More talks about talks?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

The Sharm el-Sheikh meeting between the prime ministers of Pakistan and India marked a new thaw in relations and promised an improvement in the political climate between the estranged neighbours.

But no resumption was announced of the broader peace talks that go by the name of composite dialogue. What was agreed in this meeting was to resume the diplomatic engagement between the two countries halted by Delhi after the Mumbai terrorist attack. No concrete timetable, however, was laid out for this purpose.

Prime Ministers Yusuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh concurred that dialogue was the only way forward while leaving open the content and timeline for the future talks. The joint statement issued after their meeting echoed the Jan 6, 2004, communique, whose central feature was Pakistan’s assurance that territory under its control “would not be used to support terrorism in any manner.” This commitment had paved the way for renewing the talks that had also been suspended at the time.

The statement of July 16 contains a robust formulation on terrorism, but notably omits any reference to Kashmir, while making a vague though important reference to Balochistan. The latter was in deference to Pakistan’s longstanding complaints about Indian interference in that province and “other areas.”

The most significant aspect of the statement from Islamabad’s perspective was that it de-linked action on terrorism from the composite dialogue. This resembled the undertaking embodied in the joint statement of April 18, 2005, in which the leaders of the two countries pledged that they would not allow terrorism to impede the peace process. This was reiterated in the joint communique of Sept 14, 2005. But these mutual commitments did not prevent the dialogue from being derailed by the Mumbai attack.

Nevertheless, what has been portrayed as a diplomatic gain by Pakistan was quickly contradicted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh just hours after the joint statement was issued. Addressing a news conference Mr Singh ruled out the resumption of the composite dialogue “until and unless the terrorist heads who shook Mumbai…are brought to book.”

He reiterated his stance in his subsequent address to the Lok Sabha. The interpretation he put forward appeared to signal a reversal of the Sharm el-Sheikh position. “The resumption of talks cannot be a precondition for action against terrorists,” he explained.

This seemed to confirm a well known maxim of Pakistan-India negotiations: the two countries make painstaking efforts to negotiate every comma and full stop and then to interpret that agreement to death.

Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remarks were construed by some to have aimed at taking the edge off opposition criticism of Delhi’s apparent U-turn on talks, they did not prevent a walkout from Parliament by the BJP , which accused the government of conceding to Islamabad on the terrorism issue.

This political spat did not obscure the reality of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s position at Sharm el-Sheikh, which was to signal agreement on diplomatic re-engagement, but not on restarting the formal process of talks

In fact, he also cast doubt on the nature and agenda of the future dialogue by saying that this would be determined by the foreign secretaries of the two countries, who would meet as “frequently as required.

That raises the question whether this presages a protracted process of “talks about talks” and a fraught diplomatic dance to figure out when and how to resume the composite dialogue. Does the Indian position imply that the foreign secretaries’ parleys will principally be aimed at handling tensions over the terrorism issue? Possibly, if an Indian official quoted in The Washington Post last week is to be believed. He told the paper that Delhi had narrowed the dialogue to terrorism and kept Kashmir out of the talks.

The timing of the announcement at Sharm el-Sheikh, hours before the arrival in India of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also raised a set of other questions. Is Delhi’s renewal of the dialogue more an effort to respond to international urgings, in the light of Washington’s sustained encouragement of talks, while continuing a strategy of what Indian commentators call “flexible containment” of Pakistan

Is Delhi’s stance on the dialogue tactical or strategic? Can the dialogue transition into the composite process? Will the diplomatic space that has opened up be used to enlarge the peace process? Or will the talks regress under the pressure of domestic Indian politics and the terrorism issue?

It is too early to foresee or forecast where all this is headed. But with the stage set for re-engagement, the success or failure of this tentative move towards reconciliation will depend on addressing substantive issues across the gamut of relations between the two countries.

For a meaningful, result-oriented process the dialogue will eventually have to be pursued in three related but separate tracks. One, the formal composite dialogue process itself. Initiated 12 years ago, this set out a wide-ranging agenda covering virtually the entire span of relations and provided a framework to address the differing priorities and concerns of the two sides. Reinventing the wheel in this regard offers no advantage and risks losing whatever progress has been achieved on key issues.

The second track is the back channel to enable serious negotiations on the substance of the Kashmir dispute. There is no getting away from the core issue even as Delhi has used the Mumbai attack to further de-legitimise the Kashmiri resistance. But this approach hasn’t prevented renewed protests across the Valley against India’s rule. The turmoil has been going on since the past two months following even bigger protests last year. This prompted The Economist to remark last month that six decades later, Kashmir’s Muslims “miss no chance” to tell India to leave.

Addressing terrorism is important, but to pretend that terrorism is the only source of troubled Pakistan-India relations is to wilfully ignore the reality that violence is a consequence, and not the cause, of the long festering Kashmir dispute.

Unless the dialogue between the two countries is able to address the Kashmir issue, relations will remain susceptible to a relapse into tensions, even confrontation. This is not to urge placing any precondition. Nor is it make progress on other issues conditional on diplomatic advances on Kashmir. It is simply the dictum of common sense. And the lesson of history.

“Final settlement” negotiations are best handled through quiet (but not secret) diplomacy. They have to be accompanied by efforts to address the security and humanitarian dimensions of the dispute, which the composite dialogue had tried to do by the adoption of a rather modest series of Kashmir-related confidence-building measures. This should be pursued as a near-term goal to create a climate of peace in Kashmir

The third aspect of the future engagement relates to issues that have poisoned relations in recent years and added new layers of mistrust, but have not featured on any formal agenda of the bilateral talks. Many of these have strategic implications and did surface during the talks in Egypt, raised to his credit, by Prime Minister Gilani. They include Islamabad’s serious concerns about the role of the Indian consulates in Afghanistan, especially in fomenting destabilisation in Balochistan, as well as Delhi’s campaign to malign Pakistan internationally.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s publicly stated willingness to address the former is welcome. But this will need to be tested in the talks ahead. Instead of pursuing these issues haphazardly there may be merit in both countries considering an agreement embodying mutual assurances of non-interference and non-intervention in each other’s internal affairs. This could provide a framework to deal with this vexed problem.

Looking forward, what will determine stable relations is whether a habit of dialogue to solve problems can be fostered. If the diplomatic efforts ahead are to be a new beginning and not a false start, this habit has to be able to trump and transcend the mutual hostility and suspicion that are immediately revived by the eruption of any incident or problem.

Unless this happens, it is hard to see how past patterns can be broken. In that case the fundamental prerequisite for a stable peace will continue to be elusive.

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