ISLAMABAD: Policy experts took stock of recent political transformations in the region, beginning with what was described as ‘the tremendous re-set opportunity’ with India attributed to an unprecedented bout of diplomatic activity in the beginning of December.

Speaking at a conference chaired by Senator Sherry Rehman titled ‘The Road to 2016: Negotiating Deadlock and Diplomacy with India and Afghanistan’, participants discussed Jinnah Institute’s Track II diplomacy efforts for building sustained channels of bilateral and multilateral engagements and for offering alternative recommendations on regional policy issues.

Experts said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should build on this opportunity towards building a better relationship with Pakistan.

They said Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s call for ‘uninterrupted dialogue’ signalled a welcome and positive change in New Delhi’s approach towards bilateral engagements.

Talking about why India’s attitude towards Pakistan had changed, it was argued that while Mr Modi had a positive reputation in the West, his image in South Asia, and India’s relationship with its neighbours, had suffered recently.

Improved relations with Islamabad could go a long way towards fixing his reputation in the region, they said.

Experts praised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s consistent efforts of reaching out to India and agreed that both the civil and military leaderships wanted healthy relations with India.

Speakers said promoting peace in the region will create space for fighting internal enemies and will be a chance to capitalise on economic development and security, which in turn is key for military strength.

While participants agreed that the Kashmir issue should be brought up, they emphasised the importance of cementing the relationship against Mumbai-like incidents from derailing dialogue.

They said talks could open avenues for trade and transit for Indian and Afghan trade trucks to pass through Pakistan.

In this regard it was suggested that Pakistan stop viewing transit trade and economic cooperation with India as a concession to New Delhi, and instead start seeing land access as valuable leverage that would increase Indian stakes in a healthy and progressive bilateral relationship with Islamabad.

On the issue of Afghanistan, participants agreed that President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad to attend the Heart of Asia conference offered Islamabad and Kabul yet another opportunity to re-set the relationship.

It was generally noted that an intra-Taliban dialogue would have to precede any intra-Afghan dialogue, particularly after a violent summer of infighting within Taliban ranks.

In this regard it was suggested that China could play a constructive role, since it was one of the few powers in the region which had no political baggage when it came to the Taliban.

The official Pak-Afghan relationship still faced many challenges, they said, including a massive trust deficit that seemed to have been reinforced by Mullah Omar’s death in July.

Going forward, it was important that both sides make a concerted effort to address this trust deficit; positive public messaging was cited as one possible avenue for repairing damaged narratives about Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2015

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