Islamabad’s overtures to New Delhi must be viewed with an open mind
This is perhaps a long overdue pertinent question, which has not been asked in the last few years, especially after the 2019 crisis of India and Pakistan. It is important for the Indian audience to consider this question seriously. However, a little digression by way of a few important points.
On 17 March 2021, two days prior to the scheduled visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Gen. Lloyd Austin to India, Islamabad hosted, under the auspices of National Security Division, the first-ever Islamabad Security Dialogue. The dialogue was inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan. In the course of his speech, he also inaugurated the first ever portal, which enables democratic participation of think-tanks, small and big, from all over Pakistan to offer input to national policy making. This project has been the brainchild of special assistant to Prime Minister on national security affairs, Moeed Yusuf.
Most importantly, the event amplifies the new security paradigm, which Islamabad has set out. However, before the new national security paradigm is studied, it is important to investigate whether India, under the assumption that its policy of coercion against Pakistan is successful, continues to misread Islamabad. This assumption of India merits more than rudimentary investigation. And should it turn out that India is indeed misreading Islamabad, must not New Delhi then contemplate a course correction?
It is also important that the regional and international landscape be appraised alongside Pakistan’s choice of a comprehensive security approach to domestic and regional security.
Afghanistan: What Pakistan Seeks?
The US-Taliban deal despite exhausting multiple rounds, paved the way for Afghan government and the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The process has seen its own set of hiccups. However, the two sides are now being nudged to come to the talking table at Istanbul for a peaceful settlement.
Pakistan, undeniably, was among critical players during the US-Taliban talks. It also played an important facilitating role at persuading Afghan government, the Taliban and other factions for intra-Afghan dialogue. Unlike what New Delhi likes to believe, Pakistan under successive governments has favoured Afghan peace process to be Afghan-led; it believes only Afghans, inclusively, should determine their future political course. As the date for US withdrawal approaches from Afghanistan, with looming uncertainty about withdrawal, the US is committed to see Taliban and Afghan government break the impasse. In its latest, the US has asked the Afghan government to consider the peace proposal with Taliban.
Pakistan does not eye a repeat of Nineties in Afghanistan. It believes that all tools of diplomacy should be employed to avert such undesired outcome. Another realisation before Pakistan is commitment to see a peaceful Afghanistan, driven towards regional connectivity and trade. To this end, the role of regional players such as China is not ruled out either. Experts such as Richard Fontaine, CEO, Center for New American Security, in a recent webinar also expressed hope that China, despite sharing common interest with the US in Afghanistan, can play a mutually agreed role to stabilise it; provided there is an agreement of approach between the US and China. If in a post-peace deal scenario, Afghanistan becomes part of a sustainable regional connectivity initiative, it will serve overlapping interests of all three: the US, China and Pakistan. Both, the US and Pakistan will be satisfied with access to post-peace deal resources for rebuilding Afghanistan. China and Pakistan, subsequently, may find a key partner to join the regional integration efforts. To see through this process, however, may require ingenuous approach from all involved and it may need to be insulated from possible spoilers.
US and China: Pragmatic Optimism
Among many of its relations, Pakistan’s bilateral engagement with the US is of significance. The Trump presidency, known for its aberrant characteristics, despite reducing US security and economic assistance to Pakistan was helpful in bringing moderation to overall bilateral relations and enabled them to initiate negotiation process with Taliban. The engagement between the two sides was helpful in enabling US-Taliban talks to succeed in form of an agreement. The characteristics of redefining relationship with Pakistan were not confined to Trump presidency alone. Under President Biden, security cooperation is being revived, which was once again reinitiated under President Trump weeks before completion of his term, particularly in the form of resumption of courses for military personnel of Pakistan.
Democrat party has also started reconfiguring its orientation towards the country. This is now reflected in Democrat party’s change of approach towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme. In addition, analysts in Pakistan, such as Khalid Chandio, a senior colleague at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), believe that Pakistan, due to special nature of relations, both with China and US, will be able to leverage its position better. Like many Asian countries, there is an understanding in Pakistan that little can be gained by joining an exclusive camp, either, of China or the US. Therefore, maintaining meaningful partnerships, with both, is essential. A similar observation was also shared by former US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, during Islamabad Security Dialogue, that Pakistan’s decoupling from Afghan prism can enable it to regain a new perception before the US. Hence, it should avoid being pushed into oblivion in American strategic thought. While ensuring that the latter does not happen, Islamabad will also seek US alignment with its new geo-economics driven policy.
Moreover, Pakistan is aware of the pitfall of confining focus of cooperation with the US on security-related aspects alone as this robs them from expanding cooperation in other mutually beneficial areas. The current and previous generation of Pakistani policymakers are acutely conscious of this. While being cognizant of growing US-India cooperation under the Quad, Pakistan does not want the US to adopt an approach on Kashmir and a security policy which aggravates an already delicate balance of strategic stability between India and Pakistan or complicates the existing dispute.
Furthermore, Pakistan is determined to prevent a repeat of adopting a binary and securitised approach to global affairs. Pakistan, thus, by experience is cognizant of the drawbacks of such policy and its follies. Most importantly, it believes, that if circumstances so develop, Pakistan once again will be in a position to play a historic role in diluting differences between China and the United States.
Islamabad and New Security Paradigm
Under the auspices of the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Pakistan attempted to broadly define its outlook on national security. This included an inclusive and all-encompassing approach to security with climate change, energy security, food security and gender security as cornerstones of this new policy. Of course, economic security is at the core, which will be improved through sector-specific reforms and economic diplomacy. An ambitious endeavour, which seeks economic revitalisation and global engagement with closely linked reforms at home.
