Pakistan’s ISI chief attends Indian iftar

September 11, 2009

Following the slow-moving peace process between India and Pakistan can be a bit like watching paint dry.  So the decision by the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency to attend an iftar hosted by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad this week has generated much excitement.

“Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha was among the earliest guests to arrive at the maximum-security five-star Serena hotel. He stayed nearly 45 minutes, chit-chatting with guests,” wrote Nirupama Subramanian, correspondent for The Hindu in Islamabad. “This was the first time that a serving military official, let alone the head of the country’s most important intelligence agency with a well-known dislike for India, has attended an Indian event here.”

Everyone agreed it was a positive development, she wrote. “It’s a huge gesture by him,” she quoted the former ISI Director-General, Lt.-Gen. (retd.) Asad Durrani as saying. “A very positive development.” Another former soldier, Lt.-Gen. (retd.) Talat Masood, said it was an indication that India-Pakistan relations were not as bad they looked. “It is very symbolic. It means things are improving between the two countries, and there are people who want it to improve in spite of all the tough talk going on.”

“A thaw,” said Pakistan People’s Party politician Aitzaz Ahsan.

Pakistan’s Daily Times called it “a rare gesture of goodwill”. The News described it as “a milestone in India-Pakistan relations”.

Even B. Raman, formerly from India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), welcomed the move.  Arguing in favour of a dialogue between Indian intellgence agencies and the ISI, he writes: “Whether Lt.Gen.Pasha responded to an invitation personally addressed to him or whether he represented (Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq) Kayani, who himself did not want to come, the presence of the ISI chief at the iftar reception is a significant gesture by the government of (Pakistan President Asif Ali) Zardari and has to be recognised as such. ”

“Even if a formal liaison relationship between the ISI and an appropriate Indian agency has not yet been established, India should not hesitate to take the initiative in suggesting it. An intelligence liaison relationship between two countries with an adversarial relationship can be a double-edged sword. It can be beneficial sometimes. It can also harm the national interests under certain circumstances. It is a risk well worth taking. Informal discussions between the intelligence chiefs of the two countries could produce better results than discussions between the two foreign secretaries on the issue of terrorism.”

The foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan are due to meet this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, ahead of a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers.

No breakthrough is expected in those talks in New York. India is insisting that Pakistan take tougher action against Pakistan-based militants suspected of involvement in last year’s Mumbai attacks before it resumes a formal peace process. And both countries have many in their domestic constituencies who would resist, or even sabotage, any moves towards peace.

But in the paint drying category, the presence of the ISI head at the iftar dinner was a step forward.

(Then again, here are a couple of stories which suggest more trouble ahead, on which more later:

India protests China-assisted dam in Pakistani Kashmir:

Pakistan to take up Kashmir, Afghanistan issue before UN:

(Reuters pictures: The Taj Mahal in Agra and mosque in Lahore)


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