Pakistan and India: looking beyond the rhetoric (redux)

October 5, 2009

Following up on my earlier posts here and here about what is happening behind the scenes between India and Pakistan, first a word on defining the terms. The two countries are not about to sign a peace deal. Any attempt at normalising relations will be long and painful, and as has been the case many times in the past, vulnerable to spoilers with a vested interest in stoking conflict.

Given the importance of India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan, along with U.S. attempts to persuade the Pakistan Army to focus more on fighting Islamist militants than on the perceived threat from India, it’s worth keeping tabs on progress so far and on the outlook for the months ahead.

As I flagged up in July “Afghan campaign gains from India-Pakistan thaw”, tentative attempts to improve relations soured by last year’s attack in Mumbai were already beginning to bear fruit even as the news from Afghanistan itself turned increasingly negative. A fragile thaw had allowed the Pakistan Army to move “a very large number” of troops from the eastern border with India to the western border with Afghanistan in what U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke called a “significant redeployment”.

The implications of that redeployment are beginning to take form, with reports that the Pakistan Army may be preparing a major offensive into South Waziristan. The army, which rarely talks about troop movements, has gone public to say it has two divisions, or about 28,000 troops, in place in South Waziristan, while U.S. defence officials say Pakistan now has enough forces to launch a ground offensive there.

So what are the signposts to look out for in the months ahead in terms of India-Pakistan relations?

First, with India saying it will not resume a formal peace process until Pakistan takes action against those accused of involvement in the Mumbai attack, it’s worth keeping a close eye on the trial of seven men accused of involvement.  That trial was postponed for the second time on Saturday, with the next hearing set for Oct. 10, according to the New York Times.

Second, the two countries are trying to find a way of re-engaging in a dialogue that would satisfy Indian demands that Pakistan take action against militants based on its territory, while also bolstering the civilian government in Islamabad in its efforts to convince the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency to turn against groups it once regarded as “strategic assets” against India.  These include the Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the Mumbai attacks, and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, both based in Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province.

As discussed in this post the two countries have many different ways of engaging with each other, of which the formal peace process, or composite dialogue, is only one.  One of the more effective lines of communication in recent years has been “backchannel diplomacy” in which senior diplomats from the two countries meet quietly and try to iron out differences away from the glare of the media.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi signalled a willingness last month to return to this backchannel diplomacy by naming a former diplomat as a possible special envoy for these talks.

While his subsequent talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S.M Krishna in New York ended, as expected, with no breakthrough, their 100-minute meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly may have helped to improve the atmosphere.

Krishna told Indian news channel ANI in an interview last week that India and Pakistan needed to find an effective channel to deal with all issues concerning the two countries.

“I do not know about back channel or front channel, all that I would be interested as foreign minister of this country is an effective channel between Pakistan and India and it could be the back channel, it could be the front channel, so I think it doesn’t make any difference, as long as it becomes effective,” Krishna said.

And while he reiterated that Pakistan must take action against those accused of involvement in Mumbai, he also said the two countries should share intelligence to try to prevent another big attack. (Another Mumbai-style attack could torpedo U.S. efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, by raising tension to a pitch that the Pakistan Army might feel compelled to rush all its troops back to the Indian border.)

An editorial in The Hindu newspaper argues that a continued refusal to engage with Pakistan would be the least effective way of encouraging it to recognise that militant groups operating on its territory pose a common threat to both countries. ”It is not a coincidence that those sections of the Pakistani establishment which continue to see the jihadi terror groups as future assets are the very sections least anxious to see the resumption of the bilateral dialogue.”

“With last month’s meeting in New York between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan yielding little in terms of forward movement by either side, there is a danger of the bilateral relationship getting stuck into one of those ruts that finally require the mediation of extra hands in order to be rescued,” writes The Hindu’s Siddharth Varadarajan.

“Rather than wait for that, the first available improvement in optics — the start of the Mumbai trial in Pakistan, for example — should be seized upon to move ahead on the back channel, with the front channel being revived in a calibrated manner as confidence increases. Indefinitely postponing talks will not help protect India from future terrorist attacks. And talking will not make it more vulnerable.”

Looking further ahead, the prime ministers of the two countries are likely to meet again on the sidelines of the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad at the end of November giving the political leadership in India and Pakistan an opportunity to move ahead in what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said will be a cautious, step-by-step process in rebuilding relations.

(Reuters file photos: The Mubai skyline; and Dras on the Line of Control)

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