This marker of national approach was missing earlier due to Pakistan getting embroiled in war on terror, post-9/11. This demonstrates that Islamabad, in its official discourse has moved beyond the traditional-security approach, which confines threat landscape to kinetic security challenges. This realisation has started standing out in discourse with adoption of holistic and comprehensive approach to security. A critical element, which both sceptics and optimists agree on, is the earliest materialisation of reforms for sustaining incremental economic growth.
Pivot and Vector of Regional Connectivity and Trade
Nothing binds Pakistan’s policy and decision-making ecosystem more than the unanimity of the view that the country and region needs stability, connectivity and increased trade. It must also be reiterated that this policy consensus is fast transcending political divide. During Islamabad Security Dialogue, views of opposition members, Hina Rabbani Khar and Senator Mushahid Hussain Saeed, parliamentarians of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML), respectively, were in alignment with the current government to fast-track developments to this end. Both stressed the need to adopt geo-economics as driver of our national security policy and aversion to joining one particular camp in the emerging global order. The motivation behind this move, and rare consensus across political divide, is the goal to project the country as a geo-strategic location for the world.
For becoming a geostrategic pivot, the strategy is aimed at not leveraging its position as a player of geopolitics, rather predominantly by elements of geo-economics. In pursuit of these aspects, up-scaling volume of future air-traffic, inviting influx of tourists, foreign investments, including venture capital firms, export-driven manufacturing and services, and becoming a key player in global supply chain are some of the verticals under this strategic, and an ambitious goal.
By doing so, Pakistan aspires to become a pivot and a vector of connectivity, trade, entrepreneurship, knowledge and tourism. While the discrepancy between existing and desired state appears obvious. However, consistent consummation of this policy and action will bridge this divide in a decade’s time.
Kashmir Dispute, Article 370 and Dialogue
The state of Jammu and Kashmir remains as one of the thorniest outstanding disputes between India and Pakistan. The abrogation of Article 370 and tampering of Article 35A, by the Indian government, have raised legitimate concerns in the region, especially in Pakistan and China. The move has disturbed the status-quo and caused rightful concerns regarding administrative control and demographic changes in Jammu and Kashmir.
Pakistan’s civil and military leadership has expressed optimism for dialogue with India. Both Prime Minister Imran Khan and chief of army staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa reiterated similar positions during Islamabad Security Dialogue. The army chief, on the following day, mentioned that ‘India needs to create a conducive environment in Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir’ as a precondition to continue meaningful dialogue. While commentators may interpret it as acceptance of 5 August 2019 measures as fait accompli, the truth is, Pakistan has not altered its position concerning Kashmir dispute.
On 25 March 2021, President Arif Alvi in his speech on the 81st commemoration of the Pakistan Day, also dispelled this notion by stating, ‘Measures of 5 August 2019 and those succeeding it are in blatant violation of the United Nations Charter and UN Security Council resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir dispute.’ Therefore, it may be said that, without diluting this change and restoration of status-quo ante by India, meaningful beginning to dialogue may not be possible; especially conditions that may come as unacceptable to the Kashmiris.
In the subsequent question and answer session at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Gen. Bajwa expressed a similar sentiment that resolution to Kashmir dispute should be reached by Pakistan and India, ‘along with the people of Jammu and Kashmir.’ He simultaneously expressed the possibility of a prospect in which resolution of Sir Creek dispute and Siachen could be prioritised first as low-hanging fruits by both sides. Prior to this, Gen. Bajwa also stated that, ‘Both sides have fought many wars and resolving issues through kinetic means is not possible (for both sides)’, due to possession of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan. Recent events also validate this observation.
Lessons of Pulwama-Balakot 2019 crisis also demonstrate perils of escalation, misplaced confidence, and limit of military power—and irresponsible application of nuclear deterrence by India, in exercising ‘technological-tactical initiative seeking’. By this term, which I have coined, I refer to the tendency to deploy technologically sophisticated platforms with precise and lethal targeting capabilities, which may offer enhanced sense of confidence to decision makers for stand-alone tactical kinetic actions or operations. However, such an approach is not without pitfalls. Therefore, Gen. Bajwa underscored the need for ‘bold initiatives’ by both sides for meaningful dialogue.
Consequently, the resolution of Jammu and Kashmir dispute calls for going beyond half-hearted measures. India must desist from subjugation of the Jammu and Kashmir issue for compulsions of bellicose domestic politics, and most importantly from non-democratic approach to addressing the dispute itself. Else, if this fails, the region may fall prey to repeating previous, avoidable, mistakes.
It’s important that New Delhi understand Pakistan’s shift in outlook and policy as iterated by General Bajwa, that Pakistan intends to move towards, ‘lasting peace within and outside; non-interference of any kind in the internal affairs of our neighbouring and regional countries; boosting intra-regional trade and connectivity; and building sustainable development and prosperity through the establishment of investment and economic hubs within the region.’ A day earlier, on 17 March 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan, in the inaugural session of the Dialogue, expressed a similar optimism that resolution of Kashmir dispute will unleash the possibility of integrating South Asia and Central Asia through trade and connectivity.
This chorus on wide policy matters is not a mere wishlist, bluff or an eye wash, rather a serious policy consensus with ongoing initiatives on ground. For India, it appears timely, to see the situation through Pakistan’s perspective, approach and react accordingly; lest South Asia is doomed to repeat the follies of the past.
(The writer is assistant research associate at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). The views expressed are his own)