India and Pakistan: looking beyond the rhetoric (part 2)

September 14, 2009

Following up on my earlier post about what is happening behind the scenes in the fraught relationship between India and Pakistan, it’s worth keeping track of this report that Islamabad is considering appointing former foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan to handle the informal dialogue with New Delhi known as “backchannel diplomacy”.

As discussed in this story there has been much talk about trying to get the backchannel diplomacy between India and Pakistan up and running again, both to reduce India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan and to prevent an escalation of tensions between the two countries themselves.  So any forward movement on the backchannel diplomacy, if confirmed, would be important.

To recap (and with apologies to those who already know this), India and Pakistan have many different ways of engaging with each other.  They have a formal peace process known as the composite dialogue, started in 2004 and broken off by India after last November’s attack on Mumbai.  India has said it will not resume the composite dialogue until Pakistan takes more action against those accused of involvement in Mumbai.

Then there are Track II talks, in which politicians, journalists, administrators and others on both sides of the border meet in a private capacity to try to promote understanding between India and Pakistan.

Senior politicians also have a habit of holding bilateral meetings on the fringes of international conferences, as happened when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President Zardari in Russia in June and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Egypt in July. The foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of both countries are also expected to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this month, ahead of a meeting between the foreign ministers.

But of all the different ways that India and Pakistan have found to engage with each other, the backchannel diplomacy carried out away from the glare of the media has arguably been the most successful. In 2003, the two countries agreed a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing disputed Kashmir, and extended it to Siachen, where the two countries had fought a high-altitude war since 1984.

In 2007, Satinder Lambah, a special envoy to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Tariq Aziz, envoy to then president Pervez Musharraf, etched out a set of principles meant to allow them to work towards a resolution of the Kashmir dispute (Praveen Swami at The Hindu gives the details here.)

I’m told there is no evidence the deal would ever have worked – many crucial details had yet to be negotiated. And since the backchannel talks were held in secret, it has always been unclear whether either country could win over domestic constituencies which might resist or sabotage any peace deal. But the backchannel diplomacy, and the intellectual space it opened up even to consider an agreement on Kashmir, functioned as an important ”shock absorber” between two nuclear-armed countries which have already fought three full-scale wars since independence in 1947.

The tentative “roadmap” agreement fell apart as Musharraf’s own political fortunes deteriorated, and the backchannel talks have yet to find their feet again in any kind of structured format.

The signs are that many other informal discussions are going on. As discussed here, the Pakistan Army has moved a significant number of troops away from its eastern border with India to fight the Pakistani Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan. The head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) broached what is effectively Indian territory by attending an iftar at the Indian High Commision in Islamabad. And the Indian government is trying to work out how to engage the Hurriyat, the main political separatist group in Kashmir, and that is something it can only do with Pakistani acquiescence.

But these informal contacts have lacked the structure of the backchannel diplomacy, whose main aim was to work out a way towards peace.

Until this week, it was unclear who would handle the backchannel diplomacy on the Pakistan side to replace Tariq Aziz, who was an appointee of Musharraf. On India’s side, Satinder Lambah could remain as a special envoy to the prime minister.

So the suggestion that Riaz Mohammad Khan might be appointed to fill that role for Pakistan would be a major step forward.

That said, there are plenty of spoilers in both countries who don’t believe in the peace process. So if India and Pakistan find a way back into their secret backchannel diplomacy, we might never know.

(Reuters file photos: A child at the funeral of Benazir Bhutto; Prime Minister Singh and President Zardari in Yekaterinburg; the gates closing on the india-Pakistan border; and a soldier at base camp in Siachen)

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