Asia’s Fragile Heart by JI President Sherry Rehman

The Heart of Asia conference brought the only good news in months to a Pakistan hunkering down to critical fights, yet still faced with a soft power deficit at home and abroad. The turnaround in public messaging from New Delhi to Islamabad almost hijacked the core issue of the conference, principally focused on securing a stable future for an alarmingly fragile Afghanistan.

Strategic worry by the international community about the advance of global terrorism played a pivotal role in spurring India-Pakistan sobriety all round, especially given Chinese and American stakes in peace. The hydraulic rise of intolerance in India also needed a brand correction for the Modi regime itself, on the tailwind of defeat from Bihar. The emerging limits of state power on preventing a possible uptick in spectacular terrorist attacks in this region was also key in moving the dialogue track forward.

With India, the good news is obvious to all except a few media misanthropes. The resumption of a comprehensive bilateral dialogue tactically frees the neuralgic relationship from dangerous stalemate. The bad news is that New Delhi wants to kick-start the process from scratch, not from where the last round of composite negotiations left off. What this means is that the whole dialogue track goes back to zero in an onerous reinvention of an old wheel.

Pakistan should make its cooperation with Afghanistan contingent on a formal strategic partnership.

A perennial checklist of unresolved issues such as Sir Creek, Siachen, border CBMs, trade hiccups, Kashmir and terrorism go back on the anvil without the benefit of a long archive of semi-agreements to light the path on an obstacle-course road. Given the current era of exceptional distrust, negotiations will likely be defined by hyper-nationalisms, especially after Ufa, when Islamabad dropped the ball on the K-word.

Between breakthrough and deadlock, though, a few adults in the room can find a path that builds on irreversible increments. Officials on both sides can be charged with a timeline of more off-media meetings to reset a robust set of do-ables for the Saarc summit opportunity.

This is when the two prime ministers can publicly embrace a new normal by making some confidence-building announcements on the easier to do, low-hanging fruits of the bilateral agenda. Big ticket items like Kashmir and cooperation on terrorism can then enjoy a less mistrustful air of business. This will all, of course, only be possible if the two governments keep a lid on competitive diplomacy, particularly New Delhi, which is prone to tough talk that closes more doors than it opens.

Other than terrorism, where better movement on the Mumbai and Samjhota trials in both countries can spur the pace of dialogue, the fear of proxy contests in Afghanistan will not go away in any one-time event. Peace with Afghanistan cuts a long arc of ambition, where the search for the perfect must not compromise the achievement of the good. Talking to the Afghan Taliban is abhorrent to many in Pakistan, justifiably so, but it’s what the Afghan president wants and what their High Peace Council has been asking for over the last five years.

Its attainment remains as elusive as the state cohesion and solvency of an increasingly insecure Afghanistan, where Ghani’s task is challenged by disunity, factionalism and an advancing yet divided Taliban. Pakistan should make its cooperation with Afghanistan contingent on a formal strategic partnership, but clearly, the road to Kabul’s search for an accommodation with its own competing players and the Taliban is still floundering in the fog of war. Neither is it paved with simple equations for Pakistan, or even for Kabul.

If Pakistan tries to lean too heavily on the Taliban leadership, it will be vilified as interfering. If Pakistan does nothing, the ensuing conflict may wipe out many rights and gains made in Kabul over the last 12 years. Talk and fight is never a red-line strategy, with anyone in position to dictate absolute outcomes, but that is still what is going down in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is in a difficult place to start with, given course corrections in Afghan policy stumbling on roadblocks of capacity and field-level diversions. What compounds Pakistan’s challenges is a baffling ministerial inability to articulate public policy strains. Between fighting one of the largest inland battles against terrorism in the world on its soil today alone, and finding no takers for political control or operational guarantee of land across the Durand Line, one should have a lot more to say on the global stage.

Yet at the Heart of Asia conference, Islamabad did little to protect itself in public messaging from future scapegoating for Afghan security failures, and potential Taliban attacks on Kabul.

Disappointingly, the unintended consequences of Western policy in the Middle East missed any meaty public interventions, let alone traction at the conference. Islamabad should have set an agenda seeking more. Given that the Vienna plan will hold little meaning without a rollback of the militant Islamic State group in both Iraq and Syria, we should have asked for a meaningful summit on the strategic policy stalemate in the Middle East, seeking an actionable calendar of consensus from Western powers, including Russia, Turkey and the Gulf oil states. Their past actions, and current inactions, do spill over in life-changing consequences into less rich Asian states with porous boundaries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the absence of global leadership, it was surely the right time to secure one’s own country better. But given our recent record of costly ineptitude at global forums such as COP21 and Ufa, no one should hold their breath for Islamabad to optimise such occasions with its own powerful message.

Senator Sherry Rehman is Chair of the Jinnah Institute, and Vice President of the PPP; she has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, and Federal Minister of Information. @sherryrehman

This article was originally published in Dawn on 14/12/2015.