A road much traveled
This has been a road much traveled. But the destination has remained elusive. Efforts to normalize relations between Pakistan and India have often been marked by false starts and a one step forward, two backwards pattern in their sporadic talks. So, when news recently broke that the two nuclear neighbors had been engaged in backchannel talks it generated much discussion in the country about where the effort would lead this time. Reports about an intermediary’s involvement to get the quiet diplomacy going were promptly denied by Pakistani officials. But a background briefing by a senior official confirmed that a backchannel was in progress.
What is so far known about the backchannel is that it has been conducted by the serving and retired intelligence officials of the two countries and that the offer for dialogue came from India last December. This explained how a sudden agreement between the militaries of the two neighbors was reached in February 2021. This came as a surprise as all diplomatic engagement had been suspended after India illegally annexed the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019 and imposed a sweeping lockdown and curbs on virtually all freedoms there.
The agreement between the director generals of military operations involved a re-commitment to the 2003 undertaking by the two countries to observe a cease-fire on the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir. This development came after a prolonged period of turbulent relations between them which saw an escalation in cease-fire violations on the LoC as well as rise in civilian casualties on Pakistan’s side of the Line. In 2020 there were over 3,000 violations of the LoC by India. The crisis in relations was triggered by India’s air strike inside Pakistan at Balakot two years ago and Delhi’s abrogation of article 370 of its Constitution (which gave Kashmir autonomy) and annexation of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. This led to a complete breakdown in relations.
The question now raised by Pakistan’s acknowledgement of backchannel talks and the LoC understanding is whether this melting of the ice can lead to a formal dialogue and normalization of ties. Many observers see regional dynamics behind this apparent thaw. First, it has taken place in the backdrop of relaxation of tensions between China and India as reflected in their military disengagement from Ladakh which saw serious armed clashes between them last year. The concern frequently voiced by Indian leaders of a two-front situation may therefore have been a driving factor.
The path to resuming formal peace talks is strewn with formidable difficulties. The positions of the two countries are as far apart as they can be for them to even agree on an agenda for formal talks.
Second, the Biden Administration’s announcement of a complete US military withdrawal from Afghanistan by September has created an uncertain situation which warrants Pakistan’s full focus on its western border. Islamabad is playing a key role in supporting the Afghan peace talks but it also has to prepare to deal with the fallout of more turmoil in its neighbor if these talks fail.
Whether factors external to the Pakistan-India equation have driven their mutual desire to deescalate tensions, more important is whether the backchannel can bring down the temperature on a sustainable basis and pave the way for resumption of the long-suspended peace dialogue. Curiously, unlike Pakistan, Delhi has publicly said nothing about the backchannel. Nor has it responded to a series of conciliatory statements made by both Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Indian leaders have also remained silent on Pakistan’s offer for medical assistance in the coronavirus crisis that is ravaging India.
Two recent developments have underlined how fraught the situation remains between the two countries. The death of a senior Kashmiri leader Ashraf Sehrai in Indian custody reinforced the grim reality that Delhi’s repressive policy in occupied Kashmir remains unchanged. It also prompted Islamabad to issue a strongly worded statement expressing grief and also pointing out that India’s prosecution of Kashmiri leaders through “concocted cases” was a violation of international human rights and international law, including the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions.
The other development in early May was the first violation of the February understanding by Indian firing on the ‘working boundary’ in Sialkot. Islamabad described this as deliberate and aggressive behavior by Indian forces and a “serious and grave” breach of the DGMO’s agreement. The Indian media for its part accused Pakistan of provoking the incident.
If these developments underline how brittle the backchannel process seems to be, future efforts to normalize relations are marked by even greater uncertainty. The path to resuming formal peace talks is strewn with formidable difficulties. The positions of the two countries are as far apart as they can be for them to even agree on an agenda for formal talks. For Pakistan any dialogue without Kashmir would be impossible. Delhi on the other hand has continued to insist that Kashmir is an ‘internal matter’ and is being dealt with accordingly.
Earlier this month Prime Minister Imran Khan reiterated Pakistan’s position that there can be no resumption of talks with India unless Delhi rescinds its August 5, 2019 actions in Kashmir. This may well reflect the fact that the backchannel has not made much headway. That suggests that for the present, the diplomatic effort – in the backchannel and beyond – will remain focused on the modest goal of managing tensions rather than on installing a comprehensive peace process that can lead to normalization of relations.
*Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha