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India needs to engage with the real decision makers in Pakistan

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 19, 2010

    Bilateral talks between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan held in Islamabad on 15 July 2010 ended in an unseemly public spat at a press conference. The talks have been analysed minutely by commentators on both sides. A number of reasons have been cited for the failure of the talks.

    In the Indian media Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has been pilloried as the main villain whose impolite manners and hostile attitude has been held as responsible for the breakdown of the talks. Pakistanis have blamed India for refusing to engage in meaningful discussion on Kashmir and instead harping on the Mumbai terror issue. They feel that India was not sincere about discussing Kashmir.

    The Pakistani foreign minister has said publicly that the Indians were not mentally ready for the talks as yet. Qureshi wants result-oriented talks. Indians are saying that Pakistan must act against the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks. From the Indian point of view, Pakistan raised the pitch on Kashmir to escape the heat on its inability to deal with the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks.

    The positions on both sides have hardened. The future of the talks is in balance. Once again the debate in India has centred on the question whether it is at all useful to talk with Pakistan.

    Army is the real decision maker

    It is in the nature of India-Pakistan relations that emotions overtake reason and important issues are lost sight of. In the present episode, Qureshi is being held as a villain but the fact is that he is a minor player in the scheme of decision making in Pakistan. His demeanour may have played a role in the breakdown of the talks but that role would at best be minor. The real decision makers in Pakistan continue to be the army. The civilian government has little freedom, if any, in decision making. The Americans have understood this. They prefer to deal directly with the military. The dealings with the civilian authorities are only for the sake of form.

    India talks to Pakistan frequently including at the highest levels. But India has not yet found a way to engage the real decision makers in Pakistan – the army. The failure of the talks can be ascribed to the reluctance of the military to continue down the road of talks and negotiations.

    Why would the Pakistan military not favour talks with India? The Headley revelations about the ISI links with the Mumbai attackers have exposed the military and the ISI just as the intercepted phone calls between Musharraf and the generals in Islamabad in 1998 had exposed how the army had been planning the Kargil misadventure behind the civilian government’s back.

    This time around the pressure that India has built following the Headley revelations has miffed the army and the ISI. It is most unlikely that Pakistan would ever act on the leads given by India to Pakistan on Mumbai terror attacks because this would tantamount to dismantling of the Pakistani strategy of bleeding India through terror strikes. Hence it will be unreasonable on the part of India to expect any effective and meaningful Pakistani action on the basis of the leads given by India. No wonder that India found itself stonewalled at the talks. Simultaneously, Pakistan sought to take advantage of the unsettled situation in Kashmir to pressure India to focus on Kashmir.

    India needs to appreciate that in the last few years, the Pakistan army may have withdrawn from day-to-day governance but it has not given up control over the decision making on strategic issues. This includes policy on Afghanistan, India, US and China.

    The Pakistan army is playing for high regional stakes. It wants to eradicate Indian influence in Afghanistan and regain strategic depth in that country by brokering a settlement which will bring those Afghan Taliban sections to power that it supports.

    Sensing that a war-weary United States is keen on finding a way out of Afghanistan, the army has positioned itself as king maker there. The Americans have accepted that no settlement in Afghanistan is possible without an OK from Pakistan. Karzai has also realised that mending fences with Pakistan is crucial. The sacking of Amrullah Saleh, the Afghan intelligence chief who was opposed to Pakistan, was a proof of the importance of Pakistan in President Karzai’s eyes. Pakistan on its part has demonstrated that it retains control over the crucial Afghan Taliban factions including the Haqqani group and Hikmetyar.

    The developments within India would have emboldened Pakistan and hardened its attitude. It sees turmoil in Kashmir, the rising Naxal threat and the constant fear in India of yet another Mumbai type terror attack as proof that India is unable to deal with crucial security issues. Pakistan may have concluded, as it has many times before, that India is a weak and divided country unable to articulate its policies clearly. There is a danger that Pakistan may make a miscalculation about India’s resolve to deal with the threat of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil.

    Dealing with Pakistan

    India will continue to face the challenge of how to deal with an aggressive Pakistan hell bent on proving its parity with India. Nothing can be more ridiculous than the oft-repeated Pakistani mantra that both India and Pakistan are victims of terrorism. Such a formulation completely ignores the fact that India is a victim of terrorism sponsored by the Pakistani state while terrorism in Pakistan is the result of the increasing radicalisation of society which has been encouraged by Pakistani rulers in the past. Even today the various terrorist groups continue to enjoy the protection of Pakistani agencies in the full knowledge of the rest of the world.

    So, how should India deal with Pakistan? There are no easy answers. India has the soft and the hard power to deal with the Pakistani challenge but no clarity on how to use it. Stability in Pakistan is threatened due to numerous simultaneous crises it is facing. India has not yet thought through how to deal with a Pakistan that is becoming increasingly unstable. Pakistan continues to regard India as the number one threat and would be unwilling to cooperate in any meaningful way. The policy of destabilising India through a thousand cuts has not been given up.

    If the past is any indication, the talks may pause for a while for tempers to cool and may thereafter be resumed in some form or the other, on some pretext or the other. An argument will be made that the two nuclear powers cannot afford to remain in a no-talk mode. Western pressure will build in favour of the resumption of talks. Even if the talks are held, it will be futile to expect that on critical issues there will be any change in the Pakistani or the Indian positions.

    However, this time around, India should try and broaden its engagement with all sections of Pakistani society. Pakistani society is getting differentiated due to the simultaneous multiple crises – political, economic, radicalisation - in the country. Talking to the government alone which is not in control of policy is not enough.

    Besides talking to the government in place, India should think of reaching out to the non-official sections of Pakistani society. After all, Pakistanis talk to the Kashmiri separatists all the time in full public knowledge. Why can India not develop links with those sections of Pakistani society who may have views different from that of the government? India has legitimate interests in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which is an integral part of India.

    For some reason India has stopped declaring openly that PoK is an integral part of India. CBMs are worth pursuing but the basic Indian position must be reiterated publicly so that there is no confusion in anyone’s mind about where India stands on Kashmir.

    Simultaneously, India should not ease pressure on the terrorism question. Terrorism is a security issue for India. The confusion about both India and Pakistan being victims of terrorism should be clarified. Pakistan is not a victim in the same way India is. Pakistan is selective about which terror groups to target and which ones to mollycoddle.

    India should not show any impatience about resumption of talks. It does not help if high profile meetings end in failure repeatedly. India should not shun talks but it should not talk at any cost.

    India must sort out the difficulties in Kashmir and also come to grip with Naxalism at the earliest possible. The inability to deal with these problems creates apprehension about India’s ability to cope with its problems.

    The failure of the talks is not an unmitigated disaster. It gives India an opportunity to pause and reflect over the nature of the entity that it is dealing with. The Indian government has to deal with the civilian government in Pakistan but it has to realise that the civilian government is in no position to deliver. The government of India has not yet shown any inclination to talk with the military nor are there any mechanisms to do so. A way must be found to engage with the real decision makers in Pakistan on strategic issues.

    However, before the talks resume, as they may some day, let there be a decent pause for reflection. Where is Pakistan headed? What does India want from Pakistan? Who can deliver it? Who should India engage with? Are there constituencies in Pakistan that want good relations with India for the sake of friendship? How to deal with the anti-India mindset of the establishment? The interregnum before the next round of talks should be used to reflect on these strategic issues. In the meanwhile India should brace itself for Mumbai type of eventualities and be prepared to deal with them.

    The writer holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the IDSA, New Delhi. These are his personal views.