India’s “graduated” approach to talks with Pakistan

Can’t Take Eyes Off Reality

Brahma Chellaney

The Economic Times, February 26, 1010

NORMALLY, diplomatic talks between any two neighbouring countries should be routine. But with the Pakistani military establishment continuing to sponsor crossborder terrorism in India behind a nuclear shield — a situation unparalleled in the world — Indo-Pakistan talks are anything but normal.

The renewed talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries have attracted attention for eight reasons. The first reason is the U-turn in Indian policy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said “some Pakistani official agencies must have supported” the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. His surprise decision to renew talks was greeted in Pakistan as a major diplomatic climbdown by India.

A second reason is that the shift in the Indian position occurred without the government so much as offering a reasoned explanation to the public for the switch. Indeed, the shift occurred at a time when, as the PM has admitted, the level of crossborder infiltration by terrorists is increasing.

A third reason is a disturbing one: No sooner had India announced its decision to resume talks with Pakistan than a major terrorist strike in Pune happened. And a day after the foreign secretaries met in New Delhi, terrorists killed nine Indians, including two army doctors, in an attack on two Kabul guesthouses. That attack is believed to be the handiwork of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which earlier was behind the July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

What the Pune and Kabul attacks highlight was that when Pakistan is kept under pressure, with the threat of Indian retaliation hanging like a sword over its head, it is able to rein in terrorist elements and prevent any terror attack occurring in India. But the moment the pressure is lifted against it and an air of triumphalism begins to reign in Islamabad, terrorist attacks against Indian targets are orchestrated, breaking a 14-month lull. Yet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says, “There is no alternative to dialogue to resolve the issues that divide us.”

This proves that the terrorist elements, far from being autonomous, are very much under the control of the Pakistani military establishment, which is able to use them at will.

The fourth reason is that the Indian decision seemed designed to aid America’s Af-Pak strategy. The publicly acknowledged U.S. strategy to reconcile with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban has only increased U.S. reliance on the Pakistani military and intelligence. That strategy indeed received international imprimatur at the London conference.

At a critical time when the U.S. is seeking greater Pakistani military and intelligence assistance to build pressure on the Afghan Taliban commanders and bring them to the negotiating table, Washington has advised New Delhi to lend a helping hand by placating Islamabad through a resumption of talks.

As the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has admitted, the aim of the American military surge is to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, not to beat back the insurgency. The “surge first, then negotiate” U.S. strategy seeks to strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength.

For the talks with the Afghan Taliban to be successful, the U.S. intends to squeeze the Taliban first. Towards that end, the U.S. military’s ongoing Marjah offensive in Afghanistan represents a show of force.

After persuading the Indians to agree to resume talks with Islamabad, the U.S. not only launched the Marjah offensive, but also got Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to assist in the “capture” of several Afghan Taliban leaders. They include Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s alleged operations chief; Mullah Abdul Kabir, a deputy prime minister in the former Taliban regime; Mullah Abdul Salam, an alleged Taliban shadow governor for Afghanistan’s Kunduz province; and Mullah Mohammad of Baghlan province.

The stage-managed arrests of these mullahs from Pakistani cities, including Karachi and Nowshera, showed that Afghan Taliban leaders are operating from urban centres in the heartland of Pakistan, not from mountain caves along the Af-Pak frontier.

A fifth reason is that India has not only dovetailed its Pakistan policy to America’s Af-Pak strategy, but also outsourced it to Washington. Instead of applying direct leverage against Pakistan, India is depending on the U.S. to lean on Islamabad.

India has been loath to use economic and security levers against Pakistan. Its decision to resume talks with Pakistan shows it also is reluctant to employ the diplomatic card.

Yet Indian reliance on the U.S. carries high risk. After all, American policy in southern Asia is being driven by narrow, politically expedient considerations, as illustrated by the manner the Obama administration is propping up Pakistan through generous aid and lethal-arms transfers. As U.S. ex-senator, Larry Pressler, has warned, “When the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, India will have a Pakistan ‘on steroids’ next door and a Taliban state to deal with in Afghanistan.”

The sixth reason is that the Indian government has sought to pull the wool over the eyes of the Indian public by claiming that the resumed dialogue process is centred on terrorism when in reality it is about the usual issues, including Kashmir. Nothing better illustrates this than the fact that New Delhi bent backwards to arrange a meeting between the visiting Pakistani foreign secretary and Hurriyet leaders, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani. In fact, the Pakistani foreign secretary came to New Delhi for two sets of dialogue: One with the Indian government, and the other with Geelani and his fellow Hurriyet leaders. What did the Pakistani foreign secretary convey to Geelani and company? The answer: Pakistan has not given up its plans to further shrink India’s frontiers.

The seventh reason is that New Delhi is engaging not the actors that wield real power in Pakistan — the military establishment — but a civilian government that neither is responsible for the terror attacks against India nor in a position to stop them. Yet, New Delhi has begun a “graduated” process of talks with the Pakistani government, effectively giving the Pakistani military a carte blanche to continue to wage its war by terror. With External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna telling Parliament that the foreign secretary-level talks were an “encouraging step” towards restoring full discourse, New Delhi is headed toward resuming the composite-dialogue process before long.

The eighth and final reason is that such talks only reinforce the India-Pakistan pairing when the need is for India to de-hyphenate itself from the quasi-failed, terror-exporting Pakistan, which is a crucible of extremism and fundamentalism. More than Washington it is New Delhi’s unimaginative diplomacy that is responsible for the continued India-Pakistan hyphenation internationally. 

The author is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.

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