New hopes for Af-Pak-India?

The bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan held in occasion of the Heart of Asia Conference could be opening new room for dialogue, capable of influencing not only the relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, but also those with Afghanistan in the broader regional arena

In early December, Islamabad was the venue of the Heart of Asia Conference, instituted by fourteen countries to discuss and frame common policies that could stabilize Afghanistan – the country at the heart of Asia – and thus increase security in the whole region.
On 8th December, there was the Senior Officials meeting, while on 9th the much-awaited ministerial meeting. To make the latter so important is the fact that it was turned into an opportunity of dialogue between India and Pakistan, there represented by Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz.
After the fiasco in August, when the meeting planned months before was cancelled at the very last minute due to disputes on the topics to be put in the agenda, there were few hopes that it would be possible to witness a change of direction so soon. And if it is undoubtedly premature to talk now of “turning point” in reference to the Islamabad meeting, the fact that it took place is encouraging per se. A sign that, maybe, something is moving in South Asia and the fiercest enemies of the region can respond to new chances of dialogue timidly emerging on the horizon.

So, what did create these chances of dialogue? Not a single, specific event but rather a series of events that altogether had a positive impact in recreating a minimum level of mutual opening.
Firstly, there was the meeting between Modi and Sharif at the sidelines of COP21, where it seems that new points of contact were found on the issue – for India crucial – of the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, with respect to which Sharif promised a speeding up of the investigative and punitive processes.
A week later, there was the bilateral meeting in Bangkok between the heads of the respective national security agencies, during which they talked of terrorism, border clashes, and the Kashmir issue (probably the biggest wound caused by the partition process of 1947 and still open and bleeding today). Clearly too soon to talk of significant steps forward, the meeting nevertheless ended with a joint statement in which the climate of dialogue was described as constructive and cordial (adjectives not often encountered when India and Pakistan are the subjects).

It is in this surprising climate that the third stage of this latest path of rapprochement took place: the meeting between Swaraj and Aziz.
Publicized by both sides as sign of disposal to retrieve those relations interrupted in August, the meeting marked the revival of those peace talks interrupted in 2012 and is thus a positive step for both Modi and Sharif.
On the table, the main topics were the issue of Kashmir – whose resolution is for Pakistan the key of the relations with New Delhi – and terrorism, topic of particular importance for India that has always considered itself (and not without reasons) victim of that Islamic terrorism supposedly financed by Islamabad. Complex and delicate topics that not only touch the bilateral relations India-Pakistan, but also interest (and are interested by) broader regional dynamics and other actors (namely Afghanistan and China).

In particular, it is of primarily importance the role played by Afghanistan in this new chance of distension.
Afghanistan, indeed, finds itself both upstream and downstream of the dialogue, as actor potentially capable of inducing Islamabad and New Delhi to mutual rapprochement and as actor that from the Indo-Pakistani distension as all to gain.
Regarding Afghanistan’s role in the dialogue between the two historical rivals, we should above all remember its position – at the heart of Asia. It is indeed because of it, that the afghan dynamics touch in a crucial – when not even direct – way the dynamics of the regions’ actors, thus interesting both Pakistan and India.
An Afghanistan secure and in peace, founded on political institutions fully functioning and independent from external influences, would thus be a source of stability and security for the whole of South Asia. It would imply the presence in the center of the region of a reliable partner and of an economic, commercial and energetic bridge linking South Asia and Central Asia.
Conversely, an Afghanistan unstable and unsafe as it still is today – where the control exercised by the central government doesn’t reach all provinces, where there are areas under Taliban control, where the presence of foreign troops is essential to avoid the collapse of the local security forces – makes more unsafe the whole region (as the continuous terrorist attacks prove).
India and Pakistan, then, have undoubtedly much to gain, both in terms of security and in terms of commercial and energetic prospects, from a sincere cooperation that includes among the other objectives the stabilization of the western neighbor.
From Kabul’s perspective, then, it is to be considered that what said thus far applies also in the opposite way: a distension between New Delhi and Islamabad is for Afghanistan desirable, since it would have for the country significant advantages – especially in terms of military and intelligence cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and in terms of investments.
Going beyond an afghan foreign policy that after embracing for years an exclusive friendship with India has diverted direction over the past twelve months and moved towards Pakistan, Ghani should invest his energies in pushing for an India-Pakistan rapprochement from which it has all to gain.

Favoring the dialogue between the two long-time rivals is thus of regional interest in order to create new and positive dynamics of cooperation, in absence of which the “Asian Century” cannot become reality.

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India and Pakistan – Illusion of dialogue

Historical and current reasons are preventing the dialogue from taking off – and neither side has interest in changing thestalemate
The history of International Relations is – and has always been – characterized by deep and solid friendships, like that between the United States and Great Britain, and also by threatening and unsolvable enmities, like that between India and Pakistan.
Divided by a mortal rivalry emerged with the collapse of the British Raj in 1947, India and Pakistan are the neighbors whose bilateral relationship follows an exhausting and apparently endless cycle. Clashes along the border, steps towards an opening to dialogue, impossibility (and at times unwillingness) of finding points of agreement, collapse of the dialogue, mutual accusations, return to border clashes.

