Suing for Peace after Pathankot: Foreign Secretary-Level Talks
Date: April 28, 2016
Following months of speculation surrounding the fate of the bilateral dialogue between Pakistan and India, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry met his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar on April 26 in New Delhi, on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia preparatory conference. The meeting marked the highest-level official scheduled interaction between the two sides since a terror attack on Pathankot Airbase in January led to the indefinite postponement of talks. In light of these developments, Jinnah Institute turned to a select panel of policy experts to solicit their views on the implications of this week’s meeting on the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship.
Ambassador Riaz Mohammad Khan, former Foreign Secretary, said it was difficult to speculate about whether this meeting would be able to ease bilateral ties in the context of recent events. Contact on the margins of the Heart of Asia conference would only be fruitful if it signaled a resumption of talks between senior officials on a range of issues including security, trade and politics. To this end, the meeting has certainly provided a much-needed nudge in steering the bilateral relationship towards some degree of normalcy. Commenting on the possibility of a visit to Pakistan by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), Amb. Riaz Mohammad Khan rejected the prospect of an ‘open-ended’ investigative visit. He proceeded to argue that Pakistan should judge the context and requirements of the proposed visit first before responding in a manner consistent with its commitment to facilitating investigation. Finally, he cautioned that backchannel engagement was no substitute for normal diplomatic engagement, and that the backchannel is meant to either convey a message, or to deal with sensitive issues on which flexible discussion in a formal format is not advisable in the pursuit of a common ground or a way forward.
Dr. Rifaat Hussain, Professor of Government & Public Policy at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), saw the Heart of Asia conference in New Delhi as a welcome opportunity for Pakistan and India to engage. While the meeting and subsequent ‘photo-op’ will help improve optics, issues such as Indian interference in Pakistan, Indian objections to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), escalating violence in India-held Kashmir and the fall-out from the Pathankot terror attack are likely to continue to bedevil bilateral ties. The two sides have yet to announce a formal agenda for comprehensive talks. He added that the backchannel could only work if it enjoyed the full backing of the two Prime Ministers. At present, the domestic context in both countries is non-conducive to developing a national consensus on breaking the dialogue impasse. He was also of the opinion that National Security Advisor (NSA)-level contacts had lost some of their momentum in recent weeks, and there is a visible reluctance in Islamabad to engage with India on New Delhi’s unilateral terms. Going forward, he said that while both sides would try to posture for peace, there was unlikely to be any radical change in policy.
Raza Rumi, Jinnah Institute Senior Fellow, scholar in residence & faculty at Ithaca College, and author of an upcoming book ‘The Fractious Path: Democratic Transition in Pakistan’, suggested that, based on media reports on the meeting, not much headway has been made at the official level. The opportunity for the two sides to meet and discuss issues is always a welcome one, but given their entrenched positions, the Foreign Secretary-level meeting was never going to result in a substantive breakthrough. Both sides issued different statements with respect to their meeting on the Heart of Asia sidelines, suggesting divergent concerns and interests on both sides. However, the statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs has certainly left room for future engagement. Nonetheless, the India-Pakistan relationship requires political engagement and, in Pakistan’s context, the backing of the military for any substantive progress. On the subject of the Pathankot investigation, Mr. Rumi was of the opinion that for a reciprocal visit to take place, both sides would have to engage at the NSA level, given that the two National Security Advisors have been in touch regularly, sharing information on the subjects of terrorism, counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Finally, given the current state of deadlock and the questionable role of media in both countries, perhaps the best chance for normalisation and peace is through intensified backchannel parleys. While ground has been covered in the past, this process was truncated during the last year of General Musharraf’s rule. In the absence of a formally structured dialogue, the contact between the two NSAs could continue to provide a strong backchannel avenue for engagement.
Salma Malik, Assistant Professor Defence and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University, took the view that any easing of Indo-Pak tensions would depend intimately on the intentions of players on both sides, rather than a repeat exercise of simply reaffirming preconceived positions. Unfortunately, the trend so far has seen each small step aimed at reconciliation or positive engagement quickly overshadowed and retarded by a major political or terrorist incident. This makes meaningful progress a difficult goal. However, the fact that the two Foreign Secretaries have met on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference is definitely worth lauding, even if the expectations bar for any positive outcomes was relatively low. This is because new issues such as the attack on Pathankot Airbase and Yadav’s arrest have emerged as big moot points. On the subject of backchannel engagement, Ms. Malik was of the opinion that this could help achieve a more meaningful, result-oriented dialogue, given that backdoor diplomacy remained relatively unshackled by the constraints of public opinion and media scrutiny. Backchannel engagement has also proved successful in the past, but it is important to remember that ultimately entrenched positions and vested interests will continue to affect the outcome of any bilateral engagement between the two countries.
The views in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Jinnah Institute, its Board of Directors, Board of Advisors or management. Unless noted otherwise, all material is property of the Institute. Copyright © Jinnah Institute 2016