India-Pakistan talks: implications of failure

By Firdaus Ahmed

India and Pakistan have in the failed meeting of their two foreign ministers agreed to meet once again next December. This can be seen as a ‘gain’ only if no terrorist intervention rocks the interim. In case of a terrorist strike originating in Pakistan, the proposed meeting would be viewed as a lost opportunity. Instead of bridging the ‘trust deficit’ as intended by the prime ministers when they required that such a meeting be held at the sidelines of the SAARC summit at Thimpu, it only reflected it. The failure indicates that the two sides are not prepared to take the minimum steps necessary to get the other side to move likewise. They now have six months to prepare the ground to do so. Is it possible?

Pakistan’s foreign minister is seen in the Indian media as the one to have wrecked the talks. This is being taken as part of a script written in the GHQ, Rawalpindi. The military perhaps feels Pakistan is not in a strong position, constrained as it is by the pressures on its internal polity and on the AfPak front. Therefore, it is playing for time. It expects it can ride out the risks, given that the US military effort moves towards a climax over the coming autumn. When the position gets clearer and hopefully better by end of the year, it would be better placed to weigh its options. In any case, its grand strategy is to ride out the US intervention in the region without having to sacrifice its crown jewels in terms of the India, Kashmir, Afghan and nuclear policies. It also would not like the civil government to take credit for any useful movement on the India front, lest it upset the internal balance in its favour.

India for its part had nothing to offer at the talks. The talks process is ongoing through repeated meetings of leaders, even if consequential talks in the form of the composite dialogue remain on hold. The latter, though an Indian idea, perhaps no longer serves India’s purpose since it sees the growing power asymmetry with Pakistan as making its position stronger. While it is pledged to talk, it is not pledged to take the talks process to an outcome acceptable to both. Since a composite dialogue implies timelines, concessions, and outcomes, India is not averse to postponing the reckoning.

India, therefore, continued to insist on seeing Pakistani sincerity demonstrated in action against the handlers of the 26/11 terror attack. Firstly, this was to be responsive to internal politics. The government, on the defensive due to its failure signified by 26/11, inflation, Maoism etc, is in any case susceptible to right wing critique. Secondly, even though Pakistan did stir the pot in Kashmir by bringing disaffected youth out into the streets over the summer in an intifida like confrontation with the authorities, India sees its position on the ascendant in Kashmir. Therefore, there is no urgency to talk to either the internal dissidents or with their sponsors, Pakistan.

The third aspect is that talks have been seen as under American influence brought on by the US need to ease its AfPak circumstance. Therefore, even if talking was proceeded with, meaningful talks were ruled out lest Indian interests be sacrificed for US interests. India reasons that Pakistan is deterred from launching another major terror attack. Fourthly, with 26/11, the Indian tolerance threshold has been stretched. Its procedures and organizations for response are considerably better placed. Therefore, seeing itself as capable of handling another crisis, it does not see any necessity for engaging Pakistan. Lastly, in case Pakistan does succumb to Indian demands, then going after its home grown terrorists would result in an introspective Pakistan. A weaker Pakistan with an internally embroiled Army is one India can then manipulate with greater ease.  

Is the assumption of the two states, that each would be able to extract concessions better at a later date, justified? In case of Pakistan, the Army would not like to take on terrorists on multiple fronts simultaneously. Therefore, it does not want to aggravate its ties with its anti-India proxies while it takes on the other terrorist formations as the Tehrik-e Pakistan. The critique of this position from the US and India is that the Lashkar-e Toiba is part of an extremist continuum and no neat distinction can be made any longer. Given what is known on the penetration of extremists in the ISI, it is however unlikely the Army can go further. Pakistan in not taking on anti-India terror groups, may in turn demand that they exercise self-restraint to keep India placated, till it is able to discern the end game on the AfPak front. Privileging that front over the near term, it would thereafter be in a position to take advantage of its strategic assets preserved for the purpose against India. Therefore, waiting seems strategically appropriate.

India, not having anything to concede and with prospects of continued accretion in power into the foreseeable future, can afford to wait. The risk of another attack is taken as acceptable in relation to the political losses to be incurred by engaging Pakistan meaningfully. That India has not taken any action in moulding public opinion towards the necessity of talks and concessions that would imply clearly indicates India’s ‘wait and watch’ strategy.    

Both states are, therefore, acting in accordance with their respective strategic logic. Progress in December would be predicated on how the situation develops in AfPak. This impasse in South Asia has an underside. Firstly, are the two states underestimating prospects of another terror attack and possible escalation into an inter-state war thereafter? Secondly, the newly framed Multidimensional Poverty Index has half the world’s poor living in South Asia. The recent survey by the Oxford University and the UNDP indicates that just eight Indian states have more poor people than 26 poorest African countries combined. This yardstick calls for a revision of strategic priorities and gameplans. Lastly, while Pakistan’s position can certainly get weaker, it does not imply that India is necessarily the gainer. As a self-regarding regional power, India needs to be in charge. Assisting a neighbour going downhill is an indicator of power. But are there better indicators and is it in India’s self interest? Therefore, war avoidance is not all that needs doing till December.