Backroom players who broke the ice in Indo-Pak relations

KARACHI: WHILE the recent Indo-Pak agreement over talks was greeted with relief and even joy, most people were surprised at the speed and momentum of the sequence of events at the Saarc summit in Islamabad earlier this month. Given the mistrust of Pakistani intentions on the Indian side, and New Delhi's refusal to open talks without Islamabad's tacit acceptance of its alleged role in sponsoring cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, most observers were doubtful of any breakthrough. Although Musharraf's unilateral declaration of a ceasefire on the Line of Control had reduced the tension between the two bellicose states somewhat, it would have taken an exceptional optimist to expect India and Pakistan to agree to talks. As it is, Indian spokesmen kept repeating that a one-to-one meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf was unlikely at a multinational forum like Saarc.

By Irfan Husain

Published: Sat 31 Jan 2004, 12:56 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:21 AM

So what happened to break the ice? What led to the change of atmospherics and the dissipation of the bad vibes between the two traditional enemies? Some believed that Musharraf's recent close brushes with death convinced him that the extremists were out of control, and the jihad in Kashmir had to be brought to a close. However, conversations with some of the major players in the behind-the-scene moves indicate that the groundwork for the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting had been laid weeks ago by their principal advisers, Brijesh Mishra and Tariq Aziz.

The former is an ex-Indian Foreign Service officer known to be Vajpayee's close confidant; the latter has stood by Pervez Musharraf's side since the day he took power four years ago. A low-profile civil servant, Tariq Aziz was earlier principal secretary to Musharraf, and continues to be closely associated with the 'Chief'. Despite the power he wields, he continues to be his old unassuming self. He was the only one among the inner circle who advised Musharraf not to go for the ill-fated referendum - a fact the Pakistan president was man enough to acknowledge publicly. In short, Tariq Aziz has earned his boss's complete trust. At the height of the tension between the two countries with their armies mobilised along the border, the two capitals were visited by a succession of Western diplomats and politicians trying to avert a possible war between the South Asian nuclear rivals. Many of them suggested the opening of a back-channel between Vajpayee and Musharraf. As it is, Pakistan had been consistently calling for talks, while India had been adamant in insisting on the elimination of cross-border terrorism that it accused Pakistan of supporting.

But last May, when Vajpayee visited Indian Kashmir and made his surprise announcement of wanting peace with Pakistan, Musharraf and his closest advisers decided to explore the back-channel route. By this time, there was unanimity among the high command that war was not an option; that diplomatically Pakistan stood virtually isolated over Kashmir; and that after fifteen years, the insurgency in Kashmir was going nowhere. In short, GHQ had reached the conclusion some of us had been hammering away at for years. But better late than never: it was decided to ask a Western diplomat on yet another peace-making visit to request the Indians to nominate a person close to Vajpayee who could speak for the Indian premier, while Tariq Aziz was named the Pakistani nominee.

Once Brijesh Mishra's name was conveyed to Islamabad, it became clear the Indians meant business. Over several weeks, the two met secretly in three different foreign cities without any aides being present. The foreign offices of the two countries were completely out of the loop. Rather than get into the nitty-gritty of a possible agreement, they were testing the sincerity of their respective governments. Neither wanted a repeat of Agra when a breakthrough was prevented by a lack of spadework. Mishra was probably keen to discover whether the architect of Kargil had turned a new leaf, while Aziz wanted to ensure that the final declaration between the two countries at the Saarc summit did not contain any humiliating references to "cross-border terrorism".

A week before the summit, Mishra raised eyebrows by arriving with the advance team in Islamabad. Now men like Mishra do not come to test the microphones or search for bugs, and there was much speculation in the Pakistani media about his early presence. In actual fact, he had several meetings with Tariq Aziz in the latter's office; in the last session, the two were joined by one of the most senior generals in the Pakistan army. Contrary to rumours that did the rounds at the time, Mishra did not meet the head of the ISI. The two advisers went over the draft agreement to hold talks word by word until they arrived at the final version.

Despite the intense discussions that have been held thus far between Mishra and Aziz, as well as the declaration of intent to press ahead, there is no clear blueprint for a final settlement of the vexing Kashmir issue. This remains to be negotiated in the weeks and months ahead and will probably cause headaches for both governments. Obviously, no breakthrough is possible until the Indian elections are over and a new government is installed in New Delhi. At present, it seems that Vajpayee and the BJP will be back in power with a larger majority, and thus better placed to take the tough decisions that lie ahead. In Pakistan, Musharraf, having won a crucial vote of confidence in parliament, is in a position to do a deal over Kashmir.

One reason why progress has been rapid thus far is that the foreign office establishments of the two countries have been completely sidelined. Diplomats in both countries have spent their entire careers in defending their respective positions on Kashmir and find it difficult to emerge from this mindset. In Pakistan, they suffer from the additional handicap of being placed on a short leash by the army that has traditionally called the shots on Kashmir and Indo-Pak relations. There is a danger that once diplomats from both sides re-enter the fray, they might begin reiterating fixed positions and drag the talks into yet another deadlock.

In fact, there is an argument for having Brijesh Mishra and Tariq Aziz oversee the negotiations to ensure that minor differences are not allowed to become major hurdles by the bureaucratic brigades on both sides. Having worked closely together for several months, the two men have developed a good understanding and have the trust of their respective bosses. These are all assets that should be put to good use in the testing times ahead.

As the two sides prepare for the long and difficult task ahead, they should remember how much is at stake. They should also recall the biblical exhortation: "Blessed are the peacemakers."

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