Tuesday, June 15, 2021

After The Historic LOC Ceasefire, Have India & Pakistan Started To Negotiate The ‘Kashmir Issue’?

The India-Pakistan joint statement on the Line of Control (LoC) ceasefire on February 25 is among the rarest of its kind to have avoided the “K” word (meaning Kashmir) in the text.

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Of course, Pakistan can argue that since there is a sentence in the paragraph that says that “in the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace, the two DGMOs agreed to address each other’s core issues/concerns which have the propensity to disturb the peace and lead to violence,” it implies that there is the commitment to addressing the core issue — Kashmir — from the Pakistani perspective.

But this interpretation, which one sees in the Pakistani media over the last two days, pales into insignificance, given the fact that the Pakistan government engaged with India despite setting the conditions that it would not do so until and unless India “canceled the annexation of held- Kashmir and ended the human rights violations there”.

Only last month (January 10) Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had said that “no dialogue is possible with India until New Delhi restores the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir (erstwhile Article 370)”.

What is equally significant is the fact that Pakistan Army Chief, General Qamar Bajwa, has approved of the development. After all, the joint statement has been signed by Pakistan’s Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), Maj Gen Nauman Zakaria.

It is universally recognized that the ultimate decision-maker in Pakistan as far as India is concerned happens to be the Army Chief.

Early this month, while addressing the graduation ceremony at the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Asghar Khan Academy in Risalpur in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, General Bajwa had said that “We stand firmly committed to the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence.

It is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions” and that “Pakistan and India must resolve the longstanding issue of Jammu and Kashmir in a dignified and peaceful manner as per the aspirations of people of Jammu and Kashmir”.

It is now widely shared in the strategic circles of both Delhi and Islamabad that the latest agreement is the result of the clandestine or the backchannel talks between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Imran Khan on National Security Moeed Yusuf, with General Bajwa providing a helping hand.

What were the factors behind the change of heart of Pakistan in engaging with India in non-military parleys and then concluding an agreement?

The promptness with which the Biden administration in the US welcomed the agreement between the two neighbors has been interpreted by the Pakistani media that the change of power in Washington has influenced the outcome.

“We welcome the joint statement between India and Pakistan that the two countries have agreed to maintain strict observance of a ceasefire along the LoC starting immediately,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price has said, adding, “We encourage continued efforts to improve communication between the two sides and to reduce tensions and violence along the LoC.”

When asked to what extent, if any, did the United States play a role in helping broker this new ceasefire agreement, Price replied, “When it comes to the US role, we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues of concern….You’ve heard me say from this podium and others from this administration say that we had called on the parties to reduce tensions along the LoC by returning to that 2003 ceasefire agreement. We have been very clear that we condemn the terrorists who seek to infiltrate across the LoC.”

Price’s emphasis that “we condemn the terrorists who seek to infiltrate across the LoC” seems to be of considerable significance with regard to the expectations of the Biden administration from Pakistan.

However, for veteran strategic analyst Bharat Wariawala of Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, more than that of the United States, it is the China-factor that was behind Pakistan’s review of its India-policy.

“I am of the firm view that the thaw in India-China hostilities in eastern Ladakh, resulting in the mutual de-escalation must have made the Pakistani military realize that India is too powerful for Pakistan to continue with a war-like situation on the LoC. If China could not tame India, can Pakistan do it?

“I have no doubt whatsoever that the Indian armed forces were capable of dealing with the two fronts (China and Pakistan) simultaneously over the last one year. Now that the situation has stabilized a bit on the front with China, the Indian Army could have afforded a little more focussed attention on inflicting heavier losses on the Pakistani side while retaliating to the cease-fire violations”.

Even otherwise, notwithstanding all talks of China-Pakistan bonhomie, the fact remains that China, of late, is also reviewing its traditional blind support to Pakistan. China’s flagship program, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is not making smooth progress.

Beijing has sought to invest over US$62 billion in infrastructure and energy projects in Pakistan through the CPEC, which is also supposed to provide an alternative pathway for exports and energy imports from West Asia to China, linking China’s western provinces to key global sea lanes through Pakistan’s Gwadar port.

However, analysts point out that political fragility in the country, coupled with increased interference of security agencies in the project seems to have made Beijing rethink the CPEC’s outcomes.

The CPEC has also been abused as a political tool by the opposition parties in Pakistan. Interestingly, none other than Imran Khan and his party (PTI) were the foremost critics of the CPEC before he became the Prime Minister.

 

Pakistan’s ailing economy also has made it tone down its bravado against India. Dwindling foreign aid, dips in labor remittances from the Gulf countries in West Asia, and decreases in Pakistan’s exports, particularly the textiles, have severely affected its economic health.

Pakistan relies now mainly on massive borrowings to service its existing mountainous debt. Pakistan needs international assistance via loans and economic aid like never before. But that will not come if it does not limit its military ambitions.

Viewed thus, Pakistan is expected to go for policy compromises. All the more so as Saudi Arabia no longer serves as Pakistan’s strategic depth. Following Islamabad’s growing solidarity with first Turkey and then Iran, Saudi Arabia is decisively distancing itself from Pakistan.

Last year, it canceled a three-billion-dollar loan after Islamabad complained about the lack of Saudi support for Pakistan over “Indian suppression in Kashmir.” And this has been done by Riyadh while simultaneously upgrading its relationship with India.

Saudi Arabia seems to be backing away from its erstwhile “Islamic foreign policy” in favor of the one that will redefine its economic and strategic priorities and prepare itself for a diversified economy that is now completely dependent on its oil-wealth.

And in this, India is considered to be an important country for becoming a friend, given its markets and technological know-how.

The cumulative effect of all the above developments seems to be having an impact on Pakistan’s strategic calculus. The probable distancing of China and Saudi Arabia from India-Pakistan tensions and the limitations of an Islamic foreign policy paradigm that has widened the distance with the United States have now left Pakistan with fewer options to support its rivalry with India, often bloody.

Therefore, restoration of normalcy with its most important neighbor may well be a step in the right direction.

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