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Cancellation of the SAARC Summit: Has India Succeeded in Isolating Pakistan Regionally?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 29, 2016

    India’s announcement that it will not participate in the forthcoming 19th SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad did not come as a surprise. There was already a rethink afoot on India’s participation after the shabby treatment meted out to Home Minister Rajnath Singh during his visit to Islamabad to attend the SAARC Home Ministers’ meeting. Unlike during past conventions, the Pakistan media blacked out the speech that Singh delivered at the meeting. India contemplating the decision of not participating was reinforced when Vikas Swarup, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, countered Indian High Commissioner Gautam Bambawale’s remarks in Karachi that “as of today Prime Minister Modi is looking forward to visiting Islamabad for the SAARC summit.”

    Bilateral Issue or Regional Consensus?

    Unlike in the past when SAARC summits have been postponed due to one member state’s decision not to attend the summit, this time India is not alone. Three other member states – Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh – have decided not to attend the summit in Islamabad and have conveyed their decisions to the current SAARC chair Nepal.

    The reaction of each of these countries and their frustration with Pakistan has given rise to a new regional consensus that state sponsored terrorism cannot be dealt with only at the bilateral level. Bangladesh cited the lack of a congenial atmosphere and interference in its internal affairs by “one country” as the reason, while also firmly stating that it is its own decision not to attend the summit. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement which read – “uncalled for reactions after the execution of war criminals in Bangladesh that amount to direct interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, which is totally unacceptable” – as the reason for Bangladesh’s abstention.

    Afghanistan also pointed a finger at Pakistan when it conveyed to the current chair of SAARC the following message: “Due to increased level of violence and fighting as a result of imposed terrorism on Afghanistan, the President of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani with his responsibilities as the Commander in Chief will be fully engaged, and will not be able to attend the Summit.”

    Bhutan, which was critical of lack of progress in SAARC at the 16th summit held in Thimphu, was not hesitant in expressing its solidarity with other countries. It stated that “the Royal Government of Bhutan shares the concerns of some of the member countries of SAARC on the deterioration of regional peace and security due to terrorism and joins them in conveying our inability to participate in the SAARC Summit, under the current circumstances.”

    Regional Frustration with Pakistan

    The issue of terrorism is not new to SAARC. Although member countries had signed and ratified the 1988 SAARC convention on Terrorism as well as the additional protocol on terrorism in 2003, these have proved inadequate to deal with state-sponsored terrorism. The ambiguous definition of terrorism and the complex clauses of the protocol make the fight against terrorism a non-starter. The issue of terrorism in the region has always been taken up bilaterally, and there are instances of successful bilateral collaboration. This is, however, the first time that there is a strong regional reaction to a member state’s sponsorship of terrorism.

    The impact of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against its neighbours is faced more intensely by two member countries – Afghanistan and India. Kabul has been very vocal on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and terror sanctuaries within Pakistan that are used by the Pakistani state as a strategic instrument against Afghanistan. This had led former President Hamid Karzai to once argue that the war on terror has to be fought inside Pakistan and not in Afghanistan. After his election as President, Ashraf Ghani wanted to turn a new leaf in Afghanistan’s acrimonious relations with Pakistan. In his effort to reach out to Pakistan, he committed to send Afghan military officers to train in Pakistan, signed an agreement between the two intelligence agencies (NDS and ISI) to facilitate cooperation and withheld the earlier request for supply of arms by India. Yet, within a year, Afghanistan turned to India for supply of helicopters to meet the challenge of the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban insurgency. Pakistan also kept Mullah Omar’s death a secret while brokering talks. Further, according to Ghani, Pakistan failed to “launch operations against the people who have sanctuaries in Pakistan”. The same sentiments were echoed in Afghan Vice President Sarwar Danish’s speech at the UN General Assembly. Afghanistan’s decision not to participate in the summit clearly demonstrates its frustration with Pakistan on the issue of terrorism.

    Though Bangladesh is not affected by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, its relationship with Pakistan has deteriorated over Dhaka’s decision to try war criminals for crimes against humanity during the 1971 war of national liberation. The Pakistan National Assembly passed several resolutions condemning Bangladesh’s execution of senior Jamaat leaders convicted of war crimes. Pakistan not only defended these leaders for their loyalty to Pakistan in 1971, but also questioned the legal process. Reacting to these routine resolutions by the Pakistan parliament, Bangladesh’s Liberation War Affairs Minister AKM Mozammel Huq said in May this year that, "I want to ask Pakistan to stop interfering in our internal matters. Otherwise, it will affect our diplomatic relations, and the government will be compelled to cut ties with it, as demanded by the people.”

    After the NDA government assumed power, Prime Minister Modi extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan. Even after the Pathankot terrorist attack, Modi and Sharif met in Kathmandu and Paris. Later, Modi flew to Lahore to wish Sharif on his birthday on his way back from Afghanistan. The government also allowed Pakistan’s Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to visit Pathankot to investigate the attack, albeit without much result. However, the portrayal of self-confessed terrorist Burhan Wani as a ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘young leader’ dealt a death blow to India’s initiative in extending a hand of friendship. The Uri attack perpetrated by terrorists from Pakistan and which led to the death of 18 soldiers shattered any faith that India had on Pakistan. Not only has the Pakistan Army turned its back on the Musharraf-Vajpayee agreement on not allowing Pakistani soil to be used against India, but Pakistan did not even bother to place any restrictions on the open anti-India activities carried by the Army’s protégées like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba. It is in this context that India announced that “increasing cross-border terrorist attacks in the region” and Pakistan’s growing interference in its internal affairs are the reasons for its inability to participate in the Summit.

    Isolating Pakistan

    Though SAARC is yet to live up to its expectations from the people of the region, Summits did provide a forum for heads of states and governments to meet and discuss regional issues. However, given the present situation, when more than one member state has accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism and interfering in its internal affairs, the political atmosphere for meaningful deliberation is absent. It is also unlikely that regional connectivity through the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement, which is pending due to Islamabad’s intransigence to provide connectivity through its territory, would have materialised in the forthcoming summit. Therefore, in concrete terms, the summit would have resulted only in high sounding but empty declarations.

    In spite of the various failures of SAARC, the cancellation of the summit due to four member countries taking a common position is a serious diplomatic blow to Pakistan and its claim of being a sincere partner in the war on terror and its incessant portrayal of itself being a victim of terror. This is for the first time that Pakistan has been isolated regionally on the issue of terrorism. Pakistan’s isolation within the region is perhaps likely to be the only success in India’s diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.