India and Pakistan: moving out of intensive care

July 28, 2011

The joint statement released after the meeting of the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan was so predictably cautious that inevitably attention focused on Pakistan’s glamorous new  foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and  her designer accessories (a Hermes Birkin handbag, we were told.) Much of the debate was about whether it was sexist to comment on her appearance/question her competence; whether she had performed well in her television interviews (CNN-IBN is here); and whether it was appropriate for a minister to be so expensively attired. (See Dawn’s slideshow for some snarky captions.)

But that debate was also irrelevant. Nobody ever expected policy on India and Pakistan to be set by the foreign ministers. In Pakistan, it is heavily influenced by the army; in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is driving it.   The two ministers were simply expected to deliver that policy with tact and conviction.

The heavy lifting in rebuilding India-Pakistan ties, soured by the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai,  had in any case already been carried out by their top diplomats, foreign secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir.  Their aim, according to an ANI profile of Rao, was to take the India-Pakistan relationship off life-support and bring it into the incubator stage.

So how far did the joint statement - so detailed that it had to have been the product of weeks of work by diplomats behind the scenes — achieve that aim?

The main caveat is that nobody is entirely clear where the Pakistan army stands on the peace process. But equally, since only the military and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency have the power to deliver on security measures, the likelihood is that it was consulted well in advance.

Among the pointers and questions on where talks go from here, based on the joint statement, are:

- As expected, there was no reference to Afghanistan, since this has never been included within the formal peace process between India and Pakistan. Yet with many suggesting both countries have an interest in discussing stability in Afghanistan it remains unclear how they will find a mechanism to incorporate this into their peace talks.

- The statement acknowledged the desire of people of both countries for peace and development, a reflection of a major focus by both governments on building their economies. Despite distrust on both sides,  a Pew Global Attitudes survey released in June showed support in both countries for improved relations and stronger trade ties.

-  The two countries “agreed on the need to strengthen cooperation on counter-terrorism including among relevant departments as well as agencies to bring those responsible for terror crimes to justice.”  As discussed here, that would probably require greater military-to-military cooperation - a tricky issue for India given the asymmetry in the roles played by the armies in both countries. Two former heads of the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan – both services are profoundly distrustful of the other – called recently for improved intelligence sharing.

- The ministers agreed to convene expert-level meetings on both conventional and nuclear confidence building measures in Islamabad in September 2011.  The idea of introducing nuclear and conventional CBMs first came up at a meeting last month in Islambad between the two foreign secretaries. It would probably require some military-to-military contacts.  Experts on the Track Two circuit say they have already identified some nuclear CBMs, including the withdrawal of some short-range missiles.

- On Kashmir, the ministers agreed to more talks ”with a view to finding a peaceful solution by narrowing divergences and building convergences.”  The only deal which has come near to winning backing from both India and Pakistan was a draft roadmap agreed in 2007 which would have made the borders dividing the region irrelevant while also accepting there could be no exchange of territory.   According to former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, who was involved in negotiating the roadmap,  that draft agreement was still some way off from being finalised.

- Both sides agreed to improve trade and travel across the Line of Control, the ceasefire line dividing Kashmir.  According to Greater Kashmir, the response in Kashmir was fairly positive but with many outstanding questions on the details.  India has in the past been worried that Pakistan might use easier access to push militants into Kashmir.  For now, though, there is little sign of militants crossing over, as an insurgency which erupted in 1989  is replaced by other forms of protest. Many in Pakistan fear that India will offer just enough concessions to allow it to retain the status quo and keep control of Kashmir

- The ministers agreed to work towards increased trade and reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers; to improve people-to-people contact and the availability of visas; and to continue discussions on other issues, including on a resolution of the Siachen conflict. These are all likely to be discussed in talks between top bureaucrats and diplomats of both countries in the coming months, while the foreign ministers are due to meet again in the first half of 2012.

- The two ministers ”reaffirmed their commitment to the Indus Waters Treaty”, (see the full pdf document here), signed by India and Pakistan in 1960 to regulate the use of their shared rivers. As the lower riparian, Pakistan has been particularly suspicious of India’s river management – it fears dams being built on the Indian side will deprive it of water or make it vulnerable to deliberate flooding in the event of war. But it would also lose most from any abrogation of the treaty.  Environmental scientists say climate change and higher demands on water resources from rising populations and energy needs mean both countries need to collaborate more to head off the risk of a war over water.  By reaffirming commitment to the treaty, the ministers set a baseline for discussions on how to move forward.

- And finally, foreign minister Khar called on Prime Minister Singh to invite him to visit Pakistan. That has been pending for a while — Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani issued the same invitation when he visited India for the World Cup India-Pakistan cricket semi-final in March. And back in 2007 there was much talk about a possible visit to Pakistan by the Indian prime minister.  If he were to go, he would need to announce an agreement on something significant — for example, an accord on Siachen – to justify the summitry.  It’s early days for that, but not to be ruled out.

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