On belling the cat: Diplomatic engagements with Pakistan
Lt General K J Singh
India and Pakistan, two nuclear ‘frenemies’ are locked in a series of senseless confrontations, distracting them from more relevant and pressing war on the socio-economic front. Surgical strikes, Balakot and proxy war in Kashmir drain exchequer and prevent optimization of traction and trajectories of economies. Debilitating effect on the sinking economy of Pakistan, currently seeking doles and bailout packages is more serious. It is for the first time that Pindi top brass has decided to take voluntary budgetary cuts. In all likelihood, it may turn out to be just an exercise in tokenism with no effect on force ratios, yet it highlights the magnitude of the crisis and also a reluctant acceptance that Pakistan Army is being overfunded.
The clinching issue in the recent parliamentary elections was national security, which really implies dealing with Pakistan. There are a few major derivatives — firstly, the government has publicly committed to hard line, which means, terror and talks can’t mix. Consequently, it will be well neighing impossible for ruling dispensation to backtrack in a hurry and without commensurate payoffs. Impending assembly elections will further postpone any such possibility. Hopefully, establishment across would have picked up the sense of national muscular resolve. Analysts in Deep State should also link it with the real message of Balakot that terrorists will be targeted without self-imposed limitation of Line of Control (LoC) and with the most effective means of delivery. Some more nuanced space has been discovered below the nuclear threshold and Pakistan may be less inclined to flaunt tactical nukes. They would have also read the writing on the wall, it is ‘Naya Bharat’— five years mandate with the stable, hard-line government.
On the other side, Imran Khan has four-odd years, unfortunately his mandate is a fabricated one and the real control of ‘Naya Pakistan’ rests with Generals. With the economy in shambles and the additional challenge of managing western frontier, the only silver lining is lap dance with China. Dragon’s indulgence comes with riders and security of China–Pakistan Economic Corridor is the foremost. The moot question is, will China realize the strategic reality and coerce Pakistan to tackle terror assembly line within? Pakistan has tried to generate positive signals on the Kartarpur corridor and also by restricting activities of Muhammad Saeed of Lashkar-e-Taiba during recent Eid prayers. There is also a flurry of invitations and offers to revive dialogue on all issues.
Under immense international pressure, Pakistan sees the commencement of diplomatic engagement with India as the immediate objective. Notwithstanding positive signals, it is indeed very difficult to trust Pakistan and the bottom line in all engagements should be proceeded with abundant caution and after verification. From Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, extending to Pervez Musharraf and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, it has been an uninterrupted nightmare of doublespeak and treachery, punctuated by a spate of terrorist attacks. Expectations must be pegged down and conditioned on meaningful progress on issues of proxy war, peace on LoC and circumscribing terror dons like Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim. The new Lok Sabha should consider adopting a unanimous resolution on national security to strengthen hands of government and reinforce messaging for elements across.
While official diplomatic channels can maintain contacts through National Security Agencies (hopefully, Pakistan will appoint one) and casual meetings on sidelines of multilateral exchanges. In the interim, we should explore the utility of back channel and track two dialogues. We have had some success with envoys like R K Mishra in the Vajpayee era and Satinder Lambah for United Progressive Alliance. Even informal contacts like Sajjan Jindal leveraging links with Sharif family had limited utility. The government could nominate seasoned domain expert to act as designated back channel interlocutor. It will serve to fend off mounting pressure to start diplomatic engagement as a concern in the global community on heightened tension between two nuclear nations is natural.
International pressure to resume negotiations should be managed with Chinese strategy implying, ‘hurry but slowly and only when it suits you’. The recommended approach is to keep engaging informally till other party yields on our core national interests. Concrete measures to improve atmospherics like overland transit corridor to Afghanistan, Most Favoured Nation status and liberalization of trade can be considered but only when reciprocated with commensurate benefits. Being large-hearted and sentimental must be replaced with a business like transactional approach accompanied by verification. Resumption of trade must be preceded by multi-spectrum solution backed by technological aids like full-body scanners to stymie Pakistan propensity to misuse it for smuggling of drugs, explosives and counterfeit currency.
There is limited space for track two, which got a fillip with the revival of Neemrana dialogue, the oldest in this genre. Anchored by seasoned diplomats, Vivek Katju and Rakesh Sood, it has informal official acceptance. It will be a good idea to continue to vector such dialogue with official briefings especially on red lines and debriefing after every round. Expectations from such parleys must be realistic and they should remain discreet. The proliferation of these exchanges without official concurrence should be discouraged, as they build avoidable pressure on the government. A relevant case in point is Navjot Sidhu’s foray on the Kartarpur corridor, where General Bajwa seems to have outsmarted him.
It is learnt that the Pakistan Army has expressed the desire to engage with Indian counterparts. Traditionally, our diplomats have discouraged this, probably wanting to reinforce democratic forces across and imaginary fears of contacting coup virus. They are wrong on both counts as Pakistan Army is not yielding ground in a hurry and democratic DNA of our faujis is made of Teflon. It is time veterans play a rightful role on this front.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.