Direct channel to Rawalpindi

Engaging the Pakistani army chief is a good idea. Conceding anything is not.

In a Pax Indica column in September 2010 I wrote about India’s engagement paradox:

New Delhi talks to the powerless but can’t talk to those in power, or vice versa. It’s most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to — the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I’m being charitable here) is not India’s fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we. [The Acorn/Yahoo!]

Why might this be the case? In last Monday’s Business Standard column I argued that:

(One) reason why India finds itself in a bind with respect to Pakistan, where it needs to engage the real power centre but finds itself with no means to. It is not a matter of matching protocol, for it is not purely military matters that we wish to discuss with General Kayani. Washington, in comparison, handles this a lot better through Admiral Mullen and General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, who are the primary interlocutors with the Pakistan army. Given that these admirals and generals are engaged in diplomatic activities of serious importance to India, can we afford to stay out of the military diplomatic loop?[The Acorn/Business Standard]

While India has not shied from talking to Pakistani army chiefs after they become dictators, dealing with General Ashfaq Kayani directly challenges diplomatic optics. The 26/11 attacks and their aftermath left no doubt that it was he, and not the Zardari-Gilani government, that was in charge. Yet, because he did not announce himself to be the dictator, chief executive or president of Pakistan, the Indian government couldn’t openly deal with him.

Bharat Karnad first alluded to a direct back channel engagement late last month (linkthanks Swami Iyer). However, it was a London Times report over the weekend that captured attention in India. The Prime Minister’s Office has issued a carefully worded denial while the Pakistani military spokesman declined to comment. It is highly likely that the reports are generally accurate and a direct channel, albeit with some deniability, has been in place for the last few months. [See this post at Pragmatic Euphony]

Why it makes sense to engage
It makes sense to directly engage the real centre of power in Pakistan. First, it allows India’s policymakers to both understand the Pakistani army’s motivations, thinking and demands, and also to communicate its own positions (both bilateral and those relating to Afghanistan). [See editorials in Mint and Indian Express]

Second, initiating an engagement “ten months ago” could have helped tactically buy respite from terrorist attacks during a critical period—post-crisis economic recovery and the world cup cricket tournament. Tactically again, it could be intended to reduce the heat of the 2011 summer in Kashmir.

To induce co-operation, though, India might have to indicate its flexibility on some issues: most likely, downplaying demands to prosecute Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders and playing up the resolution of the Sir Creek and Siachen issues.

Why such engagement is risky
For all its advantages, engaging Kayani & Co is not without risks.

First, there is a risk that it will lull the Indian security establishment into believing in the other sides’ bona fides, as after Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore. Keeping it secret mitigates this risk to some extent, but to the extent that it affects the psychologies of the prime minister and the top echelon of the national security apparatus, the risk of being backstabbed should concern us. Even if General Kayani himself were to have a miraculous change of heart, the Musharraf’s Musharraf effect, wherein the military-jihadi complex will act to pull the rug from under its own leader, cannot be discounted.

Second, there is a risk that the flexibility that the Indian negotiator must show in order to induce co-operation will end up locking New Delhi in. There is a perception that Siachen, for instance, is a low-hanging fruit that India can “give” to show sincerity. This is wrong: India must climb down from the Saltoro ridge entirely on its own terms. The larger issue here is that allowing the Pakistani military-jihadi complex to believe that the threat of terrorism under a nuclear umbrella will force India to concede anything is a very bad idea.

Third, a consistent impression has been created in the Indian mind that India’s approach to Pakistani aggression is to turn the other cheek. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s dogmatic approach to pursuit talks, first with Zardari-Gilani & Co and now with Kayani, risk a public backlash that risk undermining any mutual gains that might have been made as a result of it.

Fourth, Dr Singh is bargaining from a position of personal weakness, the worst position to be in while opening negotiations. He has long been out on a limb on Pakistan policy, and is just one terrorist attack away from being out of office. His government is now on the ropes on the matter of corruption and malgovernance. This compounds the risks of him making concessions in order to stay afloat.

Finally, New Delhi is reducing the pressure on General Kayani at a time when Washington is raising it. The Pakistani military-jihadi complex must be contained in the short-term. Squandering opportunities to bring forward the crunch time in Rawalpindi is an unwise move.

So what should we make of it?
On the balance, that New Delhi has chosen to open up a direct line with the Pakistani Army’s GHQ is a good thing. It could have been better timed though. We should be concerned that it is a dogmatic Dr Singh who is handling the secret, opaque process. For that reason, public debate and the political process should put a backstop on the proceedings. Opposition parties, especially the BJP, would do well to prohibit the Prime Minister from making even the smallest concession of substance.

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