Last spring, as Pakistanis were preparing for the July 22 general elections, something fascinating was taking place behind closed doors. The leadership of the Pakistani military had initiated secret backdoor talks with India. Observers of the dynamic between the two countries noted the immediate improvement in the relationship as a result and a dramatic reduction in tensions along the Line of Control, the de facto border that divides the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. By June last year, ceasefire violations had fallen by nearly 70 per cent compared to six months earlier. A month later, as the Pakistani elections took place, the drop in ceasefire violations had topped 80 per cent.
The decrease in outbreaks of violence was a quick win but the whispers in Islamabad were that the Pakistani security establishment’s appetite for detente with India was not limited to the Line of Control. For the Pakistan-India relationship has much more fundamental problems than borderline crossfire in Kashmir, problems that have provoked war on at least three occasions and a near-permanent cold war since the 1960s.
Many have argued that the ultimate resolution of these issues would need exactly the kind of backdoor process that the Pakistani army’s leadership opened up with India last year – serious conversations away from the scrutiny and mischief of a boisterous daily news cycle.
When Prime Minister Imran Khan took the oath of office in August last year, among his first orders of business was to declare his country’s continuing appetite for a greater warming of relations with India. By December, Pakistan had extended a historic concession for Indian pilgrims by opening the Kartarpur Corridor, helping Sikh worshippers visit one of their most important holy sites located in Pakistan.
That back door between the two countries seemed to be opening up to more than a mere pre-election de-escalation at the Line of Control.
Then on February 14, a suicide bomber drove more than 350 kilogrammes of explosives into a convoy packed with Indian soldiers in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir. Forty of the soldiers were killed. The original South Asian sin – the unresolved status of the Jammu and Kashmir region – was back in the foreground. Since the attack, India has been in a state of shock and anger. No country can watch dozens of its soldiers die without an outpouring of public outrage. In India, this outrage is even more pronounced because of the conviction in government, across society, in the mainstream and in the periphery, that these kinds of attacks are not organic to Kashmir but are in fact the product of Pakistan’s cultivation of groups that enact such violence.
Buttressing India’s case is the video of the suicide bomber, in which he claims the attack was on behalf of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The group is one of the two enduring toxins in the Pakistan-India relationship, the other being the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Both are on the Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee lists mandated under the United Nations Security Council resolution 1267. India wants Pakistan to eliminate them altogether. Pakistan has banned them both but there are few who believe these bans are working. Both JeM and LeT seem to find ways of continuing to operate, if only at the level of rhetoric. India’s government, and many sympathetic experts and officials in the US, are convinced that their operations extend to active support for what they unequivocally consider to be acts of terror. The debate rages on but there is one clear and indisputable outcome that no one is in any doubt over: the cost of their continued freedom is Pakistan’s ability to mend its relationship with India.
Both India and Pakistan have developed national systems, regional relationships and wider global strategic alliances that allow them to continue to treat each other with the contempt and distrust that has manifested itself in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack.
Immediately after the incident, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his resolve to avenge the killing with a “crushing” response and a free hand for the Indian military to decide on an appropriate course of action. Mr Khan responded with a speech in which he denied Pakistani involvement, invited India to share evidence of its accusations, reinforced his preference for dialogue – but also promised retaliation if India were to up the ante.
Pakistanis know the feeling of burying their best and brightest. Since 2007, the fight against terrorism has exacted a high price in terms of the blood of Pakistani policemen and soldiers. Any worsening of relations with India will only put more Pakistanis at risk. But perhaps most importantly, the timing of the Pulwama attack puts Pakistan’s wider economic and geopolitical ambitions – and the appetite of its military for a longer-term detente with India – at risk too. The two are deeply interwoven.
For several years, there has been a growing narrative in Pakistan about how serious the country’s ruling elite, especially its powerful military, really is in moving in a different, transformational direction. The key driver of this narrative is Pakistan’s potential role as a regional hub for commerce between the three great regions that it straddles: Afghanistan and Central Asia to the north, China and India to the east, and the Middle East and North Africa region to the west.
In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Islamabad to solemnise the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as part of Mr Xi’s wider global ambitions under the Belt and Road Initiative. Already this year, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE’s Armed Forces, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman have visited Pakistan to sign off on billions of dollars in both direct aid and investments.
Two things have happened in Pakistan that might have boosted confidence in its ability to live up to its potential as a regional pivot. The first is the country’s response to terrorist insurgency. After more than a decade of terrorist incidents and the rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the country’s counter-insurgency campaign took on a ferocious new seriousness in 2014 after an attack on a school in Peshawar, in which nearly 150 schoolchildren were slaughtered.
A residual group from the original TTP now hides in caves in Afghanistan launching the occasional attack – but the tsunami of terror that Pakistan faced between 2007 and 2014 is largely a thing of the past. This capacity of the Pakistani state is largely to thank for the confidence of allies – not just for immediate stakeholders like China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia but also other powers, including Russia, Turkey and the US. This is why so much of Pakistan’s recent diplomacy tends to feature visits not just by the elected prime minister, but also by the army chief.
The other thing that has happened to boost confidence in Pakistan is the army’s receptiveness to entreaties from China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to work on its relationship with India and the US. That is manifest not only in the various examples of outreach to India, such as the Kartarpur Corridor but also in the moves towards a resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan. In the case of India, outright conflict with one of the world’s fastest growing economies and the world’s largest democracy is bad for business – not just for Pakistan but for the countries that it considers its closest supporters. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is also good for those allies and even better for Pakistan.
The Pulwama attack has clearly disrupted the political discourse with India. But it might have another more serious casualty if the Indians decide to follow through on their threats. If the fallout from Pulwama includes any disruption or derailment of the meticulous and carefully managed process of backdoor negotiations between the two countries, it will mark the end of yet another era of hope for South Asia. That would be tragic for both Indians and Pakistanis, and devastating for long-suffering Kashmiris.
Mosharraf Zaidi is a Pakistani public policy professional