Engaging the enemy

Published May 8, 2021
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

THE question of Kashmir is once again upon us.

It all started with a detailed briefing by a senior official two weeks back in which he confirmed and then elaborated upon the process of backchannel talks taking place between Pakistan and India. As reported in this newspaper on April 25, the official argued that it was time for Pakistan to take a ‘strategic pause’ and review prospects of peace in the region. This, he said, was essential if Pakistan wanted to focus on fixing its domestic problems and prioritising economic development.

As was expected, the publication of the Dawn report detailing the contours of this rethink about a paradigm shift in relations with India triggered a fierce debate on all media platforms. Subject specialists, experienced and well-respected retired diplomats as well as academics and journalists, all dived into the debate armed with a potent arsenal of arguments. The sparring centred on a central point of contention: is it wise for Pakistan to be discussing options of resolving the Kashmir issue with India when India has not indicated any willingness to move away from its position?

The ghost of the Musharraf formula has started to haunt the current backchannel process.

The ensuing debate has pulled in the four-point ‘Musharraf formula’ that had emerged from a protracted process of backchannel talks between officials of the two countries. Former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri has shared many details of this process in his book Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove and from his account it is clear that relevant stakeholders — both from the civil and military side — were in the loop on this backchannel process. Many experts believed then, as they do now, that Gen Musharraf had moved away from Pakistan’s official position on Kashmir, anchored in the UN resolutions, without having the requisite buy-in from political leaders as well as the wider public opinion. The four-point formula was cast aside by the foreign policy and national security state apparatus after the departure of Musharraf.

The ghost of that formula has started to haunt the current backchannel process. There is a halt in these talks, as reported in this paper on May 5, but officials believe it may well be a temporary one. Many former officials though are expressing an unease that Pakistan may be misreading Indian intentions and therefore showing unwarranted eagerness to resolve outstanding disputes.

While this unease is genuine, the context that is producing the unease may itself have been misread. As someone who sat through the briefing that has become the source of this debate, and who wrote the newspaper story that brought into public domain the essence of what was said, allow me to try and map out the context in five distinct points.

1. The central theme of the discourse was the need for a paradigm shift, and the factors that have triggered this need. It was this need that had brought intelligence officials from the two countries to meet face to face in a Gulf location multiple times in order to figure out if the desire for engagement could be sustained in the given environment. This much was clear: the terms of engagement were spelt out. These terms denote — from what one can make out — the prerequisites for going from ‘talks about talks’ to ‘talks about issues’.

Nowhere did the senior official say, despite being asked, that there had ensued any substantive discussion on how to resolve disputes like Kashmir. The thematic context was that we must internalise the reality that a perpetual state of tension and conflict does not suit Pakistan.

2. There was a differentiation between ‘how to resolve the Kashmir dispute’ and ‘how to first agree on terms that allow the two sides to figure out how to resolve the Kashmir dispute’. The latter defines the focus of the current backchannel, and not the former. If there is more to it, it was certainly not spoken of or elaborated upon. This means that for now all discussion of ‘formulas’ and ‘shifts’, while important on their own, are premature. There was nothing said in the discourse that suggests that there has been talk about ways to resolve issues.

3. There was repeated emphasis on Pakistan approaching the Kashmir dispute as a ‘human issue’ and not a ‘real estate’ issue. This framing segued into the post-August 2019 situation in occupied Kashmir and the reference to Article 370 and 35-A of the Indian constitution. The only definitive point made in the discourse was the refusal of Pakistan to agree to any substantive dialogue without India’s commitment of not altering the demography of occupied Kashmir. Has India made this commitment? Not so far. Nowhere in the discourse was it said, or suggested, that Pakistani officials had discussed the finer policy points of these two articles and the consequences of their application. What was however said fairly clearly, and repeatedly, was that if and when a stage was reached where these finer points could be discussed, that is when the engagement process would be enlarged to include specialists and experts.

4. There was no mention of timelines or deadlines. The confirmation of the backchannel process was stated as a specific example of a practical manifestation of the need to engage each other. What if this process went nowhere? What if the Indian side walked away? What if it continued with its demographic changes? There was no elaboration. The discourse was a policy prescription for a policy that has yet to graduate from paradigm thinking into practical policy.

5. There was clear intent confirmed that the establishment did not want to remain invested in conflict. Even though this may sound like an oxymoron, the point that was emphasised was that Pakistan had to reorient its strategic direction in reference to the region and the rest of the world. It was specifically stated that in this respect Pakistan has in fact jettisoned jihadi groups. How would this feed into a resolution of the Kashmir dispute? There was little elaboration.

Beyond this context, all is interpretation. Who says engaging the enemy is without nuance?

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter:****@fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2021

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