India and Pakistan: practising peace

April 3, 2011

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Given the history of India and Pakistan, it is easy to be sceptical about the chances of their latest peace initiative. So let’s start with the positives.

Unlike past peace efforts which have veered between ill-prepared personal initiatives by political leaders and technical talks between bureaucrats which foundered for lack of direction from the top, the current phase combines the two.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s impromptu  invitation to his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani to watch last week’s India-Pakistan cricket semi-final coincided with the resumption of the first structured dialogue between the two countries since the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai.  The foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan met in Thimphu, Bhutan in February.  In talks last week, the home secretaries of the two countries made progress in coordinating their investigations into the Mumbai attacks; the trade secretaries are expected to meet soon, as are the defence secretaries.

Moreover, the Indian prime minister is personally committed to pursuing peace in the time he has left before a national election due by 2014.  And while last year he was isolated even within his own party in his enthusiasm for peace - an idea that still lingers in some quarters - his  initiative  appears to enjoy the support of powerful Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. Outlook magazine, writing about his cricket diplomacy, noted that Singh was flanked by Gandhi and her son and prime-minister- in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi, when he welcomed Gilani on his first official visit to India.

The Pakistan Army, which dominates foreign and security policy in Pakistan, has also been slowly reassessing its approach to Islamist militants it once nurtured for use against India as they slip increasingly out of its control. How far that reassessment goes is open to debate;  but few doubt that Gilani would have accepted Singh’s invitation to India to explore peace talks had this not been endorsed by the army.

All that said, sceptics have history on their side when they argue that the latest attempt at peace-making will fail.  Militants, including those allied with al Qaeda, have an interest in disrupting peace talks, using an attack on India to stir up fears of war on Pakistan’s eastern border and take pressure off them on its western border with Afghanistan.  If talks are not to be sabotaged – particularly at a time when militant groups in Pakistan are fragmenting and some of their cadres  sucked into the orbit of al Qaeda – both countries would need to overcome distrust enough to share intelligence to prevent another big attack.

Singh’s peace initiative also has powerful opponents within the Indian establishment, who are well placed to whip up an already jingoistic media if they think he is going too far.  Bharat Karnad, from the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, wrote that the Pakistan Army appeared to have decided to favour talks with India for now. ”The question is can India capitalise on what seems to be rethinking underway in the Pakistan Army?  Alas, there is surprisingly less give here than is generally assumed,” he wrote. “This is because India’s Pakistan policy is hostage to the petty calculations of the political class in the country and powerful ministries within the Indian government with vested interest in portraying Pakistan as menace.”

And making matters even more complicated, the problems between India and Pakistan have been worsening over the years — in particular both are now bickering over their shared rivers as rising populations and poor resource management leave them facing both water scarcity and flooding. The risk now, as underlined by Cyril Almeida at Dawn, is that “the already fiendishly complex relationship may collapse under the weight of `new` problems if the `old` ones aren`t resolved first.”

So the question is not really whether the peace process will succeed or fail in some kind of absolute sense (you can stack up arguments on either side of that debate), but rather about the speed at which talks progress. They need to move fast enough to build constituencies for peace on both sides of the border, but not so fast that they trigger a backlash.

Some relatively minor (at least relative to the big intractables) confidence-building measures may be possible. One would be a relaxation of visa restrictions to allow more contact between people of the two countries. Another could be the unilateral opening up of the Indian market to Pakistani goods without insisting on reciprocity - the relative size of the two economies makes it somewhat easier for India to absorb trade from Pakistan than the other way around. And given that even the prospect of improved trade with India helped drive up prices on the Karachi stock exchange last week, this kind of unilateral concession by India would be hard for hawks in Pakistan to turn down.

There is also some talk of building contacts between the Indian and Pakistani militaries and their intelligence agencies to reduce distrust.  That would be tricky from an institutional point of view – the Indian and Pakistani armies play very different roles in both countries – but possible on an informal basis if the political will is there.  ”Two possible initiatives that come to my mind are an invitation to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), to pay an official visit to India and exchanges of visits by senior military officers of the two countries.” wrote B. Raman, formerly at India’s R&AW intelligence agency. “We already have such exchanges with the Chinese Army. We are none the worse for it. There is no reason why we should not have such exchanges with the Pakistan Army.”

A third possibility, promoted by some analysts, is that India and Pakistan focus on narrowing their differences over Afghanistan with the aim of easing distrust  in order to build momentum for a broader peace process.  There are already some indications that the rivalry between the two in Afghanistan is easing. India has been somewhat circumspect about expanding its role in Afghanistan over the last couple of years;  Pakistani officials talk increasingly of seeking a neutral and stable Afghanistan rather than a friendly and stable Afghanistan. That said, to rely on an easing of tensions over Afghanistan to underpin a broader peace process would leave them both hostage to fortune in a war whose outcome is highly unpredictable.

Ultimately — and this is where it will get very tricky if the peace process is to become irreversible – the two countries would need to tackle the big issues, including the future of Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian Prime Minister Singh and former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made considerable progress in resolving the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, the former princely state which has been divided between the two countries since independence in 1947.  Under a formula worked out by their envoys in secret back-channel talks by 2006/2007, the two countries agreed that there would be no redrawing of borders, but that borders would become irrelevant.  The agreement foundered in part because Musharraf became embroiled in political problems at home which eventually forced him to step down.

Yet many details of that accord had yet to be worked out and even Musharraf admits that it would have taken a great deal of political courage from leaders on both sides of the border  to translate that agreement in principle into reality.

One dispute whose resolution is frequently cited as a possible stepping stone to a  broader peace deal is that over Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield, which lies in the mountainous, uninhabited edges of Jammu and Kashmir.  The armies of India and Pakistan have fought each other in the mountains above the Siachen glacier since 1984, and despite a ceasefire agreed in 2003, their troops remain there, often posted at altitudes above 18,000 feet.

The technical details of a deal on Siachen were agreed years ago and many in both countries acknowledge it was a war which should never have been fought. If Singh were to accept Gilani’s invitation to visit Pakistan, an agreement on Siachen could in theory given him something of substance to announce there.

Siachen, however, does not exist in isolation.  Even since India and Pakistan fought a limited war in 1999 in the mountains above Kargil — which lies on the road linking the Kashmir Valley to Ladakh and the access route to Siachen – the battle over the world’s highest battlefield has become inextricably linked to the broader  dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. However geographically remote the battle over Siachen may be, it cannot be resolved in isolation.

All in all, if this peace initiative is to succeed India and Pakistan will have to make progress on many different issues simultaneously though a combination of detailed structured negotiations between bureaucrats, informal contacts between their institutions, and high-level political support. But at the very least, we can say that process has started.

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