Back- Channels and the Fallacy of Choreographed Response

Post abrogation of the Article 370 and 35A, Pakistan has announced a slew of measures leading to fresh estrangement in relations.  Kashmir issue had over the last seven decades become the raison de etre for Pakistan, the very identity of the nation that, the abrogation has totally rattled the Pakistan establishment. Pakistan’s reaction could then be stated to be largely on expected lines, in downgrading of diplomatic relations with India and sending emissaries to the UN, China and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ratchet up ante against India. The PM of Pakistan also warned of Pulwama type of terror incidents and even referred to conventional war. Pakistan’s high-pitched campaign however found no significant response in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its protégé, Taliban, too rebuked it.  The relations have indeed reached its nadir, though it is not the first of its kind, recollecting Op Parakaram of 2002 or post Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008.

Historically, however, India and Pakistan have witnessed an upliftment in relations post a serious conflictual scenario.  The Karachi agreement on 27 July 1949 came in after nearly a year and a quarter of fighting in Jammu and Kashmir.  Post Nuclear blasts of 1998 came in PM Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore in early 1999; after the terrorist attack on the Parliament in Dec 2001, and the ten-month coercive military stand-off of 2002, a ceasefire on the Line of Control was accepted in 2003.  It is but obvious that between Indian and Pakistan, channel of communications commences soon post conflictual scenarios or a catastrophic event, to bring in rapprochement in relations and easing of tensions.

Contextually, formal diplomacy, also called Track I, comes to the fore, utilising official, governmental channels.  On the other hand Track 2 diplomacy or backchannel diplomacy resorts to non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts or even private citizens or groups of individuals, sometimes non-state actors.  Indeed, Track 2 diplomacy, also called back channels, is not a substitute for Track one, it supplements and assists officials in managing and resolving conflicts by exploring possible solutions away from the public view and without the requirements of formal negotiation or bargaining. There is also Track 1.5 diplomacy where official and non-officials cooperate in conflict resolution. Back channel between adversaries is not considered a pejorative; on the contrary, it is a well-established method of cooling, and bringing in calm in otherwise intransigent situations.  Safire’s Political Dictionary calls back channel “…a seemingly unofficial but direct method of high-level communication, bypassing the usual routes of messages through bureaucracies.” Obviously, herein the communication would be between adversaries, very sensitive in nature and undertaken through reliable and credible go-betweens.

History abounds with back channels of governments that have negotiated peace, placated situations, secured the release of prisoners and saved face among the public.  In many a situation, the gradual declassification of documents reveals these back channels. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs was averted in part thanks to the secret back channel between the then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the US.  Additionally, KGB officer in Washington, Alexander Feklisov had opened a back channel with ABC television news reporter John Scali, suggesting a deal that included a dismantling of bases under United Nations supervision, and that Cuba would not accept offensive weapons of any kind to avoid US invasion of Cuba.  UK too had similar negotiations with the Irish Republican Army in 1972 that led to some rapprochement.  In the Cold War the US and Soviet Governments used journalists, intelligence agents and private individuals to communicate between the White House and the Kremlin.  Intelligence agents are best in that they confabulate with adversarial ones while in missions abroad and elsewhere. They are able to maintain ideal links and longtime relations that can convey credible communications with the adversarial camp in the best cloak and dagger manner, to pursue political ends!

As has been stated above, Track 2 or back-channel diplomacy is not new in the context of India and Pakistan, and has been part and parcel of the fundamental way interstate relations are being conducted. A prominent Track 2 initiative between India and Pakistan was the Neemrana dialogue that took place under the auspices of the United States Information Services (USIS) in 1990 and was later joined by American foundations and German nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The first meeting was held in Neemrana Fort in Rajasthan, India in October 1991, hence the name! The group comprised of former diplomats, former military personnel, academics, media persons, NGO workers and academics from India and Pakistan. The two countries revived the Neemrana Dialogue with a group of 14 led by former foreign ministry secretary Vivek Katju and included a former cabinet secretary and a former naval chief and visited Islamabad in 2018. The Pakistani side included former minister Javed Jabbar former foreign secretary Inamul Haque, and the former State Bank of Pakistan governor, Ishrat Hussain among others.

There has been a significant increase in the number of Track 2 initiatives between India and Pakistan. The Chaophraya Dialogue is an Indo-Pak Track 2 initiative jointly undertaken since 2008 by the Jinnah Institute (JI) and Australia India Institute (AII) to encourage informed discussion on bilateral relations and enhance stakes in peace.  Teams under the India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative for Peace have crossed over the borders, discussing peace!  There are some new initiatives like the WISCOMP annual workshop, the Pugwash Conferences, Ottawa Dialogue, and so on.   At a stage it was stated that there existed more than twelve highly institutionalised Track 2 groups between India and Pakistan.

At official levels too, during UPA 1, special envoys from India and Pakistan had been holding talks in hotel rooms in Bangkok, Dubai, and London. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf reportedly used back channels in 2007 to work out a draft framework agreement on Kashmir. A book written by former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri had provides an in-depth account of the Back-Channel dialogue between India and Pakistan that took place during his tenure between 2005 and 2008. The negotiations had reached an advanced level, and both countries were discussing signatures and announcements. Away from the media glare two interlocutors, India’s Ambassador Satinder K. Lambah and Pakistan’s Tariq Aziz, had been talking. Much more recently, in NDA 1, there had been reports of meeting in Murree between PM Nawaz Sharif and Indian Steel Magnate Sajjan Jindal. This was initially kept secret but later was acknowledged by Mariam Nawaz in a tweet.

