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For an Indo-Pak strategic dialogue forum

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 04, 2009

    India is taking its time to reopen the dialogue process with Pakistan that has been suspended since 26/11. The meeting between Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s President, Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, on the sidelines of the SCO meeting in Yekaterinburg in June had opened up possibilities of resumption. However, the joint statement following the one-on-one session between the two prime ministers at Sharm-el-Sheikh ran into rough weather. Consequently, India has reiterated the linkage between progress on terror dismantlement and the peace process, holding up proceedings till Pakistan convinces India of its anti-terror credentials. At the minimum, this would be by proceeding against those responsible for the Mumbai attacks.

    India and Pakistan have diverse approaches to the peace process. In Indian understanding the peace process is an incentive for Pakistani actions against terror, whereby its actions would translate into gains made through the peace process on issues of concern that include Kashmir. On the other hand, Pakistan’s reliance on terror as a strategic tool speaks of its using terror to keep India engaged, fearful that there would be no incentive for India to stay at the table and deliver if Pakistan were to withdraw its only means of pressure. This not only indicates a trust deficit, but talks are yet another domain of strategic interplay between the two states substituting for conflict.

    While a meaningful peace process is useful between any two adversaries, the two states being nuclear powers makes strategic engagement all the more necessary. With the looming threat of terrorism, a future crisis cannot be ruled out. In case of another terrorist strike, the Indian leadership may find itself politically compelled to resort to military means in response. Conflict, albeit in the form of a limited war, is not inconceivable in such a circumstance. Given that Pakistan subscribes to a nuclear first strike policy to deter an Indian conventional attack, it would be in the interest of both states to see the nuclear issue recede to the background.

    Even if India’s response to a future terrorist strike is of a finite kind at the lower end of the escalatory spectrum, such as in the form of surgical strikes, it needs to shape the environment in advance. A preexisting dialogue forum with Pakistan would help create and retain the space to apply the required combat power. This may require sharing concerns, intent and compulsions with Pakistan through a strategic dialogue not only before hand but also during crises and even conflicts. Through dialogue, India needs to temper the possibility of a Pakistani conventional and nuclear escalation by clearly communicating to Pakistan that Indian intentions are limited. For Pakistan the benefit is in gaining a direct insight into India military limits. Absent a dialogue mechanism, it would otherwise have access to these through ‘tacit bargaining’ - the limitations of which in terms of misperception are fairly straight forward.

    Therefore a strategic dialogue is necessary between India and Pakistan as an adjunct to the peace process. This way there would be an official and standing channel other than the peace process. These would principally cater to alleviating nuclear apprehensions of both states. The Cold War experience is instructive, as scholars are characterizing the India-Pakistan rivalry as a ‘cold war’. During the latter period of the Cold War, there existed a Standing Consultative Commission between the two superpowers which ensured that Berlin and Cuba like crises did not recur and helped develop a mechanism for cooperation through negotiation and monitoring.

    The mechanism for such a strategic dialogue does not currently exist in South Asia. The closest forum is the dialogue on Confidence Building Measures mandated by the 1999 Memorandum of Understanding signed at Lahore. The two sides have conducted five rounds so far since 2004. There has been a back channel between the two states that has been functional prior to Lahore. It was active both during the Kargil conflict and Operation Parakram. It reportedly had considerable success during the Musharraf era, particularly in discussing his ‘out of the box’ initiatives.

    However, notwithstanding these existing mechanisms, the initiative recommended here requires going beyond CBMs to security building. Ideally the two states should institute a standing mechanism with full time officials nominated from both national security systems. Ideas on this score are already available in thinking on Nuclear Risk Reduction Centres. These would not be suspended, but instead become active in a crisis.

    While enabling crisis management and limitation in conflict, such a dialogue, once in place, could also serve a more ambitious purpose. Presently, talks on issues in the composite dialogue tackle symptoms and not ‘root causes’. Therefore incentivising Pakistani participation is vitally important. It bears noting that over the years terrorism has proven to be a strategy of diminishing marginal utility for Pakistan. India has been able to sustain the sub-conventional pressure through organizational innovations, such as the Rashtriya Rifles. India has also acquired an offensive strategic orientation, best evident from its Cold Start doctrine. With India’s tolerance threshold having worn thin due to repeated terrorist attacks, New Delhi may have to resort to coercive action bordering on compellence; irrespective of the American presence and interest in the Af-Pak region that has so far stayed India’s hand. In case of a US exit in the indeterminate future, it would be in Pakistan’s interest to have an insight into and handle over Indian intent and action.

    While the dialogue in the short term could bring this home to Pakistan, over the long term Pakistani threat perceptions could be addressed. Since the military determines the national security agenda in Pakistan, directly engaging its core concerns could bring about a shared understanding on security issues. This would permit movement on other issues presently blocked in the composite dialogue.

    A candidate item for the immediate agenda is confidence building over the safety of Pakistani nuclear assets. Concerns have been raised of a heightened Taliban threat to nuclear assets and over fear of a Taliban take over of the state. This has in turn provoked fears of an external take over of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Indian fears with regard to the former and Pakistani apprehensions with regard to the latter can be aired in such a forum. Not having any means to raise such concerns leads to heightened insecurity.

    Nuclear weapons have brought about a protracted conflict, with nuclear states in a conflict dyad cooperating only on non-controversial issues. In the India-Pakistan case, even in less controversial issues, where the broad contours of an understanding are already in place such as on Siachen and Sir Creek, the two states are unable to bring issues to a closure. Without the ballast of success from lower order issues, the controversial issue of Kashmir will remain, and so would potential for terrorist disruption of relations.

    Counter-intuitively, the current juncture is apt for such an initiative. ‘Blowback’ from their Taliban adventure has in some measure sensitized the Pakistani Army to the need to keep India quiescent, at least temporarily. India’s growing preparedness from learning from earlier crises, increasing military budgets and a more proactive mindset have surely not been lost on General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The new US posture of holding Pakistan more accountable should give uniformed decision makers a pause. The civilian government in Islamabad is not averse to greater engagement with India since this helps expand its space with respect to the military in Pakistan’s internal politics.

    The nuclear overhang necessitates additional measures of engagement between the two states that go beyond CBMs. This needs to be de-linked from the peace process. Instituting a strategic dialogue mechanism that with time and experience could be vested with an increasingly ambitious agenda is necessary. This is in keeping with the spirit of Lahore and the experience gained since.