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A ‘Pak yatra’ as ‘SAARC yatra’?

INTIMATE ENEMY: “A turning point in the past few months in Pakistan is the Peshawar massacre, given the intense anger it has generated, and the push from the Pakistan government to fight ‘the terror within’.” Picture shows a grieving mother in Peshawar who lost her son in the massacre by Taliban gunmen.   | Photo Credit: Muhammad Sajjad

Six months after talks with Pakistan were called off Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar lands in Islamabad today to kick off a new attempt to engage their government. While Indian officials have taken care to downplay the visit’s significance, calling it a “SAARC yatra not a Pak yatra”, it seems clear that the trip has been made with a special emphasis on Pakistan. The decision to re-engage with Pakistan, through whichever means, signifies two things: one that the decision to cancel talks in July 2014 was only a temporary one for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the assumption that talks could be restarted at a later point, and two, that engaging Pakistan is the norm, rather than an aberration.

However, the last six months have also seen several significant shifts inside Pakistan observed during a recent visit by this writer;the foreign secretary may, therefore, find picking up the threads of the talks more complex than it was perhaps last July.

Shift in power balance

There is an obvious shift in the power balance at the core of Pakistan: the civil-military equation. In recent weeks, it is clear that army chief General Raheel Sharif has a new stature inside Pakistan, with primacy on all issues, not just the ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ operation and efforts against terror groups as part of the National Action Plan announced after the Peshawar school massacre. The shift has been acknowledged in Washington, where he was received by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and in London, where he met Prime Minister David Cameron. On January 6, the government also announced that military courts would take over many of the terrorism trials, as civil courts are too slow, and judges are too easily threatened or influenced into letting militants off. However, it would seem the government of Mr. Nawaz Sharif has come to terms with the shift, and as a result, his government is enjoying a rare spell of stability compared to the tensions with both the opposition and the military of the past. At a track-II conference organised by the Jinnah Institute and Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation in Islamabad last week, diplomats were heard saying the Army’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) was now taking over many of the Foreign Office’s functions, and the shift in power equations is important for India. Although the Army GHQ in Rawalpindi has always had a veto on India-Pakistan relations, there is a marked increase in statements from the ISPR wing in recent weeks that show a greater involvement in the process as well. General Sharif’s visit to the LoC and the International Border just before Mr. Jaishankar’s visit to accuse India of opening “indiscriminate firing” and warn of a “befitting response” cannot be ignored.

Related to this shift is the dramatic change in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations in the past few months. Since his swearing-in, President Ashraf Ghani has deviated from his predecessor President Hamid Karzai’s stance that Pakistan supporting the Taliban was the source of all of Afghanistan’s problems. Instead, Mr. Ghani visited Islamabad directly after his first trip abroad to Beijing, and also visited the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The bonhomie has been reciprocated in full measure by Pakistan’s military, with visits by General Sharif, his ISI chief Lieutenant-General Rizwan Akhtar, and Corps commanders of Peshawar and the Southern command to Afghanistan in the past month alone. Pakistan’s military is also assuming a primacy in the soon-to-be launched talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which also explains the welcome General Sharif has received in the U.S., the U.K. and China. This dependence could shift the balance on talks with India, as Afghanistan has so far been an important ally for India on curbing the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Fighting ‘the terror within’

The other obvious turning point in the past few months in Pakistan is the Peshawar massacre, given the intense anger it has generated, and the push from Mr. Sharif’s government to fight “the terror within” Pakistan. According to the Pakistan government 19, 272 suspects have been arrested in 19,789 countrywide operations since the launch of the National Action Plan against terrorism in December 2014. Mr. Sharif is doing this in the teeth of opposition from many within his own government who are close to radicalised extremist groups and from clerics across the country who at a conference this week of the Ittehadul Tanzeemat-e-Madaris, condemned the government for its “unconstitutional steps.”

But despite all the action taken so far, no visible steps have been made against the groups that India has demanded: Hafiz Saeed remains free to address rallies, and gives speeches at leading universities in the country, while his commanders on trial for the Mumbai attacks live luxuriously inside the Adiala jail in Rawalpindi, leading the U.S. National Intelligence Chief James Clapper to conclude during a testimony last week, that Pakistan’s provision of “safe-havens” to the Lashkar-e-Taiba will remain a major irritant for ties with India. It will be Mr. Jaishankar’s task to continue to push for a shift in this part of Pakistan’s policy.



There is an increasing acknowledgement in Pakistan’s civil society that the use of “terror as a tool of foreign policy” has hurt Pakistan’s cause both internally, as well as in harming the cause of Kashmiri separatists they back.



Significantly, there is an increasing acknowledgement in Pakistan’s civil society that the use of “terror as a tool of foreign policy” has hurt Pakistan’s cause both internally, as well as in harming the cause of Kashmiri separatists they back.

“Pakistan committed the historic blunder of sending in trained and fully-armed non-state actors,” writes former Editor M. Ziauddin in an editorial in The Express Tribune in a view that seems widely held, “we had seemingly succeeded in reducing a six-decade-long freedom struggle into a terrorist adventure in the eyes of the world.” The article also seems to indicate that even as local support for training terror groups to attack India dries up, the government will choose to step up its attempts to “internationalise” the political problem in Jammu and Kashmir, until India and Pakistan are able to restart talks on the issue.

Finally, Mr. Jaishankar will be expected to articulate the way forward on the nature of the dialogue itself. The two core issues remain India’s concerns on terrorism and Pakistan’s concerns on Kashmir, and the need of the hour is to move ahead on them in a sustained manner, without the breaks in dialogue that have delayed them in the process.

Several Confidence Building Measures need to be bolstered now. While the LoC ceasefire is in danger of collapse and demands new mechanisms to keep it in place, others like a new visa regime, and measures to facilitate trade and travel need to be ratified.

A small start on CBMs could be made even if the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan just agree to revise the extremely bellicose closing ceremony at Wagah every evening. This was requested by the BSF soldiers themselves in 2010, citing heavy back and knee injuries , but despite talks on the issue, neither India nor Pakistan have been able to give them any relief so far. Perhaps a lesson in their plight is something both foreign secretaries could draw on for other parts of the India-Pakistan dialogue as well: it is important to put one’s foot down firmly, but without damaging oneself in the process.

(Suhasini Haidar participated in the Islamabad Dialogue track-II conference organised by the Jinnah Institute and Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation on February 26-27, 2015.)

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 6:31:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-pak-yatra-as-saarc-yatra/article6952240.ece

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