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Reducing Pak-India tensions

Updated April 13, 2017

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and National Security Adviser (retd) Gen Nasser Janjua have struck a sensible note on India in their separate remarks on Tuesday.

Addressing an air force passing out parade, the prime minister said: “Cooperation rather than conflict and shared prosperity instead of suspicion are the hallmarks of our policy.” India was not directly mentioned, but the thrust of Mr Sharif’s remarks made clear which country he was addressing. Meanwhile, Mr Janjua has said that India and Pakistan cannot be enemies forever and must engage in dialogue to resolve disputes.

The comments come at a time when Pakistan-India relations have plunged to a new low. The conviction for spying and sabotage of Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav has the potential to inflict lasting harm on bilateral relations if not handled sensibly. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has done the right thing by publicly clarifying that the death sentence against Jadhav will not and cannot be carried out quickly.

Already, however, there are indications that the decision to put Jadhav on trial may have elicited a response by India. The recent disappearance of a retired Pakistani military officer in Nepal in murky circumstances suggests that the spy wars between India and Pakistan are spiralling in unpredictable directions.

The fear is that the leaderships of the two countries are locking themselves in an action-reaction cycle that may eventually turn into open conflict. From there, ratcheting down tension and pulling back from the brink would be far more difficult. So now is the time for cooler heads to prevail on both sides.

Perhaps a series of questions need to be asked of policymakers in both countries. What is the policy outcome that is being pursued by engaging in spy wars? Has a cost-benefit analysis been done, ie is the damage to the overall relationship worth narrower intelligence wars? And how do spy wars affect the wider internal security challenges that both countries face?

If Prime Minister Sharif’s approach is right — and this paper wholeheartedly supports dialogue and peaceful solutions — what appears to be missing is a strategy to implement it.

For four years now, Mr Sharif has preached the same message of regional integration, trade and prosperity, but he has been unable to convince either the Indian government or, seemingly, hawks in the security establishment here. The NSA too has been ineffective, notwithstanding the occasional willingness to speak candidly.

Meanwhile, the country still does not have a foreign minister and the defence minister is effectively irrelevant given that he has to contend with a major electricity crisis, the power sector being his principal portfolio.

National security and foreign policy are the two domains in which even the team advising the prime minister is ad hoc. From that self-created position of weakness, it is unlikely Mr Sharif will have much success in implementing the vision he so often articulates.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2017