And now, track-II with the generals

Real boss The US administration has always enjoyed a good rapport with Pakistan Army chief Gen Kayani
Photo: AFP

LAMENTING INDIA’S handicapped Pakistan policy, a top official in the security establishment once linked it with the lack of diplomatic access to Pakistan’s nerve centre — the Pakistan Army. He joked that only Kashmiri separatists and Americans have penetration and communication with GHQ in Rawalpindi, the decision-making centre.

The public got a glimpse of this gap in diplomacy after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, when Pakistan’s political leadership backed out from sending its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief to New Delhi and later nearly created a war-like hysteria over a mysterious telephone call to President Asif Ali Zardari’s office when foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was still at the Taj Hotel in Delhi. Fearing an attack, a special Pakistan Air Force plane landed at Delhi early in the morning to evacuate the minister.

It now seems India has hit on the right formula. Officially, India may still vow to have struck a chord with the democratically elected government in Pakistan. But for the sake of sustaining the formal diplomatic engagement beginning on 28 March with the meeting of home secretaries, the government is believed to have succeeded in building a direct channel with the Pakistan Army.

Holding up the dialogue process in the aftermath of 26/11 was no doubt an expression of anger, but even more, it was an attempt to seek a credible guarantee from the Pakistan Army to put an end to terrorist activities against India as committed by General Pervez Musharraf in a joint statement he signed with Atal Bihari Vajpayee on 6 January 2004 in Islamabad.

Reports from Islamabad suggest that Indian High Commissioner Sharat Sabharwal had met Pakistan Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani ahead of foreign secretaries of both countries agreeing on the resumption of talks in Thimpu last month. Reports say these engagements have continued in recent times as well, as home secretaries are slated to discuss India’s request to interrogate Lashkar-e- Toiba main accused in the 26/11 attacks.

Powerful ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha has also met representatives of the Indian armed forces posted in the High Commission in Islamabad and is believed to have conveyed to them that India needs to talk directly with the Pakistan Army. Earlier, Pasha had attended an iftar party thrown by the Indian High Commissioner for the first time. The ISI had also hosted farewell parties for some Indian defence advisers who were returning after completing their tenures in Islamabad.

Over the past few months, Indian defence advisers were also invited to attend the passing out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul.

‘The offer to open channels with the Pakistan Army had come from them,’ says Sawhney

On its part, the Indian establishment has reciprocated by inviting the head of the National Defence University in Islamabad. India also invited the Pakistan High Commissioner to address its military officers at the National Defence Academy.

SUSHANT SAREEN, a key Pakistan expert at India’s premier strategic think-tank Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), believes only a credible engagement with Pakistan’s military will bring peace in the region. He even ridicules dependence on the civil society of Pakistan for raising a constituency of peace. According to Sareen, what goes as civil society in Pakistan is really a fringe group of around 1,000 people, which, if one is very charitable, can be raised to 5,000.

“The manner in which the progress made on the people-to-people front between 2004 and 2008 was practically overnight reduced to nothing after the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai should be proof enough that when it comes to India-Pakistan relations, people tend to follow the line set by their establishments. In other words, people-to-people relations flower when the establishment allows them, and they wither away when the establishment shuts the door on them,” says Sareen.

At the government level, even the National Security Advisory Board is believed to have advised opening direct links with Pakistan’s Army. “A dialogue with Pakistan military will help India, both in understanding the military’s viewpoint and getting its own across directly,” said the conclusions of a report that discussed dealing with an unstable Pakistan.

Cordiality Indian envoy S Sabharwal with Pakistan interior minister Malik
Photo: AP

Even as director generals of military operations (DGMOS) of both countries do talk almost every Tuesday, PK Upadhyay, a consultant at IDSA, suggests that it could be extended to the military intelligence directorates and the army headquarters of both countries. However, he is sceptical of overburdening the Indian military with such engagements, fearing it would lead to an undue interference of the military into political and diplomatic matters. “If the nation is there, security and defence are needed, but if the nation is reduced to a jail under some grotesque concepts and concerns for security and defence, let Pakistan have that concept of nationhood for as long as it can sustain it,” he says.

Noted defence expert Pravin Sawhney says vibes to open channels with the Pakistan Army had originally come from them. ISI chief Pasha, a former DGMO, had actually reportedly suggested this approach in 2009 to the Indian military adviser in Islamabad. He also reminded that back-channel talks that benefited meaningful progress on Kashmir between 2004-07 were conducted under President Musharraf, who was also a military chief.

“Not talking with the Pakistan Army is tantamount to ignoring ground realities; the urgent need for both is to pick up the threads from earlier talks and start arms control negotiations under the MOU signed with the Lahore Declaration of 21 February 1999,” says Sawhney.

Dispelling the impression that such an approach will increase the role of the Indian Army in political affairs, Sawhney is confident that such demand will not come from the military leadership, which is disciplined and rooted in the idea of democracy. “Perhaps, they are not even capable of matching the Pakistan Army leadership’s strategic insights,” he adds.

Of course, there is a consensus in India that foreign policy is led by the executive and the army does not interfere in decision- making. So engaging with the generals across the border can merely be one more arrow in the strategic quiver.

Gilani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka
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