The Ufa Joint Statement issued by the prime ministers of India and Pakistan had envisaged a preliminary framework to address the issues of terrorism, ceasefire violations and to find out “ways and means” to expedite the 26/11 trial underway in Pakistan. At least some progress was to be made on these issues before India got ready to reopen the long-suspended composite dialogue. And then there was a red line repeatedly drawn by New Delhi that when Pakistan’s representatives visit New Delhi for bilateral talks, they should not meet the Hurriyat separatists.
But when the two National Security Advisors finally met in Bangkok on December 7, they discussed much more than terrorism, though their conclusions or what Pakistan promised to deliver on the issue of terrorism was not made public. There is still uncertainty over whether Pakistan has finally agreed to abide by the Hurriyat red line or Bangkok was chosen as the meeting venue to avoid discomfiture to both sides. At least Pakistan has not committed to the Hurriyat red line in public, and in the last few months Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has written letters to Hurriyat leaders promising support. Clarity on this point would have been beneficial from the Indian viewpoint given the fact that Pakistan’s representatives are likely to reciprocate External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad in the coming days, as opening of the composite dialogue has been announced by both sides.
It is also not clear how India has been able to capitalize upon Nawaz Sharif’s recent statement of “unconditional talks” with India given the fact that the NSAs discussed many things, including Jammu & Kashmir and not just terrorism, and the composite dialogue has been reopened — which inadvertently leads to the connotation that Nawaz Sharif was basically declining to agree to the Indian position of “Let’s talk terror first”.
Ufa was a milestone for the fact that for the first time Pakistan was made to agree in writing to a framework which required it to first address Indian concerns over terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil before any meaningful composite dialogue can happen.
But now the Narendra Modi government seems to have concluded that either it is not feasible to enforce the Ufa framework or it is not in the larger national interest, given the larger regional geopolitical scenario to try to rigorously enforce that strict framework as that may inevitably mean no engagement with Pakistan.
There are understandably many reasons for this conclusion: Firstly, Prime Minister Modi has to visit Pakistan next year for the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit. SAARC’s progress has always been dismal and India-Pakistan tensions have been a key reason for that. And this time there are India-Nepal tensions too. It is no coincidence that New Delhi has also started some proactive efforts to cool down the Nepal situation.
Secondly, Pakistan has got at east two shots in the arm during the latest US visits of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif. The Barack Obama-Nawaz Sharif Joint Statement bestowed upon Pakistan the accolade of “regional strategic stabilizer”. General Raheel Sharif during his self-invited visit to the US was pampered by the Obama administration, and it took care not to nudge the Pakistan’s military boss on anything. Despite figuring out Pakistan’s evident double games in the past as well as its glaring inabilities and unwillingness to stabilize the democratic regime in Afghanistan, US policy makers have not been able to figure out any new approach to the Afghan conundrum except repeating the pandering rituals before the real rulers of Pakistan, who also happen to be the real trouble makers in Afghanistan. This exceptional but seemingly unending US perplexity gives elbow room to Pakistan to do what it aims to do in the region by keeping Kabul and Washington on the tenterhooks through its proxies and affecting change in Indian policies towards it by capitalizing upon the US “reliance” on it for wishful stabilization of Afghanistan. In the coming days, the new fallout of all this may be that Pakistan will find it more easy to leverage its nuisance value at SAARC.
This leaves the Modi government with no option but to work on a hyphenated Af-Pak policy, given the fact that Af-Pak is now setting up the dynamics of China-US equations more than ever before. Before India opened up composite dialogue with Pakistan in the backdrop of the Heart of Asia summit to contemplate upon the future of Afghanistan, it also started to make operational the bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan, which in the coming days will involve transfer of sophisticated lethal weapon systems to the Afghan military which is now fighting not just Taliban but also the local Daesh (IS).
The Unending Endgame
The Murree process in which the Obama and Ashraf Ghani administrations invested a lot of hope due to guarantees from Beijing collapsed within days as news of Mullah Omar’s killing in 2013 by the Mansour faction broke, and three leaders at the helm of Taliban’s political office in Qatar staged a revolt. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) tried to restore the balance of power within the Taliban by introducing Sirajuddin Haqqani as second-in-command, but now there are multiple reports of Mullah Mansour being injured in internecine fighting to take revenge for the killing of a key dissident commander by his men. This latest internecine fighting erupted within days of Prime Minister Sharif’s announcement to re-launch efforts to broker peace between Kabul and Taliban. But the irony that haunts credibility of Pakistan is that when Taliban happens to be strong, ISI tries to have the whole cake in Afghanistan through Talibani terror campaign and tries to deliver it to the talks table when there is internecine fighting.
What is worse in all this is that Pakistan does not ensure even a lull in big attacks by the main faction led by Mansour and Haqqanis, though it happens to be in full control as it proclaims its peaceful intentions about Afghanistan. During Heart of Asia summit, where Pakistan again promised to deliver this main Taliban faction to the talks table, it attacked Kandahar airport killing many civilians. So rattled was the security establishment in Kabul over this Pakistani double game that the Afghan Intelligence Chief Rahmatullah Nabil went public criticizing President Ghani’s rapprochement with Pakistan, before resigning from his post.
Given the churning within Taliban, there are lots of chances the ISI will try to do damage control within Taliban by affecting closer synchronization with the Haqqani network and introducing more disciplined groups like Jamaat ud Dawah into Afghanistan. For instance, last month, 41 boys from Pakistani tribal areas were killed fighting for the JuD and Al Badr in Afghanistan. This month the Afghan government officials in Nangarh province alleged that local Islamic State militants are getting order from Pakistan. This increased dependence of ISI on groups like JuD increases the terror threat to India in Afghanistan as well as back home.
At this point, India should encourage the Ghani administration to open channels with Taliban leaders based in Gulf nations and Iran who want an Afghan-owned peace process. India may find support in these efforts from Gulf countries who are not happy with Pakistan over its refusal to participate in the Yemen conflict. While Gulf monarchies and Iran are on opposite sides in the Yemen conflict, both sides have allowed Taliban factions to operate from their territories. Further, as Iran and Russia are coming closer than ever before, both have interest in checking the growth of Islamist groups in north and west Afghanistan. India should explore all these avenues to the maximum. While the Mansur faction is still the largest, in view of increasing infighting even if a few key leaders can be won over by Kabul that will have a great symbolic effect.
So far, Pakistan has failed to deliver peace in Afghanistan. It will not do anything to strengthen the elected Afghan government which is now struggling against the dual threat of Taliban and Islamic State. This legitimizes India increasing its role in Afghanistan — from being a reconstruction partner to a long-term nodal sustainer of democratic regime as the West cannot perpetuate its military presence for all time to come. In immediate terms, this is further justified by the fact that India has opened composite dialogue with Pakistan despite no progress on terror related issues to help promote larger regional stability.
From a bilateral viewpoint, squandering away gains of Ufa is a big price for India. The sustainability and final outcome of the new composite dialogue with Pakistan are as uncertain as those of previous ones. However, if India can capitalize upon opportunities in the larger Af-Pak scenario, it will still be a gainer in the long term.