Walking the talk
Strictly going by optics, the Heart of Asia Conference was a roaring diplomatic success for Pakistan. The fact that both Kabul and New Delhi participated in the Islamabad moot made the whole exercise quite meaningful.
Before Prime Minster Sharif had a brief chitchat with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Paris Climate Change Summit only last week, any kind of thaw between the two traditional adversaries of South Asia virtually seemed impossible. As a follow up to the Paris encounter, a meeting between the national security advisers of India and Pakistan in Bangkok clinched India’s high-level participation in the Heart of Asia Conference.
Such are the vagaries of the mercurial nature of sub-continental politics that it doesn’t take a lot of time to realise that in this day and age ‘jaw jaw’ is always better than ‘war war’. To claim that both Indian and Pakistani leaders had a sudden change of heart will be a travesty of the truth. It was perhaps a little prodding from the British Prime Minister David Cameron in Paris with a tacit nod from Washington that clinched the day for Islamabad.
Nonetheless it was a relief for all those wanting peace and amity between the two nuclear armed-to-the-teeth nations of South Asia. In this backdrop watching the matronly looking Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj emerging from an Air India plane in Islamabad seemed almost surreal.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank bureaucrat, also reached Islamabad to attend the summit after being counselled by Washington. The beleaguered Afghan leader has been unhappy with Islamabad in recent months — in direct proportion to the brazen belligerence of the Afghan Taliban within Afghanistan.
Such are the vagaries of the mercurial nature of sub-continental politics that it doesn’t take a lot of time to realise that in this day and age ‘jaw jaw’ is always better than ‘war war’
It was a smart move by the Pakistani prime minister to receive Ghani personally, giving him a 21-gun guard of honour and a red carpet welcome. This was enough to keep the Afghan president in good humour throughout his stay in Islamabad. And to be fair to the Indian foreign minister, during her brief visit she said all the right things that her diplomatic stature demanded.
The thin veneer of bonhomie seen in abundance at the Heart of Asia Conference cannot, however, hide the nature of complicated and convoluted relations between Islamabad and New Delhi on one hand and between Kabul and Islamabad on the other.
The easy part was to set targets and goals at the conference where all participants were at the best of their behaviour. Pakistan played the perfect host as well. But to implement some of the momentous decisions and to walk the talk is the hard part.
There are powerful lobbies in each of these countries that do not want peace or only want peace according to their own jaundiced visions, worldviews and philosophies. Pakistan and India agreeing to resume the stalled the composite (now comprehensive) dialogue is a big leap forward. Foreign ministers of both the countries are expected to meet as soon as dates are fixed through diplomatic channels.
Both India and Pakistan have to grapple with considerably influential hard-line and hawkish lobbies firmly entrenched in their respective folds. Deep adversarial threat perceptions cannot be wiped out overnight.
As amplified by Sushma Swaraj in her speech at the conference, New Delhi is keen to have transit facilities through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Similarly India, in the joint statement issued after talks between Indian external affairs minister and Pakistani adviser on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz, categorically addressed Indian concerns over trying the culprits allegedly involved in the Mumbai carnage.
Allowing transit facilities to New Delhi is tantamount to giving free access to both India and Afghanistan through Pakistani territory. It also envisages free trade. They seem unthinkable ideas right now, but perhaps this is the future.
It is an historical opportunity for Pakistan to be the trade hub of the region. But this requires some out-of-the-box thinking by khaki and mufti babus hitherto lacking. It can bring prosperity for Pakistan — a la Dubai — hopelessly stuck in the groove of low growth rate and abysmal poverty.
Notwithstanding Indian hawks providing grist to the propaganda mills of our own, old paradigms need to be discarded in this fast changing world around us. Islamabad, a nuclear power armed with tactical and long-range ballistic missiles and possessing one of the most professional armies in the world, need not feel insecure from its neighbours.
I was amused to see PTI lawmaker Shireen Mazari’s statement sprawled on the front page of a local English daily the other day, lamenting that the joint statement issued at the end of India-Pakistan talks was tilted in favour of New Delhi as it failed to mention the ‘K-word’. There is no dearth of self-styled monopolists of the national interest on both sides of the divide. But, realistically speaking, will India hand us Kashmir on a platter by mere mention of the word?
A string of bilateral, trilateral and quad-lateral meetings in Islamabad involving Prime Minister Sharif, Ashraf Ghani, and Chinese and American officials can be a precursor to a peace process, brokered by Pakistan, to resume
Notwithstanding Kashmir being a just cause. Pakistan can only get a settlement by making itself strong not only militarily but as an economic power as well. It is considered politically correct to emulate China in our every discourse. However Chinese advice is only followed selectively.
Beijing advises us to improve economic and trade relations with India notwithstanding Kashmir. This is what it has done despite its bilateral disputes with New Delhi. China was handed over Hong Kong by Britain after 90 years not out of politeness but because it had become a military and economic power to reckon with.
Perhaps a settlement on Kashmir will also take more time. But our present strategy is out of sync with the times and is simply not going to work.
As for Afghanistan, Taliban neither provide us security nor strategic depth. It’s time a policy of non-interference is followed in letter and spirit both by Kabul and Islamabad.
Ashraf Ghani literally put his neck on the line by visiting Pakistan at a time when his relations with the Northern Alliance and hardliners within his fold are on the skids. In this context, the hawkish Afghan intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabi resigning — who has never hid his disdain for Pakistan — in the immediate aftermath of Ghani’s sojourn to Islamabad is quiet instructive.
Obviously in order to earn Islamabad’s goodwill Afghanistan has to stop harbouring TTP terrorists, while Islamabad has to reciprocally and credibly stop Afghan Taliban from crossing into Afghan territory.
A string of bilateral, trilateral and quad-lateral meetings in Islamabad involving Prime Minister Sharif, Ashraf Ghani, and Chinese and American officials can be a precursor to a peace process, brokered by Pakistan, to resume. It is a tall order to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and make the parties agree on a power sharing formula.
Nonetheless it is in Islamabad’s interest to play the honest broker. Combating terrorism should be the common goal of all the stakeholders. Obviously Pakistan has suffered tremendously owing to this existential threat. It should be our top priority to combat it militarily as well as diplomatically.