US urges India, Pakistan to hold direct talks on Kashmir; welcomes joint statement on LoC ceasefire

Published February 26, 2021
US State Department Spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, February 8. — Reuters
US State Department Spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, February 8. — Reuters

In its first statement on occupied Kashmir, the Biden administration has urged India and Pakistan to hold direct talks on the issue, and welcomed an agreement between the two neighbours to de-escalate tensions along the Line of Control (LoC).

Both India and Pakistan announced on Thursday that their senior military commanders have agreed to strictly observe all agreements, understandings and ceasefire along the LoC and other sectors, with effect from midnight on Wednesday.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Ned Price mentioned this agreement in his opening statement at the Thursday afternoon news briefing.

“We welcome the joint statement between India and Pakistan that the two countries have agreed to maintain strict observance of a ceasefire along the LoC starting immediately," he said.

“We encourage continued efforts to improve communication between the two sides and to reduce tensions and violence along the LoC,” he added.

His statement prompted journalists to ask: “To what extent, if any, did the United States play a role in helping broker this new ceasefire agreement?”

Media representatives also recalled that when US President Joe Biden was the vice president in the Obama administration, he had a very warm relationship with Pakistan and saw Islamabad as a vital partner in the war in Afghanistan.

The journalists wanted to know how Biden’s previous closeness to Pakistan would impact his policy towards the country now when he was the president.

They also wanted to know how this would interplay with his relationship with India.

“When it comes to the US role, we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues of concern,” said the State Department spokesman while responding to these queries.

“And […] we certainly welcome the arrangement that was announced” in the region, he added.

Price said that he and other officials of the Biden administration have been urging the two neighboring countries to reduce their tensions since Jan 20, when Biden took oath as the new US president.

“You’ve heard me say from this podium and others from this administration say that we had called on the parties to reduce tensions along the LoC by returning to that 2003 ceasefire agreement,” he said.

“We have been very clear that we condemn the terrorists who seek to infiltrate across the LoC.”

Asked how this effort to “stay neutral” between India and Pakistan would affect the Biden administration’s policies towards Islamabad, Price said: “Pakistan is an important partner with whom we share many interests. We, as I said, have been clear in terms of this issue.”

The US official also referred to Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace talks, as Washington expects Islamabad to stay engaged with the Taliban for restoring peace to the war-ravaged country.

Read: Stable Afghanistan in interest of Pakistan, says FM Qureshi

“So clearly, we will be paying close attention, and we urge the Pakistanis to play a constructive role in all of these areas of mutual interest, including in Afghanistan, including with Kashmir, including with our other shared interests,” he said.

Pakistan played a key role in arranging a peace deal between the Taliban and the Trump administration, signed in Doha in February last year.

The Biden administration has said that it respects the deal but needs more time to study its features.

This has been interpreted as indicating that Biden may not fulfill the Trump administration’s pledge to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 1.

This could further complicate Pakistan’s role as a mediator because the Taliban want all foreign troops to leave as agreed. Any delay in the withdrawal could further harden their attitude towards the Kabul government.

Last week, the United Nations and the United States both condemned the Taliban for increasing their attacks on Afghan government targets, making it clear that this level of violence was unacceptable to the international community.

After a virtual meeting, the US-led Nato alliance also sent a similar message to Taliban leaders who continue to demand a complete withdrawal by May 1.

Underling Pakistan’s role in this complex process, the State Department spokesman said: “Obviously, Pakistan has an important role to play when it comes to Afghanistan and what takes place across its other border.”

UN Charter outlaws use of force, Pakistan reminds UNSC

Meanwhile, a statement Pakistan made at an informal UN forum indicated that Islamabad had concerns about a major Indian aggression along the LoC before their military commanders reached an understanding to reduce tensions.

The statement caused political observers in Washington to speculate that the US and other major players were aware of and might have played a role in reducing tensions between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistan used the Arria Formula, an informal arrangement, to convey the alarming message hours before senior military commanders from both countries agreed to strictly observe all agreements and understandings.

The Arria formula, named after a former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN, was used in March 1992 to draw the world’s attention to the situation in Bosnia.

Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Munir Akram began his briefing with a reminder to the UNSC members that the purpose of the UN Charter was to outlaw the resort to war.

“Unfortunately, today the resort to unauthorised and unilateral use of force is most visible in [...] foreign occupation and intervention; in denial of the right of self-determination; in the coercion of smaller and weaker States,” Ambassador Akram said.

“Pakistan faces cross border attacks by terrorist groups from the territory of the neighboring state supported by a third state.”

“Pakistan,” the envoy said, “has respected the territorial sovereignty of its neighboring states but we have the right to self-defence against the state which is sponsoring these terrorist attacks against Pakistan.”

Ambassador Akram also underlined a disturbing trend of exploiting the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States to justify aggression against others.

“It is regrettable that after 9/11 the fight against international terrorism has been utilised to justify the unilateral use of force and foreign intervention,” he said.

“The use of force in self-defence is limited to repelling an armed attack. It does not cover ‘future’ or ‘anticipated’ attacks. The concept of ‘preventive’ or ‘anticipatory’ use of force is contrary to the UN Charter and illegal," he said.

How was the agreement reached?

The outcome of the conversation between the directors general military operations of the two countries, held after a long time, was significant, but people were curious about knowing how the two sides reached this point.

With no convincing explanation coming either from Islamabad or Delhi, diplomatic observers believed that it was a result of some backchannel talks that may have been at work. But who were involved in it?

Sources say it had been taking place between the intelligence agencies of the two countries with the blessings of the respective military leaderships. Almost everyone agrees that not many people were in the loop on both sides.

In India it was rumoured that Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was involved in the backchannel dialogue from his side. Some Indian media organisations speculated that Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security Moeed Yusuf was the person on the Pakistani side.

Yusuf, however, through a tweet denied that he was part of any backchannel talks. He tweeted: “No such talks have taken place between me and Doval.”

In another tweet, he said the agreement resulted through DGMOs dialogue was “done privately and professionally through the direct channel.”

In an audio clip that earlier in the day made rounds on social media, Yusuf could be heard saying: “These things happen behind the scenes. A lot of effort goes into it. Do you think this happened without effort and without pressure.”

Yusuf had in an interview with Karan Thapar in October 2020, which was the first by a Pakistani official with any Indian media since annexation of occupied Kashmir by India in August 2019, said India had sent message expressing desire for talks.

It should also be recalled that Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa had in two statements earlier this month made gesture for resolving tensions. Speaking at the PAF Academy, he said: “It is time to extend hand of peace in all directions.”

Another significance of the agreement is that the Pakistan government engaged with India despite setting the conditions that it would not do so until and unless India cancelled the annexation of occupied Kashmir and ended the human rights violations there.

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