The rocky road to peace – Abbas Nasir

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SOME 10 days after Pakistan’s Islamabad Security Dialogue saw Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa offering an olive branch to India amidst toned-down rhetoric on Kashmir, details remain sketchy of the process that led to the country’s civil and military leaders’ change of tack.

When Islamabad and New Delhi announced towards the end of last month that the DGMOs (directors general of military operations) of the two countries had concluded a ceasefire agreement along the hot LoC in Kashmir it was clear that backchannel talks paved the way for the development.

A report by Praveen Swami on Indian TV-18’s website hinted that a “polo playing general from an aristocratic family” may have been involved in the discussion with one of India’s top security officials at some stage i.e. in 2018. Mr Swami says both officials have been replaced now.

Having heard this description and asking around it became clear who the officer may well have been. The officer who was said to be a high flyer and, according to some insiders, could have risen all the way to the chief’s position, was superseded and eventually retired.

An unjust peace can’t deliver the sort of stability everyone in the region yearns for.

The retired major general, who inspires both admiration and envy among his peers, was at the PMA (Pakistan Military Academy) at the same time as the current chief, albeit a course junior to the latter. It is said the chief values his counsel immensely.

This officer, whose late father was a major general too, appears well placed to have had a role to play as he was trusted by the chief and due to family reasons travels abroad frequently allowing him the liberty to carry out any backchannel talks without catching anyone’s attention.

But when I approached him via a mutual friend for confirmation and/or details, he responded with a terse: “I have no comment on the talks.” Interestingly, ‘No comment’ precludes denial or confirmation but it did shut the door for any discussion on the roadmap going forward.

And this is what is going to be a tricky area. As discussed last week in these columns the Islamabad Security Dialogue speeches of the prime minister and the army chief were markedly different from their words of recent months.

Their rhetoric had understandably acquired a particularly strident tone since the August 2019 scrapping of Article 370, governing India-held Kashmir and its recognition as a disputed territory, by the Modi government and its unilateral annexation of Kashmir.

The Islamabad Security Dialogue speeches, which marked a softening of position towards India and an attempt to allay US fears about China’s growing economic proximity to Pakistan, were welcomed in editorials and by some analysts as a positive move.

But within days of the dialogue there has been criticism in equal measure of the new stance. Some Kashmiri leaders, such as the hard-line Syed Ali Geelani, have openly expressed unhappiness at the turn of events.

Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, who has also served as Pakistan’s envoy to India, has written in this paper indicating nothing less than status quo ante will allow credible negotiations to commence. He has also mentioned the positive reaction of the Indian media to the statements of Pakistani leaders.

That, in his view, was because the statements were seen as Islamabad implicitly accepting India’s fait accompli in Kashmir. He feared that would exacerbate scepticism in the valley that the “talk of a new era in India-Pakistan relations comes without any concession from India while the Kashmiris of the Valley face the prospect of genocide”.

Pakistan would do well to elicit the support of more moderate Hurriyat leaders, after explaining the context of the statements of the country’s two leaders and possibly at least privately detailing the give and take involved.

Otherwise, these concerns may continue to dominate the thinking of some in the country as well, both within and outside key national institutions. Any selling of the peace dividend will have to be preceded by listing the concessions that may be offered by each side in the quest for stability in the region.

There can be no disagreement that the threat of a nuclear holocaust shouldn’t hang over the heads of one and a quarter billion people of the subcontinent like the Sword of the Damocles indefinitely and only peace can release resources to better the lot of the multitudes of the shirtless.

But an unjust peace, and this is not to suggest that is what is on the cards, can’t deliver the sort of stability everyone in the region yearns for. Respect for political and human rights of all must really be the top negotiating starting point. This may be rubbished as a naïve suggestion. It is not.

Respect for human dignity should be non-negotiable. Because if asking for this is considered naïve, then so is expecting peace between India and Pakistan to automatically lead to defence spending cuts and freeing up of resources for development goals.

Consider this. Peace happens between the two countries. Will India cut its defence expenditure? Won’t it cite China and justify its own spend? And if New Delhi does not taper off its allocation, will Rawalpindi agree to unilaterally lower its own guard?

Whatever the way forward, there are some positive related developments so far. Apart from a discernible lessening of tension in the subcontinent as evident from the statements/messages of the leaders of the two countries, there is another which, in my view, is very significant.

There are indications that the initiators of this new dialogue with the hostile eastern neighbour are also now sending out feelers to our own opposition political parties to suss out their reaction to and stance on the issue.

If this represents the quest for a genuine domestic political consensus, then it can only be a positive development whose impact may well be felt beyond the foreign policy, national security sphere and should be welcomed.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2021