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Need for a composite back channel with Pakistan army

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 07, 2011

    One of the most vexing and intractable foreign policy issues dogging India has been the bilateral relationship with Pakistan. Over the last six decades, a great deal of effort has been expended on working out a modus vivendi with Pakistan, but in the face of implacable hostility and unrelenting irredentism from Pakistan, all the initiatives taken by India have so far come to nought. After 26/11, India and Pakistan have once again reached a dead-end of sorts with public opinion in India inimical to any political or diplomatic initiative by the government to try and improve relations with Pakistan. But unless India has decided to turn its back on Pakistan and behave, even wish, as though Pakistan has ceased to exist, such an attitude would appear to be unsustainable. Worse, this attitude is also untenable because it is not the result of a conscious policy or strategic game plan, but is borne out of pique, some prejudice, a degree of pugnacity and of course domestic political compulsions.

    Restarting a dialogue with Pakistan is however easier said than done, more so when there is a civilian government in office but the Pakistan army is in charge. This is a problem for the Indian political and permanent establishment, which, despite being aware of the power realities in Pakistan, balks at the idea of entering into any separate or direct dialogue with the Pakistan army. In other words, while India can countenance a dialogue with the ‘puppets’, it is averse to talking to the ‘puppeteers’. The resistance to opening a dialogue with the Pakistan army would be understandable if it was part of a well thought out strategy to alter the internal dynamics of Pakistan's power structure – drive a wedge between the political and military establishments in Pakistan and eventually end the preponderant power and influence that the generals wield in the politics of the country as well as sideline them from exercising a veto power on relations with India. But clearly, this strategy is a non-starter because the Pakistani political establishment has outsourced, rather abdicated, the country’s India policy to the army and now tows the line set by the army.

    To be sure, India’s reluctance to engage the Pakistan army is morally correct and principled. But it goes against the basic principles of realpolitik, more so when self-proclaimed standard bearers of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ don’t bat an eyelid while mollycoddling Pakistani dictators, or doing business with the chief of the Pakistan army even though a civilian government is in office. The Indian distaste for opening a dialogue with the Pakistan army makes even less sense considering that India has never refused to engage military regimes in Pakistan, following the principle that it would deal with whoever was in power. Why then the resistance today to deal only with the de jure power (civilian government) and not the de facto power (army) in Pakistan? Not to put too fine point on it, in Pakistan if you win over the army, everything else falls into place, more or less.

    While India’s antipathy towards the Pakistan army is quite natural, the absence of a credible interlocutor in Pakistan who can exercise effective control over the Pakistan army leaves India with little choice except to open a parallel dialogue with the military establishment in Pakistan. The Indian policy of developing closer people-to-people relationships as a means to make a breakthrough in the bilateral relationship is unlikely to ever work. The manner in which the progress made on the people-to-people front between 2004 and 2008 was practically overnight reduced to nothing after the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai should be proof enough that when it comes to India-Pakistan relations, the people tend to follow the line set by their establishments. In order words, people-to-people relations flower when the establishment allows them, and they wither away when the establishment shuts the door on them.

    It is even more futile to depend on the so-called civil society of Pakistan for raising a constituency of peace. For one, what goes as civil society in Pakistan is really a fringe group and constitutes around 1000 people, and if you want to be very charitable then the number can be raised to 5000. This is not to belittle the commitment, conviction and courage of some of the members of civil society in promoting and propagating the cause of normalisation of relations with India. But at the end of the day, despite their visibility and volubility, how many army divisions or jihadists or even votes do these people control?

    Interestingly, in trying to engage the Pakistan army, India doesn't even have to take the initiative; it just has to respond to overtures that the Pakistan army already appears to be making. Over the last few months, enough hints have been dropped by Pakistan's military establishment of its desire to deal directly with the Indian establishment. There are some reports, albeit unconfirmed, of a meeting between the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad and the Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. The ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha has met the Indian armed forces’ representatives posted in the High Commission in Islamabad and is believed to have conveyed to them that India needs to talk directly with the Pakistan army. There are also some suggestions (straws in the wind actually) that the Pakistan army is opening up to the idea of working with India on Afghanistan.

