• High-level sources say backchannel talks are continuing between the intelligence leaderships of two countries
• Pakistan’s primary interest at the moment is to ensure that Occupied Kashmir gets back its statehood
• The strategic rethink is grounded in the country’s need to prioritise economic matters
ISLAMABAD: India approached Pakistan in December 2020 with an offer to reduce tension and offered backchannel talks on all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistan reciprocated favourably, fresh information emanating from official quarters has confirmed.
The Indian offer was discussed among the top Pakistan leadership and a decision was taken to explore all avenues for a peaceful settlement of conflicts by engaging in quiet talks, according to high-level official sources.
India proposed that the two countries start talking on all outstanding issues side by side instead of lumping them together in a composite dialogue, said the sources. The Pakistani leadership has agreed to explore all options that can lead to lowering of tension.
“It is an opportune time for us to take a strategic pause,” says an official. “We need a break from the cycle of violence and focus on domestic issues.”
For the two South Asian neighbours that nearly went to war in 2019, the recent moves constitute a major policy initiative towards normalisation of ties. They also reflect the changing dynamics in Islamabad and New Delhi whereby those advocating greater engagement have begun to dominate those people who espoused a hardline and hawkish approach within decision-making circles.
The backchannel talks, sources confirm, are being held between the intelligence leaderships of the two countries. Sources say New Delhi had preferred that these quiet negotiations take place at this level instead of through a political platform, and Islamabad had consented.
Officials now acknowledge that Pakistan’s primary interest at this initial stage is that Occupied Kashmir gets back its statehood and India agrees not to bring about any demographic changes in the disputed territory. Both governments have agreed not to involve any third party in this initiative for now.
There appears to be a newfound clarity in the Pakistani leadership about pushing for a fresh round of engagement with India after a dangerous round of hostilities. Accordingly, Pakistan seems willing to explore outstanding issues separately in a bid to resolve whichever conflicts present agreeable solutions. The Sir Creek dispute may be one such ‘low-hanging fruit’. Officials argue that both Pakistan and India have pursued direct and indirect policies to resolve the Kashmir issue and have failed. “Isn’t it time we go back to the drawing board and try to find a new strategy,” asks an official. “The path of dialogue will be bumpy, but if we stay the course we can reach our objectives,” he says.
The backchannel dialogue hit a bump recently when the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the federal cabinet announced a decision to allow import of sugar and wheat from India, only for the cabinet to not approve the decision the next day when some members, including Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, opposed the move. Sources now believe this confusion had an adverse impact on the quiet dialogue and the government was pressured into adopting a tough stance. However, the sources say the ‘bump’ is a temporary one.
New information suggests that initial backchannel contacts between Pakistan and India took place in 2017. According to sources, relevant senior Indian officials had conveyed a quiet message to the Pakistani intelligence and military leadership to initiate a dialogue. The-then prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi gave the go-ahead for this backchannel contact which then continued at a gradual pace.
However, it was in December last year that the talks went into higher gear. Since then, a number of confidence-building measures have taken place, including a ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Azad Kashmir and Occupied Kashmir.
The Pakistani civil and military leadership is said to be on the same page on the latest engagement with India. While in the past, the military had its disagreements with the elected leadership on policies with India, officials now say that the military high command wants a greater push for peace in South Asia.
“War has never produced a solution and two nuclear powers cannot afford a conflict,” says an official. He argues that the military leadership will not be an obstacle to peace because war is not an option now.
There is a major rethink within the Pakistani leadership amid a greater preference for what is termed “strategic patience”. This policy is based on a realisation that ‘active borders’ (as well as the LoC) that witness constant low-level conflict are a major drain on the economy at a time when Pakistan needs to strengthen its financial muscles. The rethink that is slowly becoming evident now has been ‘ongoing’ for a number of years. It has generated various quiet initiatives including, as per sources, a change in the curriculum of the military war college to reflect changing regional dynamics.
Highly placed officials argue that India is investing in this fresh engagement with Pakistan because it is faced with a two-front situation on its western and northern borders. As a result, it has had to move a significant number of its forces deployed on the western front to the northern one with China. After this re-deployment, Pakistani intelligence officials estimate that the ratio of Indian to Pakistan forces deployed against each other has, for the first time, come down to 1:1. Pakistan’s assessment is that under the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India would be better prepared for improved ties with Pakistan.
The logic weaving through this rethink is grounded in Pakistan’s need to prioritise the economy and other domestic issues that require external and internal stability. Officials argue that Pakistan today needs to focus on issues like health, education, infrastructure and population control instead of being stuck in a confrontational situation on the borders. “We cannot remain at loggerheads forever,” states one official.
There is a renewed effort in key official quarters to move beyond rigid policies of the past. “If we keep scratching away at history,” says a source, “we will keep reopening old wounds.” Many argue today that if we remain hostage to the mistakes of the past, it will be impossible to move forward.
This is why there is an admission that Pakistan should focus on ensuring the people of Occupied Kashmir, who continue to undergo pain and hardship, are provided relief. “At times, one step back can lead to two steps forward,” says an official.
Officials argue that Pakistan will hold on firmly to its official positions while engaging with India. They say it is important at this point to sit across the table even if the positions are poles apart. Only through constantly talking to each other can we reduce the gap between our positions, they believe.
The strategic rethink within the Pakistani leadership has also led to a deliberate policy of jettisoning militant organisations and dismantling their networks. Pakistan has also taken specific and concrete measures to combat terror financing and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has acknowledged that Pakistan has successfully completed 24 of the 27 requirements to come off its grey list. The FATF framework has helped Pakistan push through systemic reforms, legislate stringent measures and build the capacity of state institutions to throttle terror financing and money laundering.
“We are moving away from the ‘jihadi’ culture,” admits an official source. “Anyone that the state cannot control is not an asset, he is a liability.” Officials emphasise that the state wants to eradicate militancy from society and make Pakistan a ‘normal’ state.
Sources say the Pakistani leadership is now firmly committed to resolving conflicts and achieving normalisation in the region. The leadership is resolved to not step back at any cost, they say. “The Pakistan-India conflict has become a ‘saas-bahu kee larai’ (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law fight) that should end,” says a senior official.
Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2021