The arrival of India’s External Affairs Minister and senior BJP leader, Shrimati Sushma Swaraj for the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad, and bilateral interaction brings a unique opportunity to further clear the road for the stalled Indo-Pak dialogue. It also provides an occasion for both countries to learn how not to spoil prospects of peace and reconciliation by continuing with a proxy war in Afghanistan. Should we keep our fingers crossed or hope for the better?
Thanks to the exhaustion of the futility of the brinkmanship we are so accustomed to and fed up with, increasing prodding by the international community to talk and multiple back-channel persuasion work, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan met for a while in Paris to set the ball rolling. In keeping the spirit of Ufa – which focused on terrorism while including Pakistan’s counter-core issue, Kashmir, on the agenda – the national security advisors (NSAs), clearly representing the otherwise hawkish establishments of the two estranged nations, met in Bangkok – a neutral place, thankfully out of media’s reach.
The Bangkok meet broke the ice. The Indians were happy to focus on terrorism while avoiding the customary embarrassment of Pakistani visiting officials meeting with the Hurriyat (APHC) leaders, who term these meetings as “good for nothing”. The Pakistanis were happy to bring Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s development vision for the South and Central Asian regions at the top of the joint statement as well as reference to the peaceful resolution to the Kashmir issue.
The bilateral gridlock continues to hold back India and Pakistan even from cooperating in areas of mutual interests and normal state-to-state business, as we see in the case of Sino-India relations despite larger territorial disputes and strategic competition. Some lessons are in order:
We must let the composite dialogue continue. It must not be interrupted by any kind of provocation. In an integrated framework, while focusing on the strategic issues that are vital to each side, both sides must build confidence by promptly implementing all agreements. That includes strict observance of ceasefire across the LoC, the working boundary and the international border, signing of draft trade-agreement, relaxation of the visa regime and enhanced people to people and cultural exchanges.
There has to be an end to cross-border terrorism, by state or non-state actors, strict prohibition of use of territory in each country and in Afghanistan for terrorism and creation of effective intelligence/security mechanisms to monitor and prohibit all such activities. The dialogue process on each item on the eight-point composite dialogue agenda must be picked up from where it was left by the current or former governments. There needs to be reactivation of multiple back-channels on various conflicting and cooperative issues, and cessation of verbal and psychological warfare. Furthermore, a strategic framework for stabilisation and preemption of conflict must be developed. And more frequent exchange visits at the highest levels of various components of state power must take place.
The occasion for a swift follow-up meeting between Swaraj, Sartaj Aziz and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was provided by the Fifth Ministerial Conference: Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process on Afghanistan. ‘Enhanced Cooperation for Countering Security Threats and Promoting Connectivity in the Hart of Asia Region’, the theme of the moot that included 14 participating, 17 supporting states and 12 international/regional organisations, is quite testing for the credentials and real intentions of the participating nations, the Central Asian States, Iran, Pakistan, China and India in particular.
The success of the conference will be judged on the quantum of strategic understanding reached and the depth of willingness for the implementation of the decisions. It essentially depends on how far Kabul and Islamabad will be able to iron out their differences, with mediation by the US and China, and how far a regional strategic convergence can be achieved among the regional states.
The participation of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who co-chaired the conference, was ensured after the visits of the prime minister and army chief to the US and a trilateral meeting between the British prime minister, Ghani and PM Sharif in Paris. Despite these international efforts, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain bumpy and will require continuous mediations by the US and China.
The issues that divide the two countries include first, the Afghan government’s increasing concerns regarding intensification in the Taliban’s attacks while blaming it on the sanctuaries and support base in Pakistan, and our complaints about use of Afghan territory by the renegade Pakistani Taliban and Indian intelligence operatives to destabilise Pakistan. The second issue is how to calibrate Pakistan’s facilitation for bringing the now divided Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table and, at the same time, restraining them from using Pak territory for attacks in Afghanistan.
Third, there are issues of security mechanisms for effective border management, intelligence sharing and possible coordinated operations across the border. There is also the challenge of allowing greater connectivity to both countries to Central and South Asia, Afghan transit trade across Pakistan to India and Pak transit trade across Afghanistan to Central Asia, the CASA-1000 electricity project and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) gas pipeline project, in particular. And finally, a permanent settlement of the Pak-Afghan border.
It was on the sidelines of the conference that a quadrilateral meeting between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China helped narrow differences between Kabul and Islamabad. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif again went an extra mile to assure his counterpart that “Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy”. It was earlier decided at a high-level meeting in Islamabad that Pakistan will play the role of a facilitator for reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government only when Afghan government would like it to do so.
The emphasis of the Fifth Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan was on countering security threats and promoting connectivity. That would require greater cooperation among the regional states, Pakistan, the Central Asian States, Iran, China and India. The presence of Iranian, Chinese and Indian foreign ministers and a US deputy secretary of state in the conference did, to an extent, help develop a regional consensus on stabilising Afghanistan, countering terrorism, expanding trade and improving connectivity.
Sushma Swaraj’s contribution to the deliberations was quite positive. She gave a very positive statement for “good relations” with Pakistan on her arrival and offered to Pakistan a cooperative relationship to the extent Pakistan desired. Since both Pakistan and India think that the peace and stability in Afghanistan is essential for the region, both countries need to exchange notes and, at least, agree on how not to work at cross purposes in a perpetually troubled country.
While Islamabad and Rawalpindi will have to rethink about how to engage India to stabilise Afghanistan, and concede India’s role in the economic sphere, New Delhi will have to appreciate Pakistan’s strategic interests in its backyard. Let us hope Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, India, Iran, China and the Central Asian States reach some regional consensus to stabilise Afghanistan, and India and Pakistan let go of their mindless enmity and start talking – in a positive manner.
The writer is a political analyst.