Curtain to the East

If there is to be a regional policy takeaway from 2016, it is that New Delhi’s apathy for a rapprochement with Islamabad has only served to veer the bilateral relationship off-track. With recent posturing having blinkered efforts to bridge the divide, progress on the Indo-Pak diplomatic front channel has come to a grinding halt. Stonewalling Mr. Sartaj Aziz in Amritsar on the sidelines of Heart of Asia has made fairly obvious the near non-existent appetite in New Delhi for peace, let alone dialogue.

No-war-no-peace is an alarmist state of play for any two neighbours; let alone a strategic normal for nuclear-armed states saddled with the gulf of a fraught and bloodied history between them. In Pakistan, strategic restraint underwritten by hard won civilian-military consensus on national security, and recent military transition, has helped reiterate a multi-stakeholder commitment to regional stability. In India, conversely, new Army Chief Bipin Rawat’s warnings of future surgical strikes signals a dangerously flammable single-lens routinization of South Asian bellicosity. It also enables a hyper-nationalist redrawing of the red-lines of bilateral conflict. This does not bode well for a region that was short on stability to begin with.

But axial shifts cut both ways, and sober minds in Islamabad are increasingly wary of the blind alley that Indian aggression has driven the relationship into. Having staked his premiership on building strategic equity across the border, and now under political pressure at home, Prime Minister Sharif will be unlikely to go off script on India in the coming months, or make further concessions or overtures until there is a palpable guarantee of Indian reciprocity.

This is not to say that silence from Islamabad should be misinterpreted as weakness. Far from it: any attempt by India to breach the LoC or engage in aggression along the Working Boundary is guaranteed to elicit a strict and swift response from a Pakistani state that remains committed to the defense of its frontiers. Yet the policy responses in both capitals to the episodic crises of 2016 have been palpably different. Escalation was New Delhi’s go-to; Islamabad stayed the course with pragmatism and studied restraint. This may not be a function of political impulse as much as it is an issue of attitudinal bandwidth: Delhi’s political-strategic elite today has considerably high stakes in a doctrinal standoff with Pakistan, and Islamabad’s does not. This explains why South Block’s foreign policy mainstay has equivocated from diplomatic coercion to full-on aggression since the BJP took over. The bad news is that the BJP’s return to the state election trail in 2017 almost certainly means that the door to diplomacy in the east has been firmly shut.

But for all its hubris, New Delhi’s attempts to fabricate myths of containment and isolationism have had limited global takers, leaving Pakistan with an underestimated advantage. A new administration in Washington has already signalled its desire to do business with Pakistan. And even with Pakistan continuing to prioritise coexistence and economic integration as foreign policy prerogatives, there are fresh reasons to believe that Islamabad can use 2017 to expand the breadth and scope of its relationships with global players, including Russia. December’s tripartite conference with Moscow on Afghanistan, and speculation of a newfound Russian interest in Gwadar, suggests a Russian desire to re-explore the limits of its near abroad. It also nicely amplifies Pakistan’s own message that ensuring Afghan stability should not be a single-state burden. Newfound Russo-Pak strategic proximity, and a joint Sino-Russo effort to thwart India’s attempts to blackball Pakistan at a gathering of BRICS leaders in Goa, should lend further pause to isolationist calls by New Delhi.

While containing Indian aggression, then, where else should Pakistan look to shore up engagement? An urgent and immediate answer lies to the west. The unsolved presence of five million Afghan refugees and the unfinished legacy of Zarb-e-Azb mean that Kabul is and should continue to remain the most important capital for Islamabad. As Afghanistan grapples with its own internal divisions and fragilities, bilateral cooperation should be conditioned on the quest for a formal strategic partnership with Kabul, as well as operational guarantee of territory on the other side of the Durand. The status and documentation of Afghan refugees must also be urgently upgraded on the Pak-Afghan bilateral agenda.

Regionally, an opening with Iran is also long overdue. With the first Pak-Iran joint bank scheduled to open by March, Islamabad must not drop the ball on the five-year strategic action plan that has pledged to boost bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2021. With just over a year to go till the next general election, these are critical foreign policy successes that can consolidate policy initiatives at home, and help advance gas, electricity, and investment and infrastructure-development initiatives. In the same context Beijing’s offer to build a long-delayed Iran natural gas pipeline to Pakistan, a project conceived of under the last PPP government, should be seized at the earliest. CPEC also offers a natural convergence of Sino-Iranian interests that can be suitably leveraged to open up land access to Turkey, complimenting a presently under-negotiation Pak-Turk Free Trade Agreement.

A decade of hard-won multiparty consensus in Pakistan for peace with India has clearly shifted on its axis. Today Pakistan is both wary of Indian hostility, and tired of the anti-peace public messaging from New Delhi that has become dangerously calcified as the new normal for Indo-Pak engagement. Having convinced itself of its own exceptionalism, India has made clear its reduced stakes in diplomatic normalisation with Pakistan. Pakistan should be in no hurry to convince a post-truth, post-dialogue India, of anything otherwise. If there is an overture from the east, Islamabad will be ready to respond in kind. Until then, a drawn curtain may just quietly help spur better and more constructive New-Year resolutions across the border.

A version of this article appeared in The News on 12-01-2017.


The writer works for Jinnah Institute. Twitter @fahdhumayun.

Please note that the views in this publication do not 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.