Confusion over talks within the Pak hierarchy

 By Maj Gen Harsha Kakar (Retd)

There appear to be contradictory views within the Pak hierarchy on dialogue with India. An Indian Express report stated that during a select Iftar with journalists, Pakistan army chief, General Bajwa, mentioned that the Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, met the Pak Director General ISI, General Faiz Hameed, in the UAE at the end of last year. He also mentioned that intelligence chiefs of the two nations had been meeting in neutral countries.[i] Backchannel discussions being held were known, however, who participated was unknown.

General Faiz Hameed would be amongst the senior-most Generals in the Pak army once General Bajwa retires in Nov 2022, and in line for the next army chief.[ii] His participation indicates that there is likely to be continuity in improving ties within the Pak army. General Bajwa is also reported to have commented on the Pak government’s decision to delay procurement of sugar and cotton from India and mentioned that the political leadership may have had its own compulsions but — sooner than later — all would see there was no way forward towards peace other than trade with neighbors.[iii]

On Article 370 General Bajwa is reported to have said, ‘reading down of Article 370 is not an issue of concern for Pakistan as it had never recognized this provision of the Indian Constitution as one of any value for the resolution of the Kashmir issue. He also stated that more important from Pakistan’s point of view, was the restoration of statehood and that there should be no demographic change in Kashmir.’[iv] This is in stark contrast to comments by SM Qureshi and PM Imran Khan, who have repeatedly mentioned that restoration of article 370 is a prerequisite to talks.[v] Article 370 was introduced by the Indian government in end of 1956 and implemented in Jan 1957. The UN resolution on Kashmir predates it.

Maryam Sharif accused the current government of engaging in ‘secret talks’ with India. She stated, ‘we will not let you do anything against the wishes of the people of Kashmir.’ She added, ‘what talks are being held (by those) sitting in other countries? Are you silently doing a deal? What discussions are being held on Kashmir? What give-and-take is being done in the name of friendship?’[vi] Maryam Sharif cannot comment against the Pak army as a new law invites a jail term.[vii] Further, no one wishes to go against the selectors.

A few days prior to these reports, SM Qureshi stated to a Turkish magazine in an interview in Istanbul, ‘We are not having any peace talks at the moment and the UAE is not facilitating anything.’[viii] A week earlier, while in the UAE, Qureshi had stated, ‘Pakistan is ready to talk with India if it takes back its steps of August 5, 2019. Pakistan cannot ignore the Kashmir issue.’ He also stated, ‘We welcome third party facilitation […] But no matter what friends like the UAE say, the initiative has to be indigenous.’[ix] On multiple occasions Qureshi has denied backchannel dialogue and simultaneously raised restoration of Article 370 to talks, aware that India will not retract.

What does this maze of contradictory comments indicate?

Firstly, discussions have been held between the Pak army and the Indian government. It is a reversal of earlier Indian government policy of only engaging with elected governments in Pak. That policy was a failure as every time talks moved forward an incident ensured they were derailed. The last occasion when India formally engaged with Pak was the visit of the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India to Lahore to meet the former Prime Minister of Pakistan in Dec 2015.[x]

India has always avoided engaging with the Pakistan army, despite every other country considering Rawalpindi as the hub of decision-making and Islamabad only suitable for photo-ops. The current engagement with the Pak army has paid dividends as the enforced ceasefire has benefitted the population on both sides of the LoC. The Pak government may have possibly come to know of the Indo-Pak backchannel discussions only after the ceasefire was announced.

Secondly, the Pak government and the army were not on the same page as far as talks with India are concerned. General Bajwa’s comments contrast vastly with Pak political leaders. The Pak army has a far more pragmatic approach than their polity. The reality is that foreign policy towards India is not decided in Islamabad but Rawalpindi. Former PM Nawaz Sharif attempted to break this stranglehold and lost his premiership. The current PM Imran Khan has steered clear from any such attempt.

It is General Bajwa’s statement during his iftar meeting which led to the Pak polity changing its stance on Indo-Pak talks. Just prior to proceeding to Riyadh, as part of the delegation led by PM Imran Khan, Qureshi stated in an interview with Pakistan’s SAAMAA TV, ‘In my view, Article 370 is not important.’[xi] This enforces General Bajwa’s view that Article 370 is an Indian redline that can never be breached.

Thirdly, any further improvement in relations would imply reinstating High Commissioners. It was PM Imran Khan who brought down diplomatic levels by withdrawing them, post abrogation of Article 370. Legally, he would have to reinstate them. This would have to be implemented without reversal of Article 370. It could be a major setback for his standing, internally as well as externally.

Fourthly, because of the above scenario, future talks may necessitate a change in government in Pak. The breakup of the PDM (an amalgamation of all opposition parties) with the PPP chartering a different route is an indicator. It is rumored that this breakup was engineered by the army. Any future government is likely to involve the PPP.

Finally, the silence of the Indian government to comments by the Pak polity indicates that it is waiting for the Pak army to handle its internal situation and create a conducive environment prior to future progress. The current maturity on both sides is rare and displays a strong intent, by the army in Pak and the Indian government, to push talks and peace forward.