and volatility. “Countries that do business with each don’t relish going to war with each other,” said Rehman, adding that efforts in this regard were already visible.
“Governments have their constraints, Parliaments less so, and citizens of course are burdened with the least limits in imagining better futures. In fact, the future of foreign policy lies in societies building ties with each other. As India announces its pivot to the east, Pakistan is pivoting to the region in ways it never has before. The strategic dynamic can reap a big peace dividend,” she said.
“So let me reiterate, Pakistan has moved away from the reactive blame-game that stereotypes and demonizes India as a society, nor is it looking to invest in conflict with India as a permanent enemy. Kashmir will remain a core concern, but the way things are going here, a dialogue on possible futures between India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris is the only way forward,” said Rehman.
“The impetus for the moment lies with India’s ability to exercise political will, to seize the moment. The past cannot be changed but the future is yet in our grasp,” she added.
On Afghanistan, Rehman said that Pakistan wants to move beyond the ball and chain of all old policy templates. These have brought nothing but the wages of conflict and its blowback into Pakistan. For the last five years Pakistan has consistently signaled strategic neutrality among all players in Afghanistan, given the high priority democratic governments have put on stabilizing Afghanistan on Afghan terms and according to their own roadmaps.
She said that Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans, and it is for them to stabilize, pacify, secure and finance, adding that all the regional and global players need to step back and play the supporting cast role. This may well be a huge ambition, but it should form the core endgame support plan for Afghanistan.
Rehman said that “while Pakistan would support Afghanistan’s political reconciliation and their refugee population until 2015, she added that “Pakistan cannot possibly be forced into the role of a cast-iron guarantor of a peaceful endgame as US/NATO forces transit out of Afghanistan, leaving in many places a security vacuum that has already begun to roil ou
r eastern border and tribal areas. Islamabad has vital stakes in peace, as it cannot afford for terrorism to pick up pace again.
Strategic empathy is the need of the hour from India, not policy drift. The window for negotiations has been open from Islamabad for quite a while. If it is not taken up, we will all hand victory to the enemies of peace, she concluded.