Pakistan and India: Signposts in the Sinai

July 13, 2009

Even before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari broke the ice by meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia last month, the real question over talks between India and Pakistan has not been about the form but the substance.

After the bitterness of last year’s attacks on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, can India and Pakistan work their way back to a roadmap for an agreement on Kashmir reached two years ago? Although never finalised, the roadmap opened up the intellectual space for an eventual peace deal. This week’s meetings between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt could give some clues on whether it has any chance of being  revived.

India broke off the formal peace process, the so-called composite dialogue, with Pakistan after the three-day assault on Mumbai blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group once nurtured by Pakistan to fight India in Kashmir.  But even before the attack, informal behind-the-scenes talks on Kashmir held under former president Pervez Musharraf had fallen victim to the political turbulence which led to his ouster last year, and any hope of reviving them under the new civilian government led by Zardari was dashed altogether by the Mumbai assault.

Ahead of the NAM summit in Sharm el-Sheikh — during which the foreign secretaries of both countries will meet on the sidelines, to be followed by talks between Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani – the two countries have been trying to put together the pieces of their shattered relationship.

In an unprecedented move, Pakistan has said it will put on trial five Pakistanis suspected of involvement in the Mumbai attacks, including senior Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, accused of masterminding the assault. Pakistan has traditionally refused to acknowledge in public the role of anti-India militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and putting on trial a commander like Lakhvi is a major departure. India had insisted it would not resume formal peace talks until Pakistan took action against those behind the Mumbai attacks.

The Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan has also held talks with the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), according to Prime Minister Singh,  a move that would have been unheard of — at least in public — in the past when India accused the ISI of driving a separatist revolt in Kashmir that erupted in Kashmir in 1989. Pakistan Army chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani also suggested this month that the internal threat facing Pakistan was greater than the external threat,  a comment seen as easing — albeit perhaps only marginally — the military’s traditional view of India as its primary enemy.

And acccording to Dawn newspaper, Gilani has been seeking political consensus in the country’s approach to India ahead of the meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh, including winning support from powerful opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Singh on his part has said he is willing to meet Pakistan more than half way, while also insisting Pakistan must take action to dismantle militant groups which target India.

So on that basis, what can be expected from the meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh? Pakistan is keen to resume the composite dialogue, but it is unclear whether India would be ready to reopen the formal peace process despite much progress since Singh and Zardari met in Yakaterinburg.

According to the Hindu newspaper, the stage is set for a re-engagement between India and Pakistan but this could stop short of resuming the composite dialogue — primarily because India does not believe the civilian government alone can commit to acting against militant groups. Any decision to take on militant groups would have to be made by the Pakistan Army and the ISI rather than the civilian government.

“For that reason, the immediate resumption of the composite dialogue is not on the cards. The most likely outcome of Sharm-el-Shaikh is the two Foreign Secretaries being tasked with reviewing the overall structure of bilateral engagement,” it said.

To a large extent however, the focus on when and whether the composite dialogue is resumed is one of form rather than substance. While it is symbolically important, the formal peace process has rarely been as productive as back-channel diplomacy. One of the bigger breakthroughs in recent years – an agreement for a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir in 2003 — was agreed in behind-the-scenes talks.

On matters of substance, India and Pakistan have long road ahead.

While India is looking for an eventual dismantling of militant groups like the Laskkar-e-Taiba based in Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province, the Pakistan Army is fighting militants from the Pakistani Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan – and few believe it to be either capable of or willing to take on every group at once.  On top of that, any attempt to shut down the Laskhar-e-Taiba could make it even more dangerous if it were to drive it further underground or break it up into splinter groups.

And ultimately, Pakistan is seen as unlikely to dismantle a group like the Laskhar-e-Taiba without a peace deal with India, while New Delhi will not offer a peace deal until the militants are disarmed. That’s where the intellectual space opened up by the roadmap agreement tentatively reached between Musharraf and Singh’s government in 2007 becomes interesting.  Although there was to be no exchange of territory in divided Kashmir, the two countries did tentatively agree to try to make borders irrelevant by allowing trade and travel across the two parts of the former kingdom they each control. They were also trying to agree on some form of shared supervision on issues affecting Kashmir.

Can and should Pakistan and India try to work their way back to that roadmap and then build on it? Would Pakistan’s civilian government be willing to acknowledge a roadmap negotiated by Musharraf after fighting hard to drive him out of office? At what point will India be convinced that Pakistan has taken enough action against those involved in the Mumbai attacks before it is ready to talk about peace? How will Pakistan’s civilian government be able to convince India that it has the powerful Pakistan Army on board in any negotiations? And should both countries even be aiming for an over-arching peace deal, or rather trying to progress in small steps through trade and other confidence-building measures before tackling Kashmir?

Those are all big outstanding questions. The meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh, on the southern tip of the Sinai desert, might provide some signposts.

(Photos: Zardari and Singh in Yekaterinburg; Dal lake in Kashmir; Wagah border crossing)

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