Giving dialogue a chance is critical for taking Pakistan and India out of a bilateral cold war time-warp.

Resuming dialogue is always weighed down by anxiety over the outcome. But India and Pakistan need not worry. Nobody realistically expects too much out of tentative renewals. They hold little promise of anything except an exchange of chai and samosas. Yet these renewals are bright arcs in the treacherous sky that hangs over the nuclear neighbours. The mere return to dialogue signals a recognition by both parties that a ritual has its uses. It breaks the ice, presages hope, promises substance, and sets the stage for road maps and change.

For those who want to teach the other state a lesson or negotiate a more nationalist identity by spurning dialogue, there is comfort in the sulphur of emotion. They are yet to understand that national security, or its pursuit, through non-coercive diplomacy is a ruthless business. It bets on the long term and looks at maximising optimal outcomes. If a military solution is the best option, then all resources such as anger, ballistic missiles, artillery and the best planners need to be marshalled on the table. If a military outcome is not in the best interest of either side, then it is chai, samosas and gritted charm.

At a recent track-two dialogue between experienced interlocutors of Indo-Pakistan strategic nodes in Bangkok, one thing was clear: despite the Indian Premier League issue that sent alarm bells ringing across Pakistan when its cricketers were excluded from the bids, civil society in India still seeks to do business with Pakistan. This was a very important signal for those of us who have invested in cross-border meetings and relationships as a way of broadening the peace constituency. The backlash against the Shiv Sena that the Shah Rukh Khan episode generated also demonstrated that support for peace in South Asia is not just a wishy-washy Leftist dream.

Sustainable peace is a not a prelude to concessions by either state. But it should signal the willingness for flexibility on key issues. New Delhi will serve the region better if it shelves the threat of suspending dialogue every time there is a terrorist strike. The good news is that templates exist for many of the smaller conflicts in the Indo-Pakistan terrain. It is Kashmir and terrorism that loom large on the road map, while the conflict in Afghanistan also provokes responses that muddy the pool. Water in South Asia is a contentious issue and, if left unresolved, could spark conflict between riparian states of the Indus Water system. Where do we stand on all of the above?

On terrorism, Pakistan is facing a blitz. It is a capacity deficit, not a commitment lag. The question that needs addressing is a vexing one for New Delhi. How much power does it want to concede to terrorists? Democratic governments may be weak everywhere, perhaps more so in Pakistan, but they hedge their futures against war. They seek opportunities for peace and trade, not because they are nice but because they are accountable for losses. War with India is really not an option when more people die in Pakistan from acts of terror than in war-torn Iraq or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. New Delhi should, therefore, grasp the magnitude of the war roiling Pakistan before it makes dialogue hostage to the terror that rips through the region. This is not to say composite dialogue is some metric for success. Far from it.

In fact, in the last lap, it looked like an instrument that would lose all shine if not shot in the arm with some political will. After the fourth round of composite dialogue sorted out the fine print on many well-worn CBMs, the inertia of leaden intentions dragged movement at its usual pace. Then Mumbai, or 26/11, happened. Suddenly, the state became hostage to terrorists and their goals. The dialogue screeched to a halt, and the power of setting the agenda landed in the terrorists’ laps. This is what has to change for all countries of the region to combat terrorism together. We must seek to marginalise those who promote the terrorist cause.

The identity of most terrorists seeking to rob Pakistan’s citizens of their peace may not be trans-national at a glance but the sophisticated military resources and funds that drive them do not originate in Pakistan. In the last two years alone, over 5,000 people have lost their lives to terrorism. Our children are afraid of going to school and our hospitals are bomb-sites. This is a war Pakistan expects its neighbours to help it with and, try as it may, Islamabad cannot possibly provide a guarantee against bombs in India if it cannot guarantee such a thing in its Military’s General Headquarters.

