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Back Channel with Pakistan Army: A Gambit Worth Trying

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 26, 2011

    The denial by both the Prime Minister’s Office in India and by the military spokesman in Pakistan of the story in The Times of an ‘unofficial back channel’ that had opened with the de facto ruler of Pakistan, General Ashfaq Kayani, isn’t entirely unexpected. If indeed there was such a back channel then it is best kept under the wraps, not so much because it would make public what was being discussed or even negotiated – the details of the ‘official’ back channel negotiations during the Musharraf era are still secret even though the main protagonists claim to have nearly reached a deal – but more because it would be premature to admit the existence of such a back-channel until it had become a regular feature instead of a one-off contact. On the other hand, if there was no such back-channel contact, then the denials are perfectly in order and would end needless speculation on the nature of contact established between the Indian and Pakistani establishments.

    Quite aside the fact that the denials would have come as a dampener for those who believe that there is a dire need for putting in place a channel of communication and dialogue between the establishments of the two countries, the very nature of the contact claimed by The Times – ‘unofficial’ – raises serious doubts about the efficacy of the so-called back-channel. Even so, there is still a strong case for some sort of contact – in the preliminary stage, perhaps only a military-to-military exchange between the National Defence College in India and National Defence University in Pakistan – being made with Pakistan’s military establishment and exploring this track to see if a more sustained engagement is possible with the real rulers of Pakistan as opposed to the civilian show-boys that India has been so comfortable in dealing with.

    The aversion in India to dealing directly with Pakistan's military establishment is entirely understandable, but is also unreal given the power dynamics of Pakistani politics. Pakistan is, in a sense, a schizophrenic society. At one level, there is deep distrust and suspicion of the establishment and a tendency to attribute not only the most bizarre conspiracy theories to it but also hold it capable of, if not responsible for, the most horrible crimes. But, at another level, there is an innate, almost blind, trust and faith in the ability and capacity of the military establishment to protect the country and put things right. Most Pakistanis are quick to follow the lead of the army on issues of national security, especially when it comes to relations with India. As a result, when the army allows it, people gladly reach out to India (the 2004-2008 period bears witness to this), and when the army shuns it, the very same people pull back on all contact with India.

    This remarkable ability and agility of the Pakistani military establishment to manipulate public opinion must be taken into account by the Indian establishment before it takes any initiative on mending ties with Pakistan. The bottom line is that while India can have as many ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’ dialogues with the civilians in Pakistan as it wants, unless it manages at least a modus vivendi with the all-powerful Pakistan army, none of these dialogues will lead to anything at all. Without getting the Pakistan army on board, any dialogue with Pakistan will either be a dialogue of the deaf or one with the meek and powerless, who, one daresay, are unlikely to inherit Pakistan.

    There are essentially two ways that India can approach Pakistan. The first is to engage Pakistani politicians and civil society, promote people-to-people exchanges, trade and what have you, in the hope of creating a constituency of peace that will force the hand of the military establishment to normalise relations with India. But quite frankly, for this strategy to work, India will have to wait till the cows come home. An alternative strategy is to continue with the above strategy, but simultaneously open a sustained channel of communication and engagement – to start with, an ‘official and empowered’ back-channel – with Pakistan's military establishment.

    Needless to say, given the power structure realities of the establishments of the two countries, the back channel contact will have to be handled with great care. In a democratic country like India, a back channel naturally tends to evoke suspicion. One way to counter this is to set up a multi-track back-channel – between intelligence agencies to discuss issues like terrorism etc., between the militaries to discuss purely military matters, and a track in which both top civilian and military officials discuss security and doctrinal issues.

    If this ‘composite’ (given the diplomatic and political sensitivities of the Indian government, perhaps the word ‘comprehensive’ is more appropriate) back-channel shows promise, and in the course of discussing professional matters, creates an opening for discussing the strategic dimensions of the bilateral relationship, the two sides could consider bringing it on the front channel. In other words, they could make the transition to a ‘strategic dialogue’ in which a working group comprising designated civilian and military officials led by either the National Security Advisor or the External Affairs Minister discuss matters of higher state policy and the future trajectory of bilateral relations.

    But even if the back-channel contact remains a desultory track, there is still something to be said for continuing to engage an adversary but without the hype that normally accompanies any India-Pakistan engagement. If anything, the one thing that the two countries need to avoid is hyping up the expectations of a breakthrough by indulging in high profile jamborees – Mohali comes to mind. Quiet, serious and sustained diplomacy is perhaps the only way forward, even if this takes a long time and denies the politicians the legacy that they so desperately crave to leave behind.