Manoj Joshi Column: Friends again?

With shifting global politics, perhaps it’s time for India to review its hard-line Pakistan policy

The resumption of high-level dialogue between India and Pakistan ends a period of discontinuity in the relations between the two countries which have been marked by a steady process of engagement since the mid-1980s, despite periods of estrangement, such as after the nuclear tests of 1998, the Kargil War of 1999 and Operation Parakaram in 2002.

The Modi government came to power in New Delhi pledging a muscular approach to relations with Islamabad, which meant drawing new red-lines, such as the refusal to allow the Hurriyat to talk to Pakistani representatives, as well as a ferocious response to Pakistan’s ceasefire violations on the Jammu border. The Modi government seemed determined to isolate Islamabad by refusing to have any diplomatic contact, except on its own terms.

Pakistani Rangers (in black) and Indian Border Security Force  personnel perform the flag off ceremony at the Pakistan-India Wagah Border on September 12. Pic/AFP
Pakistani Rangers (in black) and Indian Border Security Force  personnel perform the flag off ceremony at the Pakistan-India Wagah Border on September 12. Pic/AFP

However, the government has realised that while it can control the narrative at home and be seen by all as a tough and nationalist-minded government, it cannot do so abroad. Most countries saw New Delhi’s actions as somewhat over the top. As for the border firing, they could not understand why India, which is the prime beneficiary of the ceasefire, was going out of its way to deliver a response that could lead to its breakdown.

More important, in 2014-2015, Islamabad re-emerged in the calculations of the big powers as the key to peace in Afghanistan. The US and China looked to Islamabad to ‘deliver’ the Taliban to the peace process, and even Russia, India’s old friend, began building bridges to Pakistan. This is as much a consequence of Pakistan’s geopolitical location, as the skill with which it has conducted its diplomacy.

Just a few years ago, Pakistan was being written off as a failing, if not failed, state. But ever since it picked up courage to take on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and build bridges to the government in Kabul, it has returned into global favour. The key factor in this has been the arrival of Raheel Sharif as the Chief of Army Staff. Not only has he pressed home the battle against the TTP, but also taken up the challenge to restore order in Karachi. After initial tension arising out of Nawaz Sharif’s desire to go after Pervez Musharraf who overthrew his government and imprisoned him in 1999, the Pakistan Army and Nawaz have worked out a modus vivendi, and function more like a coalition government than autonomous, conflicting institutions. The Army chief defers to the Prime Minister, but in turn, Nawaz leaves matters relating to security to Raheel and focuses more on the economy and related issues.

The sequential visits of the two Sharifs to Washington DC, in October and November this year, were instructive. Nawaz went first and was feted by the White House, itself a sign of how the US is once again looking benignly at Pakistan. He was followed by the General in November. Raheel met Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Ashton Carter.

Clearly, far from being isolated Pakistan is being seen as a counter-terrorism partner and the lynchpin in the making of peace in Afghanistan. There have been carefully placed rumours about Pakistan-US nuclear deal.

The Americans have agreed to sell eight new F-16 fighters to Islamabad, and will probably resume military aid.

The one country that failed to see the signs of the shift in Islamabad’s standing in the international community was India. The government and Prime Minister Modi kept up a loud drumbeat on the need to combat terrorism through the past year. The rise of the Islamic State, and the attacks in Paris and elsewhere, ensure that terrorism is a major issue of concern to the world. However, the international community knows well that when Indian leaders talk about terrorism, it is really a means of hectoring Pakistan. When they look at the figures, they cannot but see that the incidence of terrorism and militancy originating in Pakistan and targeting India has gone down sharply in recent years.

It is for this reason, India’s friends abroad have pressured the Modi government to modify its hard-line Pakistan policy. A warning of sorts was visible in the inclusion in the US-Pakistan Joint Statement in the wake of the Nawaz Sharif visit that called for “a sustained and resilient dialogue process between two neighbours aimed at resolving all outstanding territorial and other disputes, including Kashmir.”

New Delhi can be content with the fact that in the last couple of months there have been other tectonic shifts which buttress its ability to engage Islamabad. The announcement of the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting power struggle has put a question mark on Pakistan’s ability to deliver the ceasefire in Afghanistan. The heightened Taliban bomb campaign in Kabul and the attack in Kunduz have brought home the limits of the Pakistani capacity to manage the Taliban to President Ghani. He has very pointedly moved to balance his earlier approach which was tilted towards Islamabad by reaching out to New Delhi.

India and Pakistan need to have an adult conversation on Afghanistan. By now, Pakistan should know that the idea of gaining ‘strategic depth’ by meddling in Afghanistan is not just a fool’s errand, but downright dangerous policy. By virtue of its long land border, Pakistan has important interests in the stability of Afghanistan. New Delhi should reassure Islamabad that it will not use Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan, provided Islamabad does not return to a policy of using Afghan territory to set up training camps for terrorists targeting India.

It is in the interests of India and Pakistan, as well as other regional states that Afghanistan’s long agony is ended. The Heart of Asia Conference, which will be held in Islamabad on December 9 and which New Delhi will host next year, provides an important multilateral platform in which win-win solutions can be found.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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