On this count, dialogue should lead to the construction of joint mechanisms for intelligence-sharing, best practices and optimal outcomes. Intelligence is the first line of defence in terrorist terrain, and we need to bolster our states with a formal architecture for interaction between India and Pakistan. Terrorism cannot be tackled alone, and while both states have skeletons in their unofficial closets, these and other mutual embarrassments should be discussed across the table, not on the airwaves, making our media combatants in a virtual war. Interrupting dialogue will only reify hardened positions, not create room for cooling off.

Second, structured talks on Kashmir will have to resurface, even if they inch forward. If New Delhi refuses to include Kashmir at a later stage on the formal table, the dialogue will lose momentum and political traction in Pakistan. Peace-making governments will increasingly become hostage to shrill nationalist voices and the project of Pax South Asia will again flounder on the rocks of gratuitous intransigence. Talks on Kashmir will also profit from a back channel, as well as the quiet inclusion of Kashmiri opinion in any dialogue for it to remain credible. Representation from Kashmir on both sides of the border is essential if the process is not to be seen as an exercise at appropriating real estate.

On Afghanistan, Pakistan is only one of the smaller elephants in the room. Islamabad’s fear of Indian encirclement will lighten if international strategies to build a nation out of that failing state succeed. Troop surges will likely tip the scales in the short run for the U.S.-NATO forces to negotiate with the Taliban but are unlikely to square the stability and governance circle on its own. International support for a broad-based ethnic mix in Afghanistan will be the only way forward if the region is not to lapse into a lawless buffer zone for extremists to build an infrastructure of dominance and pseudo-Shariah to terrorise the region with. Islamabad’s cavil about Baloch insurgents finding sanctuary in Indian consulates can be resolved if New Delhi provides transparency. Indian protests about Pakistan sponsoring terrorist attacks on its embassy can be rationally resolved through mutual exchange and dialogue.

Four, the widespread anxiety in Pakistan over Indian dams on rivers that deplete the Indus downstream can actually be discussed in a permanent dialogue mechanism that can be established between the two countries, without prejudice to the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). The IWT has stood the test of time. But in case of violations, it depends ultimately on arbitration, which is not always to the satisfaction of either party, as was the case in Baglihar. Pakistan is dangerously water-stressed and its depleting rivers and reservoirs can benefit only from a joint working commission with India. There is scant awareness in India of Pakistan’s concerns over the potential damming of the Chenab. This is one conflict that can snowball as water is not always a renewable resource in South Asia. Urgent planning is needed by both countries for conservation that is both sustainable and mutually acceptable.

Shifting a state’s strategic calculus in a conflict is always a challenge. Giving dialogue a chance is critical for taking Pakistan and India out of a bilateral cold war time-warp. While the rest of the world forges ahead, meeting in Paris to re-think global nuclear stockpiles, South Asia’s two dinosaurs remain wedded to regimes that are based on mutual opacity, while their conventional arms race remains unfettered by nuclear deterrence. Giving China a role in a separate trilateral commission for nuclear and other talks can help ease that neuralgia.

India’s military focus is still Pakistan, in terms of brigades and hardware. That forces the military in Pakistan to keep the troop strength balanced when all resources are needed on another, dispersed battlefield. Here, history for once, can show the way. In the 1960s, Islamabad withdrew its forces quietly when New Delhi was facing down China in Aksai Chin, as all responsible accounts from Washington will testify. (They should know, as they had asked General Ayub Khan to do that). If one is looking for a game-changer, this will be it. For Pakistan, the potential theatre of conflict will shift where needed, and threat perceptions will slowly start shifting closer to the real ground zero at home. The trust deficit will move down multiple notches and a structured, monitored dialogue can cash in on the space afforded by such a seminal act of courage and statesmanship.

The Indian leadership should strengthen its Prime Minister’s hand to fashion such a grand strategic bargain for South Asia. For, without one, dialogue will go round and round in vilified circles, becoming a low-intensity space for conflict prevention. We need to go beyond crisis management. We need to shift into conflict resolution and business momentum mode. But for all that to happen, we need to give dialogue a chance.

(Sherry Rehman is former Minister of Information and Broadcasting and Member, National Assembly, Pakistan.)

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