In addition to formal and back channel diplomacy and dialogues, the reliance on spies to be message couriers even between adversaries is deemed to continue and even flourish. That brings to fore the methodologies prescribed by Gen Durrani, who headed the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.  In the seminal book titled ‘The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace’, Gen Durani and former RAW chief AS Dulat have indicated new vistas for spies back-channel work between India and Pakistan, with specific reference to a counter-terrorist environment.  Using the coinage of ‘Choreographed Response’ the conversational book indicates that in case of episodic events like the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001 or Mumbai in 2008, “…it couldn’t be forever that India would not respond.  India’s reaction would be: is Pakistan going to get away with it? The Indian Army would think about how to respond and come to the conclusion: attack Pakistan”.    Gen Durrani adds that “…the two countries, if they are sensible, will ask their back-channel: Mr Dulat you know Asad Durrani on the other side, let’s discuss how to handle it.  Both would say, yes, because of India’s compulsion there are three-four places where you can bomb, just make sure there’s not too much damage.” The General uses the term “Choreographed Response or Choreographed Surgical Strike” for orchestrating such a response. To add fuel to fire, he states that “we understand, India, you have to do something. Our political compulsion is that we (Pakistan) must also respond.  So for your ten bombs, we’ll throw one, don’t mind (sic).  Without doing much damage on the ground, we can get out of that sticky situation. You give a befitting reply to Pakistan, and we respond by saying, we don’t take things lying down.”

It is not material that Lt Gen (retd) Asad Durrani was held guilty of violating military code in co-authoring the book with India’s former intelligence head and punished him by stopping his pension and other benefits. The very theme and method prophesized in this kind of back-channel, challenges the sensibilities of the Indian Nation.  At least 174 people, including civilians and security personnel were killed in the Mumbai attacks – which without doubt emanated from Pakistani soil, with official complicity.  With an air of superciliousness and disdain to the pain, anguish and anger in India, by simply scoffing the Indian sentiment, it is recommended that once such an attack happens, back-channel would provide three-four places that Indian security forces can bomb or target, just make sure there’s not too much damage!   And there would be a reciprocal response by Pakistan, ten is to one! This is informing India that episodic terror events sponsored by Pakistan will continue, and the post event under-hand management be planned!   The fact that the Pakistani deep state sinisterly and with skullduggery caused death, injuries, pain and anguish to Indian population, is completely glossed over, and is taken as given!

Playing with national sentiments, challenging the emotional fervour in India, by shadowy choreographic response, as was being advocated by the ex-ISI Chief, will not deter Pakistan from its stated long drawn policies of continual support to the proxy war. Accepting this folly will further embolden the adversary to continue high profile terror attacks. Any solace provided to Pakistan by any choreography will only embolden it to continue to undertake such ventures at periodic intervals. It is another matter to seek to deceive and assuage the anger in the Indian population and security forces, by sinisterly providing response options to counter terrorist strikes that have been doctored by intelligence back channels.

 Centuries ago Kautilya had stated “…if there is equal advancement in peace or war, one should resort to peace.” Kautilya believed war was only a continuation of politics by other means and considered it the last option, as did Clausewitz, many centuries later.  Currently it seems that the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A have brought situation to such an impasse that it seems well nigh improbable that there exist any common grounds to recommence negotiations.  However, India and Pakistan have in worst of circumstance retained enough poise to exchange data on nuclear establishments in the beginning of each year, or that Indus Water Treaty has withstood the test. In time again diplomatic and back channel attempts will commence to bring about a positive change. It is conceivable that thanks to external cajoling, sheer pragmatism, the pressures of the people-to-people contacts or the strain of Pakistan’s internal dynamics (including FATF), some contacts will be initiated.   Therefore, Track 1 or 2 mechanisms eventually will re-establish a modicum of rapport that can be foundational for resolving intractable problems between India and Pakistan. This must be welcomed, and even strengthened.  As time passes the current impasse of abrogation of Article 370 and 35A should settle down by deft handling of the situation.

On a separate plane, in countering terrorism emanating from across the border, the Security Forces response options must be well considered, commensurate and firm, but not choreographed. It is emphatically stated that back channels must not be adversarial to India’s own national sentiment and national interests! Similarly, Track 1 or 2 to succeed and find their strength to pursue national goals, it has to be based upon demonstrable hard power, and the national resolve and will to use it when need be.

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Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma is an infantry officer commissioned in Gorkha Rifles in 1977, with career span of forty years. He has had extensive operational experience in Jammu and Kashmir, North East and on the Western Borders. The officer had trained the Botswana Army for three years in Africa, and attended the National War College at Abuja, Nigeria. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma had attended the NDC at New Delhi and was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He has done PhD in Defence Studies. General Rakesh Sharma commanded the Fire and Fury Corps in Ladakh responsible for Kargil, Siachin Glacier and Eastern Ladakh – facing both Pakistan and China.The General was the Adjutant General of the Indian Army responsible for the Human Resource Management and superannuated in 2017. He has been awarded with Param Vashisht Seva Medal, Uttam Yudh Seva Medal, Ati Vashisht Seva Medal and Vashisht Seva Medal. He is a regular participant in seminars, lectures in various institutions, and regularly writes for newspapers and military journals. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma was Chief Defence Banking Advisor with the Punjab National bank. He is currently DISTINGUISHED FELLOW with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.