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Re-engaging with Pakistan

Sumita Kumar is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 19, 2016

    The Foreign Secretary level talks between India and Pakistan scheduled to be held on January 15, 2016 got postponed due to circumstances arising from the terrorist attack at Pathankot. Both governments, building on the momentum gained during discussions at Paris, Bangkok and Islamabad, chose to behave with restraint in the immediate aftermath. Further, Prime Minister Modi’s grand gesture of stopping briefly at Lahore during his return from Afghanistan in the last week of December could not be seen to have been in vain. Neither did the Indian Government immediately blame the Pakistan Government for instigating the attack, nor did the Pakistan Government feel the need to go into denial mode.

    India handed over concrete evidence regarding the links between the terrorists and their Pakistani handlers to the Pakistan Government, with the expectation that action would be taken against organisations and individuals involved in the Pathankot terrorist attack. Even as the Pakistan Government has formed a Joint Investigation Team comprising of officials from the Inter-Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence and Intelligence Bureau, we wait to see whether the steps that the Pakistan Government takes on the ground are at all satisfactory in terms of taking action against the senior leadership of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) based in Bahawalpur. In the meantime, it would behove India to build on the positivity which has been apparent among the liberal sections of people within Pakistan since Modi’s visit. A process which the government has taken great pains to re-start should be allowed to continue. Vested interests within Pakistan should not be allowed to gain satisfaction from the fact that talks have stalled again. It is perhaps a given that any impetus towards renewed dialogue results in attempts to disrupt such engagement. The kind of siege planned at Pathankot could only have been possible with preparations which would have been underway for quite a while, but perhaps the thawing of relations provided the immediate context in which the attack was conducted.

    Public opinion in Pakistan seems to veer to the point that Pakistan must deliver something tangible if its credibility is to be retained. Yet, it may not be possible for Pakistan to deliver adequately in the near term even with the international pressure brought to bear on its leadership and the fear that military and economic aid from the US could be compromised. This is due to the value that the Pakistani establishment attaches to groups like the JeM, which are seen as strategic assets. The JeM was proscribed by the Pakistan Government in 2002. Breakaway factions were also implicated in the attacks on President Musharraf in December 2003. But the group merely went underground only to re-emerge in the public domain in the last couple of years. In end January 2014, Masood Azhar addressed a huge rally in Muzaffarabad by phone. The rally was held on the occasion of the launch of a book written by Mohammed Afzal Guru who was convicted by Indian authorities for his role in the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. In 2011, there were reports that the JeM was regaining its strength. After the Pathankot attack, the Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the arrest of members of the JeM as well as attempts to trace and seal their offices. Even if the leadership of the JeM is placed under house arrest or their offices are sealed prior to more meaningful or long term action, such efforts would need a gestation period before the efficacy of such measures becomes apparent, given past experience. Also, one needs to factor in how the Pakistan Government would respond to the expected backlash domestically if such action is indeed forthcoming.

    Resuming talks with Pakistan sooner rather than later is important at whatever level. These should now be part of a sustained effort of diplomatic outreach towards Pakistan rather than an on-and-off affair. While there may be differences on various national security issues within the political and military circles in Pakistan, there is general agreement on the perception that India is a primary threat. Even though newly inducted Prime Ministers make statements purported to show their eagerness to change the dynamics of India-Pakistan relations, they soon fall back to the norm. Given the nature of things therefore, peace-building would need to be a slow process. Any attempt to hasten the pace of rapprochement suddenly can cause such initiatives to collapse. The dialogue process can be started by taking up issues under the Comprehensive Dialogue and charting out the schedule of talks to focus on what is doable. While issues related to terrorism are supposed to be handled by the National Security Advisers, the Foreign Secretaries could focus on Kashmir. Simultaneously, the schedule for meeting of the Commerce Secretaries could be fixed so that issues related to trade normalisation can be taken up on a priority basis.

    When the dialogue process is resumed, India should be prepared for any terrorist attacks that may take place despite talks. We should simultaneously plan a long-term strategy for deterring such attacks. If there was any such strategy in the past, it has obviously not worked. India should at the same time build leverages within Pakistan so that eventually those elements within the Pakistani establishment which encourage or are party to attempts at destabilising India are forced to realise that India can respond in kind and that they will have to bear the costs of any such action.

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