India and Pakistan are now back to the point where the 2001 Agra Summit failed. They should pick the thread of negotiations where it was left in 2007 — instead of seeking to reinvent the wheel.

One is stunned by the amateurish manner in which the crucial Pakistan-India Foreign Ministers' moot has been handled — starting with the unwarranted remarks that were made first by Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai and ending with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi's outburst against his polite interlocutor, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. What could have been a good beginning has turned into an occasion for public acrimony. The two establishments have scuttled the sensible course that was taken by their respective Foreign Ministries to break the impasse. This was an instance of how not to have a round of India-Pakistan talks. Why have such a round of talks at all?

The Foreign Ministers' talks did not help overcome the gap, despite a preparatory meeting between the two Foreign Secretaries, Salman Bashir and Nirupama Rao, held on June 24 in Islamabad to prepare for the Foreign Ministers' meeting. The Foreign Secretaries had agreed on an agenda and (hopefully) the contours of a possible outcome. If there were still unbridgeable gaps with respect to security concerns, the two sides should have taken more time to sort them out behind-the-doors instead of feeding into the mutually demonising circus that has been so zealously pursued in the subcontinent for so long. If, during his visit to Islamabad on June 26, Home Minister P. Chidambaram had thoroughly discussed the new dossier(s) of information that revealed the confessions by David Coleman Headley, allegedly involving the ISI, certain army officers and other perpetrators belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, then why did Mr. Pillai try to preface the Foreign Ministers' talks a day before the event? It seems that the Indian Home Ministry vetoed any movement on any count other than satisfactory action by Pakistan's Ministry of Interior against all those allegedly involved in the 26/11 Mumbai act of terror.

Mr. Krishna himself said at his joint press conference with Mr. Qureshi that “he was here to see what action Pakistan has taken so far” on the confessions made by Headley. If that were the case — and this is what seems to have disturbed most Mr. Krishna's quite articulate Pakistani counterpart and brought their meeting to an acrimonious end — then the security officials concerned from the two countries should have met to clear the Mumbai-related mess first instead of putting their Foreign Ministers in an unenviable position. While the Indian delegation, as expected, stuck to its Home Ministry's core concern about lack of action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage before agreeing to move on any other count, Mr. Qureshi's sweet Seraiki talk and sensible urge to push for the resumption of composite dialogue could not substitute for a lack of sufficient action by Pakistan's Ministry of Interior on Headley's revelations. The biggest confidence-building measure that Mr. Krishna was looking at was solid action against those identified by Headley before embracing Mr. Qureshi's priorities — on which both were on the same page.

Finding the futility of not having talks over a most troubled region, and prodded by the United States, the two Prime Ministers had agreed in their one-on-one interaction at Thimpu to give the talks yet another try to bring the peace process back on the rails after it was derailed by the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. The earlier effort by Dr. Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm-al Shiekh had backfired on the Indian Prime Minister, who was accused of being ‘soft' on Pakistan. The failure of both the attempts shows that the harder positions taken by the respective security apparatuses and their unwillingness to entertain each other's ‘core concerns' are not letting diplomacy find its way out of the conflicting demands of the adversaries.

India and Pakistan are back to the same point where the 2001 Agra Summit had failed. Only after the assurances that the Indian leadership had sought against alleged terrorism emanating from the territories under Pakistan's control were granted by General Pervez Musharraf, had India agreed to sign the January 6, 2004 statement in Islamabad. Some measures to check cross-border infiltration, initiated subsequently, paved the way for an unprecedented degree of forward movement with regard to almost all components of the composite dialogue process. The solid basis of the success of the four-year process of dialogue was that all components of the Pakistani establishment were on board, and there was a bi-partisan consensus in India on the basis of which the initiative launched by the Bharatiya Janata Party was carried forward by the Congress. Both the factors are now missing. A bi-partisan consensus does not exist in India now; and a unity of command, that was once the hallmark of General Musharraf's regime, does not exist in Pakistan.

General Musharraf did push the process to the point of a major breakthrough even on Kashmir, but Indians delayed it till the time the former military dictator lost his ground. In Pakistan's case, the Zardari government did show the courage to make some fresh moves, but it was hamstrung by the Mumbai backlash. Finding no response from New Delhi, and coming under pressure from the media and the judiciary, the democratic government found it convenient to let the security establishment maintain its intransigence towards India. On the other hand, the Pakistani establishment did not give a bailout to Dr. Singh, a genuine peacemaker, as he reeled under the popular backlash of the Mumbai attack. In fact, the Pakistani establishment continues to travel on the beaten tracks of strategic depth/intrusion through unreliable proxies, most of whom have turned their guns on Rawalpindi.

Regardless of Mr. Qureshi's equaliser meant to cast his counterpart in a pathetic position — probably in retaliation to what Indians have been saying about whom to talk in Pakistan — both the Foreign Ministries are the least autonomous in making decisions. But by embarrassing his counterpart, Mr. Qureshi has created a bad precedent for his upcoming visit to India, if at all it takes place. His minders, one suspects, have pushed him to a point where a courteous Shah Mehmood Qureshi would never have liked to be. The Indo-Pakistan dialogue was initiated with some effort by the Americans, who do not want to see Pakistan divided on two fronts. With the fate of the American surge in southern Afghanistan at stake and given the American strategic dependence on Pakistan, Islamabad is no more in a hurry to comply with any Indian preconditions. The Pakistani security establishment may get an upper hand in Afghan affairs as the U.S. coalesces in, but not against India. Conscious of the need to ensure security during the October 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the Manmohan Singh government tactically agreed to negotiations while exerting pressure on Pakistan on Mumbai and in seeking to restrain jehadis from crossing the Line of Control.

This strategic uncertain equilibrium is unlikely to stay. One more terror strike in India can lead to unseen and unaffordable consequences. There could even be a limited war that could get out of hand, and that could alter the entire strategic environment and upset the whole design of the war on terror. This is the likely scenario that must make everybody in the region and the world at large wake up.

Let not either side become a hostage to self-delusionary strategic devices. The war on terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan has entered a critical stage which no power in the region and the world can afford to lose. Both sides must provide a way out and offer face-saving measures to those who can deliver. Let us get over the Mumbai fallout, put the culprits on trial, go back to spirit of the January 6, 2004 statement and pick the thread of negotiations where it was left in 2007 — instead of seeking to reinvent the wheel.

(Imtiaz Alam is a veteran Pakistani journalist and Secretary-General of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA))

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