No peace prospects

No peace prospects
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer last week of peace talks with India on all issues, including Kashmir and terrorism, came as a bolt from the blue. Pakistan has long argued for a discussion of the core issue of Kashmir while rejecting India’s bid to insert the core issue of terrorism into the equation. And vice versa. Indeed, when ex-PM Nawaz Sharif sought to open a similar dialogue with India in 2013-14, he was accused of being unpatriotic by Imran Khan and all his attempts to make headway through open and back channel diplomacy were constantly thwarted by the Miltablishment. So – first question — what prompted Imran Khan to take a U-Turn on this issue shortly after becoming PM?

No less surprising was India’s quick agreement for a chat – albeit not a dialogue — between the two countries’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of UNGA. This was a marked departure from India’s anti-Pakistan policy under PM Narendra Modi which has been visibly hostile in the last two years or so. Indeed, even people to people contacts have been discouraged by an Indian visa regime that has all but blocked Pakistanis high and low from visiting India for business, family or leisure, and preferential trade proposals hugely beneficial to India have been gathering dust since 2013. So – second question — what prompted the Modi government to immediately and positively respond to Pakistan’s gesture of peace talks?

The most stunning part of these “diplomatic” moves came when India suddenly reversed its position by cancelling the proposed “chat” at UNGA and, in a particularly nasty statement aimed at the person of the Pakistani prime minister, accused Pakistan of “evil” designs by referring to a Pakistani postage stamp of the Kashmiri martyr Burhan Wani published two months earlier, while suddenly discovering the “butchered” bodies of a couple of Indian soldiers in a theatre of conflict along the LoC. So – third question – what prompted this sudden Indian volte face that, in turn, provoked a personal rebuke of the Indian PM by the Pakistani PM and has trashed the prospects of a peace dialogue in the foreseeable future?

A background analysis may help answer these questions.

It has now been revealed that, just before the general elections, the Pakistani Miltablishment made a discreet offer of dialogue with India to cool down the running conflict along the LoC that was daily taking a toll of lives and making headlines. Its motive was obvious enough: the Miltablishment didn’t want any external destabilization to adversely impact its critical focus on a massive and unprecedented exercise to engineer “positive results” in the general elections. This political strategy was very much akin to the opposite one adopted when the Miltablishment was conspiring with Imran Khan to dethrone Nawaz Sharif in which one thrust was aimed at wounding him as “Modi’s Yar”. But if the Indian’s didn’t bite at that time, why did the Miltablishment offer an olive branch again so soon after the Pakistani elections? Indeed, why did the Modi government respond a little positively to begin with?

Enter US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. As part of the mutual effort to “reset” the US-Pak relationship and break the impasse in Afghanistan, it was agreed in Islamabad that it was critical to reset the Pak-India relationship too so that Pakistan’s fears of India’s hegemonic designs in the region, especially its influence in Kabul, could be minimized, thereby making it possible to find some sort of workable solution in Afghanistan. Mr Pompeo seemingly took up the issue in New Delhi, but the Indo-US joint statement highlighted mutual concern about “Pakistani-inspired” terrorism across both its western and eastern borders. Desperate for an IMF bailout and afraid of provoking severe sanctions relating to FATF, the Pakistani Miltablishment prompted Imran Khan to offer talks to India on all subjects, including terrorism, after making quite a song and dance of being on the “same page” as the new civilian leadership. On its part, New Delhi didn’t want to be seen in Washington as spurning an offer conceding a long-standing demand. Hence its swift response to start chatting on the sidelines of UNGA even though there was no immediate reduction of the trust deficit on both sides.

The volte face of the Modi regime was triggered by breaking news of the $8.7 billion Rafale deal in which the Indian PM faces his most serious challenge to date. Under the circumstances, a quick political diversion of public interest was the need of the hour and Pakistan was at hand as the favourite whipping boy of the media. Hence the MEA was handed a politically charged statement by the PMO, backed by some shrill war mongering by the Indian army chief, whose main purpose was to provoke a similar response from the Pakistani civil-military side and drown out the uproar over Rafale.

Clearly, both India and Pakistan are playing tactical games based on internal political necessities while their strategic objectives vis a vis each other remain unchanged. There is no prospect of regional peace in the foreseeable future.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.