No sign yet of success in backchannel diplomacy between India and Pakistan
Backchannel engagement has led to some melting of the ice between India and Pakistan. Over the past few months, the guns have fallen silent along the Line of Control (LoC) dividing the disputed state of Kashmir and the war rhetoric is down on both sides. But there is still a question about whether the secret talks could help normalize the situation in what is described as the world’s most volatile region.
There is no sign yet of the two hostile South Asian nations entering into a substantive dialogue on critical issues affecting their relations. Notwithstanding the optimism among Pakistani military leadership, Indian officials appear much more circumspect over the prospect.
Last month, the Pakistani military leadership broke the secrecy over the ongoing backchannel engagement between the heads of the two intelligence agencies. The latest round of the secret talks began last December in Dubai. There is, however, no Indian official comment on the dialogue.
In fact it was in 2018 when the two countries established backchannel contacts. The initiative apparently came from India. According to a source privy to the engagement, the two sides agreed on dealing with some outstanding issues and lowering tensions. It was just before the Indian parliamentary elections when prime minister Narendra Modi was seeking a second term.
That was perhaps the reason for the Pakistani leadership publicly putting their bets on Modi’s victory. But Indian air force intrusion into Pakistan in February 2019 on the pretext of a “preventive strike” against alleged militant camps brought the two countries close to a conflagration.
The tensions further heightened after India in August 2019 unilaterally annexed Kashmir ending whatever autonomy was left of the disputed state. That led to a downgrading of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Growing hostilities ended all official and informal contacts between Islamabad and New Delhi.
The current situation is very different to what led to the previous normalization process. The usurpation of whatever autonomy was left to Indian-administered Kashmir and New Delhi’s attempt to change the demography of the disputed state have made the situation much more complicated. Indian leaders have made it very clear that there was no question of reversal on India’s Kashmir policy.
But the revival of backchannel talks brought a thaw in the relationship. The two sides agreed to ceasefire along the LoC. A statement issued by the two militaries promised to resolve all the contentious issues through dialogue. Pakistani leadership went one step ahead when army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa called for “burying the past” and offered an olive branch to India in a speech in March this year.
Indeed there has been a dramatic change in the atmosphere since raising hopes for normalization of relations between the nuclear-armed nations. Last month’s briefing of military leadership to the media further raised expectations. Pakistani security establishment contends that war could not provide any resolution of the contentious issues between the two countries and talks are the only way out of the crisis.
But many Pakistani analysts do not share the optimism expressed by the military leadership. They argue that there had been no indication of Modi government changing its hard line stance particularly on Kashmir that has been the major cause of tension between the two nations. Pakistan had until recently refused to talk to India without Delhi reversing its unilateral actions in the occupied territory.
For sure, in the past, backchannel dialogues between India and Pakistan had delivered positive results. Not only did such interactions help ease tensions between the two, they also dealt with some thorny issues that would not have been possible in open negotiations.
It was backchannel contacts that led to the Lahore process in 1999 during Nawaz Sharif’s second term in office. Unfortunately, the process that promised to bring stability to the region was doomed because of civil-military disagreement. But it was under a military ruler in 2004 that backchannel diplomacy led to the most substantive peace process between the two nations.
That also brought the two countries close to a historic agreement dealing with the Kashmir dispute. The four-point formula would have made the LoC irrelevant allowing the Kashmiri people to move freely. But the political turmoil in the country that led to the ouster of General Musharraf in 2008 ended the process.
The current situation is very different to what led to the previous normalization process. The usurpation of whatever autonomy was left to Indian-administered Kashmir and New Delhi’s attempt to change the demography of the disputed state have made the situation much more complicated. Indian leaders have made it very clear that there was no question of reversal on India’s Kashmir policy. Moreover, the human rights violations in the Indian-administered region continue unabated.
A major objective of backchannel diplomacy is to create an atmosphere for official level talks. Notwithstanding some encouraging signals, there has not been any indication yet of the two countries engaging in formal and structured talks on all issues of mutual interest soon.
Some observers wonder if any third country could play a role in bridging the gap.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.