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Terms of Re-Engagement

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi (South Asia) / 23 June 2009

The first encounter between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh since the Mumbai terrorist attack last November marked a tentative thaw in Pakistan-India relations, but little else for now.

The June 16 meeting in Yekaterinberg, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, took place in the backdrop of heightened tensions following the Mumbai attack and Delhi’s declaration of a halt to the five-year old “composite” dialogue. India then set the pre-conditions, that Pakistan take action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack and “dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism” for talks to resume.

The suspension of the peace process, yet again, reinforced the periodic pattern of the crisis-prone relationship that has been locked in repetitive cycles of sporadic talks, hostility and confrontation. The latest hiatus in the dialogue occurred despite the commitment made by both countries in a summit level joint statement of April 2005, that they would not allow terrorism to derail the talks.

This pledge was reiterated in another joint communiqué in September 2005, in which leaders of the two countries vowed to frustrate any move by terrorists to impede the dialogue.

Delhi’s suspension of the formal dialogue in November 2008 mimicked its move in December 2001 in the wake of the terrorist assault on the Indian Parliament, when talks were stalled. They did not resume till the decision at a summit of Indian and Pakistani leaders in January 2004, following a prolonged and unsuccessful exercise in coercive diplomacy by India.

Not only has recent history repeated itself but it has underscored the fragility of the peace process that has been so frequently disrupted.

The tone for the Zardari-Singh meeting was set by the Indian leader. In a departure from diplomatic norms, the Indian Prime Minister publicly declared before the start of the parleys, that his “mandate” was to tell his Pakistani interlocutor, that, “Pakistan should not be used for acts of terrorism against India.” This has been widely and correctly read in Pakistan as a public snub to which Mr Zardari curiously failed to respond. What came out of the mostly one-on-one meeting was an agreement that the foreign secretaries would meet to discuss the “single subject of terrorism,” before the meeting envisaged between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers at the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el Sheikh on the sidelines of the NAM summit next month.

Irrespective of this narrow focus, the diplomatic re-engagement represents a reversal of India’s previous stance that it will not dialogue with Islamabad until prior conditions relating to Mumbai are met. What explains this shift even if it remains cloaked in toughspeak?

The answer may lie in a combination of three factors.

One, the behind-the-scenes role played by the US in facilitating the meeting and nudging Delhi towards talks. Washington has understandably been concerned that Indo-Pakistan tensions can derail its plans for the stabilisation of Afghanistan and pursuit of its vital counter-terrorism goals.

A second reason is that Prime Minister Singh has a freer hand to re-engage with Pakistan after his party’s resounding victory in his country’s elections. In his address to Parliament on June 9, he iterated his intention to “try to make peace with Pakistan again.”

Three, Delhi’s change of stance may reflect the limits of an isolate-Pakistan-internationally policy. After vigorously pursuing a global campaign to vilify Pakistan for the past six months, diminishing returns were setting in for Delhi. In spite of overwhelming international empathy for India in the wake of the terrorist action in Mumbai, Delhi’s wont-talk stance did not elicit similar support as time wore on and came to be seen as self-defeating.

There are indications that Delhi wants to recast the terms of the engagement. Indian officials have purposely leaked the idea that even if formal dialogue is resumed, its structure would be “very different” from that pursued earlier. Whether or not this is a pretext for India to wriggle out of meaningful negotiations on Kashmir, any effort to recast an agreed framework for dialogue will be resisted by Islamabad.

It will be a mistake to reconfigure this broad gauge structure for talks that was drawn up in 1997 and sustained for so many years.

Although the composite dialogue yielded no agreement on contentious issues and a modest set of confidence building measures, it enabled multi-layered talks on the range of issues that reflect the two countries’ differing agendas and priorities. Its framework also helped to create a web of multiple interactions between various ministries. Discarding this framework will also risk losing whatever progress was made on different issues during this process.

In any case, the framework can hardly be recast to suit one side instead of reflecting mutual agreement. If pushed along these lines Islamabad may prefer to wait it out rather than engage in farcical talks around a unilateral agenda set by Delhi.

Any effort by Delhi to offer a revival of the composite dialogue as a concession to Pakistan should also be resisted by Islamabad. It would be a miscalculation for Delhi to construe Islamabad’s consistent call for talks as signalling desperation.

However, there are several reasons that should urge India and Pakistan towards efforts to normalise ties. Four are especially important. First, Pakistan’s ability to address the threat posed by militancy requires dealing with its security concerns vis a vis India. While the militant threat is a clear and present danger Islamabad cannot ignore the more enduring strategic threat that emanates from the adversarial relationship with India.

Two, Pakistan cannot attain its goal of economic stability, nor can India achieve its full economic potential, as also its ambition to secure a seat at the big table while engaged in confrontation.

Three, there is a manifest sense in both countries that there is no military solution to the Kashmir dispute or to other problems. Kargil and the 2001-02 military stand off served to confirm this for both sides.

And four, the two countries need to carefully manage their relations in a nuclearized environment. The strategic relationship between the nuclear neighbours remains undefined and potentially unstable.

There is no substitute for dialogue to stabilise the nuclear and conventional military relationship.

Durable peace in South Asia will need meaningful talks to establish an architecture of strategic stability in three critical dimensions: finding an acceptable and just solution to Kashmir and institutionalising both nuclear and conventional military restraints.

Ultimately the future of the dialogue, whenever it is renewed, depends on whether the two countries can: a) address and overcome their divergences especially on Kashmir, nuclear-military issues and postures, and Afghanistan, and b) identify and build on the areas of convergence including trade, regional economic cooperation and North-South issues.

Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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