THE meeting between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his new Pakistani counterpart Lt Gen (retd) Nasir Khan Janjua, marks the beginning of a thaw in India-Pakistan relations.
This is likely to be followed by the participation of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad on December 8.
The meeting between the two NSAs, accompanied by their respective foreign secretaries, marks the resumption of a constructive discourse between the two countries, which had been derailed by needless controversy over the agenda in September this year.
According to a joint statement, the NSA discussions covered all issues including Jammu & Kashmir. The carefully staged meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the side lines of the Climate conference in Paris last week was the first indicator of the changing India-Pakistan scenario.
Parallel to this has been the improvement of New Delhi’s ties with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. Minus these developments, Modi would have found it difficult to meet his commitment to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad.
This will be the first prime ministerial visit by an Indian leader since 2004, when PM Vajpayee went to Pakistan for a similar purpose, but which led to a major bilateral process in its side lines.
It would also have damaged India’s efforts to play a significant role in Afghanistan which include hosting the 14-nation Heart of Asia Conference in New Delhi next year. Stabilising Afghanistan and peace with Pakistan form a continuum for Indian policy makers because failure in either country has the potential to destabilise the ties with the other.
The challenge for India and the global community is to persuade Pakistan to deliver a ceasefire in Afghanistan by pressuring the Taliban. Kunduz attack in September showed that the Taliban had not changed.
According to the Amnesty International, the short Taliban occupation resulted in mass murder, gang rapes and house-tohouse searches by Taliban death squads targeting women activists. While the US and NATO have extended their mission till the end of 2016, they cannot guarantee peace there. As it is, Taliban infighting is making the process difficult for Pakistan as well. India’s activities in Afghanistan, especially its development work has been under the security umbrella of the US-NATO-Afghan forces.
India has committed $2 billion in aid to Kabul and its annual trade is around $680 million which can increase manifold if the Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA) is worked out to permit India-Afghan trade through Pakistan. Improved ties with Islamabad can lead to a breakthrough here which has the potential of transforming the India-Pakistan- Afghanistan relationship.
Before Kunduz, President Ghani reached out to Pakistan and there were reports of deep engagement between the two states at the cost of India. However, after Kunduz, there is a chill in Pakistan-Afghanistan ties.
The NSA of Afghanistan Mohammed Hanif Atmar recently travelled to New Delhi and had extensive talks with Doval and also put up a wishlist that includes Kabul’s request for military supplies.
Actually the Heart of Asia process does offer a window of convergence for India and Pakistan to work together. Likewise New Delhi and Islamabad may cooperate in combating terrorism and easing trade barrier through their new membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a China-led security initiative.
There are things that Pakistan would be willing to do in a wider multilateral framework with India which it will resist doing bilaterally. One example of this is the TAPI project.
Given its long land border, the existence of the Pakistani Taliban and the huge number of Afghan refugees it hosts, Pakistan has great stakes in the Afghan peace process.
We need to recognise this, as well as understand that our stakes are comparatively smaller than those countries which have land borders with Afghanistan.
This means Islamabad also has big responsibilities, principally in dealing with the Taliban and regaining the trust of the Afghans and letting the peace process be Afghan-led, and not manipulated by Islamabad.
India’s principal interest is to ensure that Afghanistan does not resume its role as a staging area for groups like the LeT to stage attacks on India.
Accompanying this is our desire for longer term peace and stability in the AfPak region which can only come through closer economic integration of SAARC states.
The NSAs and foreign secretaries meeting in Bangkok signal a new direction for Indian policy which was getting needlessly securitised by privileging terrorism over all other issues. The Modi-Nawaz and the Bangkok meetings signal the return to a more balanced approach which will, no doubt, be challenged by forces who seek to disrupt India-Pakistan relations. This is something we must be prepared for at all times.
Mail Today December 6, 2015