    Indications of the Pakistan army’s willingness to engage with their opposite numbers in the Indian establishment have also come from the gestures made by the Pakistan army – for instance, Pasha attending an Iftar party thrown by the Indian High Commissioner, the ISI hosting farewell parties for some Indian defence advisors who were returning to India after completing their tenures in Islamabad, the Indian defence advisors being invited to attend the passing out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. For its part, the Indian establishment has been reciprocating the gestures from the Pakistan military establishment and has invited the head of the National Defence University in Islamabad, a serving Lt. Gen., to India. But until now, no decision has been taken to engage the Pakistan army in a serious, sustained manner.

    There are of course a whole lot of counter-signals also being received that suggest that the Pakistan army has restarted the jihad factory directed against India. Many of the jihadist outfits that had been forced to go underground have started resurfacing and are openly preaching violence against India. Pakistan’s Taliban proxies are targeting Indian interests, workers and projects in Afghanistan. The ISI has been once again trying to reignite the insurgency in Kashmir by coordinating the actions of agent provocateurs and funding the unrest in the Kashmir valley last summer. None other than Ashfaq Kayani has made no bones about the fact that the Pakistan army remains India-centric and cannot ignore or neglect the threat it perceives from its eastern front regardless of the deterioration in the situation on the western front. The ratcheting up of the anti-India propaganda by the so-called ‘independent’ media in Pakistan is yet another pointer to the direction in which the wind is blowing inside Pakistan. And, if there were still any doubts, the rise in anti-India rhetoric of the Pakistan foreign office, especially from the foreign minister, should clinch the argument that the process of normalisation of relations between the two countries has regressed significantly.

    But these negative signals are precisely the reason why it is so important for India to engage with Pakistan army. That the Pakistan army and General Kayani don’t like, much less trust, India is a sentiment that India reciprocates in full measure, and perhaps with far greater justification and reason. But what India is unable to understand fully is what is prompting Kayani’s anti-Indiaism. Is it a religious, or even a civilizational, hang-up? Or does it arise out of a genuine sense of insecurity? And is there any way that India can address this anti-Indiaism without in any way compromising on its security preparedness and its territorial unity, integrity and sovereignty? Similarly, there is a lot that Pakistan needs to do to reassure India and address its security concerns, and a dialogue with the Pakistan army can become a useful forum in finding a redressal to these problems.

    The advocacy of open lines of communication with the Pakistan army doesn’t in any way mean letting the guard down or dropping ‘assets’ and ‘leverages’ that India might have built inside Pakistan (as had been done in the past by so many Indian Prime Ministers, including Morarji Desai and IK Gujral). Nor does it mean harbouring starry-eyed notions that the Pakistan army is no longer inimical to India’s security or is in the process of ending its hostility to India.

    The point being made is not that there will be an end to the secret, or if you will, ‘shadow’ wars being fought between the two countries in different theatres; it is that in the course of engagement, the two establishments might be able to reach a better understanding of each others’ concerns and might find that some of their assumptions and presumptions about each other were misplaced. There is also a possibility of breaking common ground on a range of issues and initiating a process of confidence building measures that are verifiable on the ground.

    Any dialogue with the Pakistan army must, however, be held far away from the media glare, otherwise the entire effort will be rendered futile by the grandstanding that is inherent in the presence of the media. Equally important, there must be strict confidentiality about the talks because nothing kills trust more than selective and self-serving leaks to the media. The template that can be adopted is that of the the ‘back-channel’ that had opened up after the Islamabad meeting between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf in 2004.

    Once the decision to enter into such a dialogue is taken, there will arise the question as to who from the Indian side will talk to the Pakistan army, especially since the Indian Army, by no stretch of imagination, occupies the same position in the Indian power structure as the Pakistan army does in Pakistan. Similarly, in terms of the power it wields, the Indian external intelligence agency R&AW cannot be put on the same pedestal as the ISI. One way out of this is to adopt a multi-track approach, a sort of ‘composite back-channel’ in which the intelligence agencies comprise one track, the military leaders another track in which they discuss military and security related matters, while a third track can discuss larger strategic perceptions, outlooks and assessments. All these various tracks can then provide inputs to the political back-channel. To start with, the discussions in these various tracks can be unstructured and, if necessary, can be held in some third country.

    The question whether such a composite back channel between the security establishments of the two countries will work is hardly important. Having tried everything else, this is probably the only thing that is left to be tried. If it works, the prospects for normalization of relations will brighten; if it doesn't, neither country will have lost anything.