No surprise, then, when this cycle repeated in late August, in the occasion of a dialogue between the security advisors of the two countries on which Modi and Sharif had agreed in Ufa months back. Once again in fact (repetition of what had already happened as early as last November) a few days before the meeting Pakistan stated its intention to meet Kashmir’s separatist leaders, and India reacted setting a red line on the issue. What followed after that (when no one was longer hoping that the meeting could move on) was that Pakistan refused India’s ultimatum, saying that a meeting limited to discussing terrorism would be futile. And everything went up in smoke as we are used to seeing it go.
Little hope, then, that the meeting between the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan’s Rangers, held in Delhi between the 10th and 12th of September, can lead to an actual and long-term arrangement on such a delicate issue as the common border is. In fact, despite both sides stated at the end of the meeting their commitment to increase cooperation through renewed CBMs in order to avoid clashes along the border and violations of the 2003 ceasefire, it is difficult to believe such an entente will be durably respected once back to the reality of the tough and tense coexistence in Kashmir.

And though, looking back and around us, it is clear that two neighboring countries always have more to gain from a peaceful coexistence than from hostility (be it covert or open). This because their shared border implies the existence of shared interests, and is therefore more than a mere point of geographical contact. France and Germany, for instance, understood this more than 60 years ago, when in the dispiriting environment of post-war Europe they moved towards a solid cooperation through the Schuman Declaration and the ECSC.
And despite the distance between France and Germany in the ‘50s and India and Pakistan today, cooperation is still the best card two neighbors have to play in the game of their bilateral relations, and not even Delhi and Islamabad can escape this plain truth. In fact, if for a while we removed from the picture the historic rivalry between the two countries, it would be quite difficult to deny that reasons for cooperation – in the current political, security, and trade dynamics – do exist.

So why is dialogue and cooperation between the two South Asian countries such a chimera? What is that makes it so difficult for them to seat and work to find – of course through considerable efforts and with no little time – agreements that they are sincerely (and not just rhetorically) disposed to be bound by?

The fundamental problem is that we are talking of a dialogue none of them wants.

Born out of the painful process of partition in 1947, Pakistan has always legitimated its birth, its raison d’être, and its later survival in an anti-India perspective. Born as a territorial and political entity distinct from the one under New Delhi, born as a pure Muslim country distinct from the majoritarian Hindu neighbor, it has since the dawn of its existence as autonomous reality adopted an anti-India political identity and an anti-Hindu religious identity (identities that paradoxically can only survive thanks to the existence of an “Indian enemy” to oppose).
In Pakistan’s case – somewhat differently from what happened in most cases of secession in the XX century, where people were fighting to build their own state on the basis of a strong common identity – the process of identity building (that came after a secession the common people had never really planned) was structured more than around what Pakistanis were, around what they were not: non-Indians and non-Hindus.
Quite evidently, from an identity conceived in such terms it couldn’t but stem a political view centered on the opposition to India (view that has always allowed those who detain power to legitimize any use they make of it as long as aimed at contrasting the neighboring enemy); centered on the objective of gaining a strategic depth that could threaten India’s position in the region (and this has indeed been the major driver of Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan since the ‘70s); centered on the perception that India is a real existential threat for Pakistan (a distorted view that has always been used by the Pakistani army as a pretext for assertiveness).
The opening to dialogue with India would cancel all this. It would cancel the way in which Pakistan has perceived itself and its role in the region during its 68 years of life, and it would make it necessary to define a new identity, to find a new legitimacy to its existence, elaborate a new foreign policy, and carve out a new regional role to play. Changes that Pakistan’s political and military elites are today not ready for.

Moving to the other side of the border, it is necessary to reckon that here too (though India has an autonomous and independent national identity that finds its roots in a millennial history of which 1947 is just the latest chapter) the political discourse has been characterized for 68 years by an anti-Pakistan rhetoric that has never faded and that – on the contrary – any clash along the border (and beyond it) and any collapsed dialogue do ignite and deepen. Thus, for an Indian population that has always regarded the western neighbor as its main enemy, the reasons that in economic, political and security terms could be adducted for a re-approach to Pakistan appear to many simply not enough to justify an opening to dialogue with a country they think they just can’t talk with. The demonization (at times understandable, at times pretentious) Pakistan was – and largely still is – subject to in India has produced a general mood of suspicion and closure that makes it difficult for Modi (or anyone else in his place) to collect enough support for a dialogue. Let alone for concessions, and let alone on Kashmir.
Even more important though – or at least element that has become ever more so in the last year – is the constant growth of India’s power. Indeed, the implications such a rise has on the Pakistani issue are that the more Delhi presents itself (and gets recognized by others) as a solid economic power, the more it widens its alliances with both old and new partners, the more it diversifies the areas of intervention where to exert its influence, the more it gets involved in extra-South Asian dynamics, the more it emerges as an autonomous, coherent and confident actor of the international arena, and the more it perceives Pakistan and the easing of relations with it as a non-priority of a foreign policy agenda that moves on regardless of what Islamabad does or does not.

In conclusion, unless Pakistan embarks on the process of defining its own autonomous identity and regional role, and unless India sees how it is precisely to increase and defend its great power status at the eyes of the world that it should make of the stabilization of relations with Pakistan a priority, there are no economic, security and political advantages that cooperation can promise capable of successfully stopping and breaking that vicious, decade-long cycle that dooms dialogue to failure even before it starts or as soon as parties are back home.