By Ayesha Siddiqa
In the subcontinent, one could never complain of a dull moment. India and Pakistan seem to have surprised their own citizens again by initiating some conversation, all when we thought the prospects were dead. However, the army of India-Pakistan observers and ordinary folk are left speculating about the hand behind the initiative. From Pakistan’s end, it doesn’t look like the initiative of the Foreign Office. The civilian government is too absorbed in domestic politics, barely keeping its head above water, to even imagine making a bold move — of opening a channel with the prime enemy. The political opposition would be at Prime Minister Imran Khan’s throat, accusing him of compromise and not taking parliament into confidence. However, Khan seemed prepared to welcome the move despite not being in the driver’s seat.
It is quite clear that the long-awaited, though tactical, initiative of re-starting the 2003 ceasefire agreement that collapsed after 2018 was way above the pay grade of anyone in the civilian government in Pakistan. This is one of the reasons why Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on National Security (SAPM) Moeed W. Yusuf was quick to deny theHindustan Times story suggesting his back channel talks with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Interestingly, as sources suggest, he initially talked about the efforts that went into restating the agreement but later denied having any knowledge.
Yusuf tweeted about the story being baseless. His reaction may not be hiding the truth but stating the obvious – talks did take place between India and Pakistan that did not involve the SAPM. Sources in Islamabad say that Yusuf admits to a lot of back and forth between the two countries without spilling the beans on who really was in charge from Pakistan’s side.
In Pakistan, the breaking news about the agreement followed by the story in Indian media was received with cautious silence. In over 73 years, people have seen peace initiatives start and collapse. British author Victoria Schofield, who is known for her close association with Benazir Bhutto and for her writings on Kashmir, believes that India and Pakistan have their moments of peace when the possibility of moving forward increases. However, once the moment is gone the prospects collapse until the next time. Indeed, in the past couple of decades, since 1999, the subcontinent has seen such moments more often than in the past. But then, they withered away, and in the process, generated a lot of anger and disappointment.
Over the years, there has been a huge trust deficit between the neighbours. While for India, the issue has always been about how to find the right actor on the opposite side, Islamabad has grappled with the issue of keeping Delhi to stick to the timetable. Thus, the recent talks to re-start the ceasefire agreement is a welcome move, because it is a small initiative that could open more doors but in itself does not raise expectations. Furthermore, the initiative is extremely tactical as both sides have moved away from their earlier hardened positions without compromising on their core principles. India has inched away from its earlier stance of not talking unless Pakistan addresses its terrorism concerns and Islamabad has shifted from its position of insisting on Delhi reversing its move to scrap Article 370.
This sudden change in stance has troubled some in Pakistan. Some of the journalists I spoke with were critical of the move, considering it as Pakistan giving India a way out of being stuck with a possible two-front situation. Notwithstanding the Indian Army chief’s statments on India’s ability to handle a two-front situation, an active Line of Actual Control (LAC) and Line of Control (LoC) puts tremendous pressure on Indian forces. For Delhi, the ceasefire development comes at a time when it is grappling with the pandemic and putting life into the economy. Some others in Pakistan sound disappointed because it almost looks like Pakistan has thrown away its gains post-Balakot. Dawn’s resident editor Fahd Hussain, for instance, remembered an article he wrote two years ago on “Pakistan giving India a bloody nose”. Despite both sides living their own versions on Pulwama-Balakot, Pakistan emerged confident in its ability to deter India from escalating tension under a nuclear umbrella.
Now, the question being whispered in Pakistan is why throw away the edge? Although a lot of people look towards Washington for being the main source of bringing back the ‘moment’ to the subcontinent, both India and Pakistan are driven by their needs to move towards bringing the thaw in relations.
For Pakistan, there is the astounding reality of the urgency to improve the economy. The lesson that Gen Pervez Musharraf had learnt after being in control of the government may now also have been learnt by General Qamar Javed Bajwa – Pakistan, at least, needs the tactical peace with India to concentrate on its economy and Afghanistan. The latter is critical to maintaining the military’s significance in global geo-strategy. Islamabad may not be part of American Indo-pacific plans but it is not an ally that Washington would want to throw away as yet. At least this is what the powerful circles in the country like to believe. The concern here is not whether Pakistan and the US have a strategic alliance but that they remain each other’s tactical need.
Such linkage continues to be necessary to meet Pakistan’s financial needs, especially whenever it goes to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Pakistan’s economic needs remain a constant driver in its foreign policy, which is why the Imran Khan government seems to be making all efforts to repair its relations with Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s recent vist to Egypt, a country with which Pakistan shares little common interest, was focused on Riyadh. Islamabad wants to present itself as a geo-economic hub, rather than a launch pad for American interests in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East.
The recent naval exercise AMAN-2021 that had 11 ships from six countries, including Russia and the US, was also presenting a different image of Pakistan – a State with interest in maritime diplomacy and bringing navies from across the spectrum on its platform. It’s a fact that Islamabad needs to seriously thrash out its infrastructure and domestic priorities to shift from geo-strategy to geo-economics, a difficult objective to achieve.
But the realisation to improve the economy is certainly a major driver. I am reminded of the conversation from a few years ago with a Lahore businessman about trade with India. His view was that without economic potential, it was difficult for the country to make gains on Kashmir. Indeed, the outstanding territorial dispute, as a source from Kashmir said, will remain a long-term objective on which Islamabad will not compromise even though it does not currently have the military potential to resolve the issue. Some suggest Islamabad also discussed peace in Balochistan, which is necessary for anchoring economic development.
It’s possible that the economic reality has started to sink into the top echelons of the military that makes the ceasefire agreement much more meaningful. It makes sense for Delhi too to cross its own line and engage with the military in Pakistan instead of a weak civilian government. It’s the former that can deliver while keeping track of its own interests, as well as ensuring that Prime Minister Khan endorses the same view. But two important questions remain unanswered — how long will these developments remain at the level of tactics before moving to strategic peace, and how will it be marketed to the public that has been long fed on xenophobia and hatred? ( The Print )