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June 1, 2010

Sharm-el-Sheikh by another name

If Dr Manmohan Singh’s recent meeting with the Pakistani prime minister in Thimphu is any indicator, India has learned its lessons from last year’s disastrous Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting and this February’s foreign secretaries’ talks in New Delhi. Unfortunately, it appears that the epiphany was limited to media management only. Unlike Sharm-el-Sheikh, the build-up to the talks was subdued, no joint statement was issued, and the two countries held their press briefings at the same hour to avoid the spectre of charges and counter-charges witnessed in February. At a more substantive policy level though—despite the media portrayal to the contrary—the talks yielded little that was beneficial to Indian interests.

India’s refusal to restart the ‘composite dialogue’ despite Pakistan’s insistence is supposedly indicative of India’s uncompromising stand on terror. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The composite dialogue — on hold after the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 — is a structured process with eight specific agenda items: peace and security, Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage, terrorism and drug trafficking, economic and commercial co-operation, and promotion of friendly exchanges. Indus water sharing and the alleged Indian hand in
fomenting trouble in Baluchistan are not part of the composite dialogue. By agreeing to “talks on all issues of mutual concern,” India has only allowed Pakistan to include its pet grievances in the agenda.

In contrast, India’s main demand of action against the Pakistan-based terror groups—a subject already part of composite dialogue—has been dismissed by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, as virtually inconsequential. Clearly, Pakistan plans to continue its policy of stonewalling discussion on terror by exploiting its three-fold narrative: first, that terror is a global phenomenon; second, both India and Pakistan are the victims of terror; and third, that the existing joint Anti-Terror Mechanism is adequate to address India’s concerns.

Though Thimphu is nothing but Sharm-el-Sheikh by another name, most media commentators have hailed it as a “good beginning” and a “step forward.”

It appears that for a large section of India’s political and intellectual elite, talks with Pakistan are an end in itself, and not an instrument to secure India’s long-term interests. Now, peace with Pakistan is surely desirable but if the past two decades of dialogue—always accompanied by terrorist attacks and proxy war against India—are any indicator, talks have singularly failed to ensure peace. In any case, even the oft-cited “peace dividend”—accelerated economic growth as a direct offshoot of détente —while theoretically sound, fails the empirical test as India’s growth has been fastest in the period of the worst terror attacks from Pakistan.

Indeed, the template of bilateral dialogue over the years has remained depressingly the same: after every major terror attack, India withdraws from talks; backchannel diplomacy resumes in a few months followed by full-fledged talks despite little change in the ground situation.

But what is the alternative, cry the commentariat: War?

Well, the alternative to these futile talks is not necessarily full-fledged war but a well-thought out plan which relies on a carrot-and-stick approach towards the real power-centre in Pakistan: the military establishment at Rawalpindi. Even if the civilian leadership of Pakistan genuinely desires peace with India, its does not formulate foreign policy; it is the military establishment that does. Unsurprisingly, it is  the army chief’s office which is the most important stop for important US officials visiting Pakistan.

Jihadi terrorism as an instrument of state policy is directly controlled and promoted by the military establishment, and the two have co-evolved into a veritable military-jihadi complex. If India-Pakistan talks are to be meaningful, and not merely photoopportunities, involvement of the heads of Pakistani military and intelligence—modeled on the lines of the recent US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue—is essential. Otherwise, rather than bridging the trust deficit between the two countries, fears of a more powerful civilian establishment in Islamabad may only unnerve the military establishment, causing the latter to react by unleashing a new wave of terror against India.

But mere talks—even with Pakistan’s real powerbrokers—will never prove adequate. India must develop credible military capacity to back its coercive diplomatic options. It is this lack of serious military options which forces India back on to the dialogue table, making unilateral concessions in the fond hope of reciprocity. Unless India develops the capacity to punish the military establishment for its intransigence and adversarial outlook towards India, hopes of peace will remain a pipe dream. Only when the military-jihadi complex realises that Indian threats of retaliation are
not mere rhetorical flourishes is it likely to take peace talks seriously. Unfortunately, the UPA government and its predecessors have singularly failed to develop and put in place the kind of military capacity necessary for this purpose. For a durable peace, this capacity gap needs to be addressed urgently.

If India wishes to talk to Pakistan, it must carefully decide the interlocutors and set the agenda accordingly. And unless backed by a credible military capacity, its efforts to engage Pakistan will only be construed as a sign of weakness.


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